The difference between success and failure

The difference between success and failure is as fine as a razor’s edge

It has often been said the line which separates winning from losing is as fine as a razor’s edge – and it is.  In today’s challenging business environment, it’s the small differences that matter if you are to succeed.

W. Somerset Maugham wrote an entire book entitled The Razor’s Edge, and Daryl F. Zanuck spent four million dollars producing a movie which had the same title. Both of these great men – author and moviemaker alike – knew there wasn’t a big difference among people; there was only a big difference in the things they accomplished. (That was the theme of the movie as well as the book.)

One person “just about” starts a project, the other person starts it. One individual “almost” completes a task, the other does complete it. One person sees an opportunity, the other acts on it. One student “nearly” passes the exam, the other does pass it – and although the difference in their marks may be only one percentage point out of a hundred, it’s that one point that makes all the difference.

For any of you that follow a professional sport at the highest level – rugby, football, F1, athletics or tennis – you know that the difference between exceptional performance (and success) and those coming second (and relative failure) is tiny in real terms… but makes a massive difference to the outcome.

Here’s an extreme Olympian example of the Razor’s Edge concept. At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, there were eight finalists competing in the one hundred meter sprint, but the runner who won the Olympic gold medal was only one-tenth of a second faster than the runner who finished in last place.

Whether it is Usain Bolt beating a class field by 0.12 seconds or Nicola Spirig winning the women’s triathlon by a mere 3 centimetres after a combined 51.5km the difference is, truly, as fine as a Razor’s Edge!

I have a proposition for you – business is no different to sport.  The difference between a successful business and a less successful one can also be as fine as the razor’s edge.  A good way to explain this is to consider what is happening in a business when it is not growing… How often have you heard the words “my business has plateaued!” from a friend or acquaintance?

Well the truth is that there is no such thing as a true plateau in business!

You may remember in a recent article (The Inevitability of Change, 19/04/12) we looked at Michael Porter’s industry model which looks at forces operating on a business in a market situation.

In case you missed it, briefly he describes 5 forces acting on any business, created by:

  • Competition between businesses (you and your competitors)
  • The bargaining power of buyers (your customers – alternative sources such as internet, mail order, etc.)
  • The strength of suppliers (those that you depend on for supply of goods or services – e.g. oil suppliers in a controlled market)
  • Barriers to entry into the market (such as regulation or de-regulation of sectors – telecoms, transport, etc.)
  • The threat of substitution (e.g. digital photography vs. film)

The point here is that even if your sales or profits are static – there is likely to be a number of other “forces” acting on the business that mean that it is never on a “plateau”.

Equally – the difference between beating a competitor to a sale can be something tiny – for example a better follow up system, a tidier counter area, staff with a “better” smile, a quicker response time, or a friendlier ordering system.

So as you reflect on what you are going to do to take your business to the next level, don’t just think big – think about the small changes that can add up to a competitive advantage for you.

The differences can be small… the effect can be dramatic!