A Simple Formula for Success

A fundamental formula for business agility and success in general is quite simple.

A Simple Formula for Success - by Mike Russell

Simple enough that third grade sports teams can understand … and I know, because I have used it in coaching them … yet powerful enough for business.

Here it is:


E – Effort

A – Attack

R – Recover

Here’s the formula overview:

E for Effort.

In sports and life, most results take effort to achieve.  Expecting something to “fall into our laps” is unrealistic and delusional.  Hoping the opposing team makes mistakes or lets you win is a loser’s strategy.  Putting all your hope into winning the lottery is a loser’s strategy.  Yes, there are lottery winners, but the odds are incredibly against you.  It is no different in business.

Effort is also required in preparation.  Lionel Messi, for example, is one of the world’s top football players.  He has natural talent and probably would have been a good player even without practice.  However, he has also spent countless hours honing his talent to be one of the best.  He is often triple-teamed by defenders and seems trapped, yet emerges with apparent ease.  That ease did not come from taking it easy in training.  It came from effort – repeated and continuous effort.

A for Attack

Sports games are not won on defense alone.  Tied, yes.  But not won.  There have to be points scored to win.  That means pressing the attack and focusing effort on scoring.  Maintaining “status quo” does not win.

In business, this means continuously creating value for all stakeholders.  Keeping up with “best practices” is defense.  “Best practices” do not differentiate you from competition.  Seek and deliver value that sets you apart externally and internally.

And attack is not just for offense … for defense to be successful, defenders must attack the ball.  Waiting for the other team’s offense to come to you may yield one or a few victories but rarely wins in the long haul.  Merely reacting will give the offense the upper hand.  You may be able to passively stop the offense once or twice.  However, that is unlikely to be successful through a full game.  The opponent will figure out ways to get around your “perfect” passive defense.

This is another example of “status quo” being a failing strategy.  Playing not to lose is losing, not keeping “even.”

In sports and business, you must proactively reduce the opponent’s offensive options.  Return to your own attack as quickly as possible.  Don’t sit and wait for your business competitors to take action.  Take action and force them to react.

“Status quo” on both offense and defense usually yields loss.  The other team or competitor will attack and seize advantage.

R for Recovery

Recovering quickly is a competitive advantage in of itself.

Let’s use a basketball example.  You are taking the ball down court.  The defender manages to steal the ball from you.  What do you do?

If you are like most average players?  You would groan, grimace, sigh, put your hands on your hips, complain about a foul, or give other sights and sounds of defeat.  You watch your opponent move away from you.

High performers do differently, seizing the opportunity in momentary defeat.  The opportunity?  The opposing player will assume that you are “down and out.”  This means they will usually relax some, assuming you are no longer a threat.  And that means a quick recovery by you can retake the ball or at least stop their attack.

But a quick recovery demands effort and rapidly reattacking.  It demands a mental attitude that doesn’t allow pity parties or moments to look for sympathy.  A mind focused on success, not failure.

Most set-backs during sports games are never final.  The game is not “final” until it ends.

It’s the same in business.  Look for opportunities to leverage differences and don’t hesitate to recover.

Feedback cycles

A core idea behind business agility – the ability to both respond to and take advantage of uncertainty and change – is feedback.

Not everything you try will work.  Amid increasing uncertainty, less will work.

The best in sports are not perfect and fail often.  Their failures come from putting in effort and attacking.  Effort and attack are not enough, though.  The best in sports also recover and try again.  Part of a winner’s recovery is learning from the defeat to be better next time.  The feedback – learning – from failure adds to experience and shows how to do better next time.

In your business, do the same thing.  Keep trying improvements … experiment.  Don’t just randomly try to improve, though.  Have in mind a target, try something, and see what happens.  Use the feedback – results – to adjust and try again.  Keep repeating the cycle until either you get close enough to the target or figure out the target isn’t worth pursuing.

One formula caution

The 80/20 rule of thumb (Pareto principle) still matters when applying the E.A.R. formula.  “E” does not mean effort for effort’s sake and maximum effort all the time.  It means smartly putting in the work necessary to get results, but not more than needed for the situation.  “Just enough” is a key motto for agility.

Always keep in mind “just enough.”  Try something just enough to get just enough feedback to adjust just enough to try again just enough … and keep repeating the cycle.  Sometimes “just enough” effort will be less than others assume is needed.  Sometimes “just enough” will be all-out effort.

The art is in quickly estimating how much is “just enough.”  The beauty of a rapid feedback cycle is that you need less precision about what “just enough” means.  The rapid cycle will reduce issues from being “off” in your estimate AND move you more quickly to your goal.

Apply the formula

  • Do you apply the formula in some form or degree, especially the recover part?
  • How about your teams?  The company?
  • What is the company culture around “failure”?  Is success expected in every action or is the focus on ultimate success and assuming that attacks will not always succeed?  (Check out this post:  “Failure is Not an Option” Produces Failure )

Want more?

Read Wrong Until Right – How to Succeed Despite Relentless Change and other posts on this site.

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By Mike Russell