The irony of "what works"

Once we discover “what works,” inevitably, it stops working. Introduce time and competition and expectations to anything, and suddenly, what once felt like a smash hit slowly wears away.

Time: The context changes. Maybe the thing we did no longer makes sense, or maybe we keep returning to the work so much, we’ve stopped caring as much.

Competition: The market saturates. Whatever we did that was a success thanks to its originality no longer feels like a competitive edge as others catch up.

Expectations: We exceeded their expectations once, which is great, except now their expectations have changed. We can’t keep relying on that same thing, because now they just expect it. That’s the paradox of exceeding expectations: Once we do, we’ve changed their expectations.

Whatever the cause, we experience something called emotional decay — the process by which an initial moment of innovation stagnates as others lost interest and we lose results.

It looks like this:

emotional decay

We move left-to-right from the local maximum (the point at which “what works” will return the best results it ever will, because others like it as much as they ever will), to diminishing returns, to stagnation, to this terrible moment where everything feels broken and we panic that I’ve decided to call the crapping point.

As a result of all of this, to get back up to where we once were, we need to “go big.” We jump in a room to brainstorm, hire consultants and agencies to put out fires, or fire people because we don’t have the money to pay them any longer. We have to trend-hop, leaping between ideas sold to us by experts online. We panic-search for the next big thing. It’s an all-out sprint to manufacture the next spike in the numbers.

This is simply unsustainable.

It’s also ironic.

In our efforts to cling to the tried-and-true, we’re trying to mitigate the risk of change. Why try new things when we’ve found “what works” and can keep repeating it? It’s risky to do anything new, exciting, creative, and innovative when we have our playbook and it’s paying off.

Except it’s not. It’s just a question of where the risk occurs, and to what degree.

When we cling to “what works” for awhile, and the effects of emotional decay render the thing stagnant or even obsolete, we then have to execute some kind of massive change to get back up to where we once were. That’s far riskier than making small changes all the time, trying little things when our results feel strongest.

In other words, when things are working is the perfect time to reinvent ourselves — not through big changes once it’s too late, but small and refreshing changes on the status quo made all the time.

If we normally change only after something stops working, what if we changed what was working while it was still working? Maybe then we’d avoid emotional decay. We’d never stagnate and never reach the crapping point.

The irony of “what works” is it’s a shortcut to do work that’s been de-risked. Except it’s fraught with risk. We just don’t see it … until it’s too late.

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Posted on September 17, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.