Playing To Win

Superstition & Strategy

Keeping Fate Out of the Equation

Roger Martin


Source: Shutterstock, 2024

Recently, Mike Goitein, a longtime reader, quoted Carl Jung in an interesting reflection on my #1 Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece. The quote focused on fate, which I have always believed is an important challenge in business thinking. So, I decided to delve into the topic in this PTW/PI piece: Superstition & Strategy: Keeping Fate Out of the Equation.

A Bit of Carl Jung

The Jung-ism that Mike used was: “Until you make your unconscious choices conscious, they will direct your life and you will call it fate.” As he pointed out, it was ‘adapted from Carl Jung,’ and indeed one can easily find that adaptation all over the Internet. I looked and found the actual quote in this helpful article on Jung’s work: “The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” It is from a 1951 book, published in English in 1979 by Princeton University Press.

As a bit of an aside, I had never read Jung, but I probably should have. He has a Drucker-esque ability to come up with pithy and profound human insights. I found a whole list of them here and particularly loved a few of them: “If a man knows more than others, he becomes lonely;” “I regret many follies which sprang from my obstinacy; but without that trait I would not have reached my goal:” “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become;” and “Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.” All are both cool and insightful.

But back to the fate quotes. You can see why the adaptation is a famous-quote sensation because it is simpler and clearer. Fortunately, unlike in many cases, I don’t think the adaptation does great injustice to the original. Without ever having read Jung’s opinion on fate, I have always seen in the world of management the phenomenon on which he puts his proverbial finger.

Fate, Superstition & Strategy

The concept of fate is prevalent and problematic in the world of management. Until reading this Jung quote, I always used the term superstition rather than fate, but they are very compatible. The public intellectual I tend to quote, rather than Jung, is the inimitable Stevie Wonder with his 1972 Billboard #1 hit, Superstition. Says Stevie: When you believe in things/That you don’t understand/Then you suffer/Superstition ain’t the way, yeah! In a sense, the concept of fate is one form of superstition.

I see a lot of superstition in management, and it works against making bold choices. I wish I had a dollar for every time an executive has told me ‘we tried that once before and it didn’t work.’ If the person could actually tell me what was their analysis that diagnosed why ‘it didn’t work,’ I would be more sanguine about the verdict. And I would also be more sanguine still if the thing that they did unsuccessfully before actually was the same as, or even similar to the thing currently proposed — which it often isn’t. Typically, the executives involved were so traumatized by the bad thing happening that they don’t ever want to go anywhere in the general territory of the thing — even anything that looks vaguely like it.

I experienced the cost of superstition myself on my most recent book. At the eleventh hour (and, arguably, fifty-ninth minute), the publisher mandated a title change (which required extensive rewriting on my part) because a book with a similar title published 17 years prior had not sold well. That is superstition. That was them believing in things that they didn’t understand — and I was the one to suffer!

At the same time, managers who superstitiously avoid things that they associate with failure in the past also cling tightly to superstitions about the present — i.e. if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They don’t understand why what they are doing now currently produces good results, so they superstitiously assume that it will continue to produce similarly positive results. It is then crushing when the current choices stop producing great results. Their best diagnosis tends to be that the fates were against them.

Net, the problem is that superstition both keeps them from making bold new choices and causes them to cling to the status quo — even as the world changes around them.

The John Frum Cult

Superstition is a powerful force in humans. When we don’t understand a phenomenon, we feel compelled to generate an explanation for it — and we will make one up if necessary. A great example is the ‘cargo cults’ in Melanesia, with the John Frum cult as a specific example. The community on the remote island of Vanuatu rarely experienced any contact with outsiders to the island but around the time of World War II, it had occasional visits from US military personnel who left modern economy items (foods and tools/equipment) that were completely outside the imagination of the local islanders. It is believed that because the servicemen introduced themselves as “I’m x from New York (or California or Alabama, etc.)” and ‘John’ was the most common name that they heard, the islanders thought the person generically was ‘John Frum.’ And when John Frum didn’t come back with more gifts, they built crude wooden airplanes and set them out in open places, believing that their presence would lure back John Frum in his airplane, just as the presence of birds of a species feeding on the ground might lure more of their species to join them.

This was repeated in various Melanesian locations. In each case, the indigenous peoples had no context for understanding the presenting phenomenon, so they developed a superstition about it that had little to do with reality. Sadly, the wooden planes didn’t lure back the visitors.

Inoculating Against Superstition

Since lack of understanding is a vacuum into which superstition is sucked, we need to inoculate as best as we can against vacuums of understanding in management. I do that in two ways.

1) Possibilities

I use the term ‘possibilities’ to describe potential strategy choices, not ‘plans’ or even ‘options.’ ‘Plan’ sounds far too certain, even ‘option.’ ‘Possibility’ is a bit more whimsical and that is a good thing. I want to have executives internalize the idea that the future is probabilistic, not either deterministic (at one end of the spectrum) or random (at the other). A possibility is something that might happen — not something that certainly will.

If a company makes the choice to pursue a given possibility and it doesn’t turn out favorably, it will be less inclined to believe that it simply suffered from fate. I want executives to understand that the limit to what strategy can do for them is to shorten the odds of achieving success.

2) What Would Have to be True (WWHTBT)

I always ask executives to lay out the logic of possible strategy choices before making them: WWHTBT for this possibility to deliver its desired outcome? Which of those elements appear to be true now, and which not? And for the latter, what steps could we take to make true what is currently not true but necessary for a successful outcome? If executives do that, they will have a much better idea why they experienced success or failure with the strategy choice.

In the case of success, it could be evident that the company was able to make true all the things that needed to be true and the success hoped for under that set of conditions came to pass. However, they won’t be as likely to be superstitious about the success and will understand that if any of those conditions was to change, the success may well shift to failure.

In the failure case, the failure could be linked to a factor that would need to be true and that the company thought it could make true (e.g., it could cause customers to adopt a new habit) but couldn’t get it done. Then it would have a clear explanation of why it experienced failure and not need to be guided by superstition. That is, instead of thinking “don’t ever do anything like that again,” they would be thinking “we have to be better at changing customer habits if we are going to try this sort of initiative.”

The trickier case is if the company was able to make true everything it thought needed to be true for success and it still failed. That could lead to superstition — “we did everything we need to do, and it still failed because fate is against us.” But in my experience, if the team has laid out the logic carefully in advance, it instead leads to exploration of what elements that needed to be true did we miss in our logic that we better incorporate next time.

The goal is to avoid both inexplicable failure and random success. Rather, you want failure or success to be the product of logic and probabilities, not fate — which would result in heightened superstition.

Practitioner Insights

The concept of fate is a danger to avoid. It contributes to superstition and in its most advanced form, superstition owns you — it controls you. From a strategy standpoint, it causes you both to persist with the status quo past the point it should be maintained and to fearfully pass up new initiatives that you should pursue. Eventually, superstition will paralyze your strategy.

To avoid putting yourself in this position, it is critical to write down the logic behind your choices, before you make them. Otherwise, you will almost surely fall prey to ex post rationalization. Maybe it won’t be as extreme as with the John Frum cult. But basically, if you don’t have the logic written down, any explanation can be used and relied upon. And the writing down part is critical. If you had logic but didn’t write it down, you will forget what you thought at the time. Your recollection will be polluted by the things that have happened since you formulated your initial thoughts.

This way, it will be unlikely that you will see your choice as either a completely stupid idea or unlucky or never meant to be. Instead, you will be able to narrow the failure down, for example to “we couldn’t get the customer to change behavior” or “a competitor did the thing we counted on it not to do” or “at our scale, we couldn’t get our distribution costs down to the level we hoped for.”

That specificity will enable you to build your learnings into the next strategy choice process and you will become wiser over time, not more superstitious.



Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.