How to Beat the Success Trap

In 1953, three employees of the San Diego Rocket Chemical Company created a mixture to protect missile skins.

It didn’t work.

They tried again – no luck. And again, and again.

Finally, on the 40th try, they were successful. But besides the original product intent, they discovered an even broader use… Their invention became the cure for all things squeaky.

And so was WD-40 born (name is short for “Water Displacement, 40th Experiment”). They even honored their philosophy of imaginative experimentation by dedicating the company name to it, so you’d think this creative groove would go bone deep.

But when facing a new challenge – the design flaws of that pesky red straw – it took them 50 years to make a change. Users of WD-40 were forever bending, breaking, and losing their red straws. Even WD-40 employees used tape to keep them in place.

So what took them so darn long to fix this problem? They were unable to expand their view and embrace change once they’d achieved such strong success. Early on with nothing to lose, they gleefully conducted experiment after experiment. But their own success lured them into that wretched trap of protecting the past instead of imagining the possibilities.

As Graham Milner, former Executive Vice President of Global Innovation for WD-40 Company tells the story, “We were confusing the notion of cost and value…We thought that every time we had a solution that added cost, our end users wouldn’t find value.” As a result of this (flawed) assumption, it took over 50 years to release the new fully-integrated and only slightly more expensive “smart straw.” The new design is built-in, doesn’t clog, and can’t get lost.

Organizations and individuals alike begin life with overflowing imagination and creativity. With nothing to protect, we squarely focus our energies on new possibilities. Yet over the years, the Success Trap diverts our innovative thinking into complacency and protectionism. To win in our careers, companies, and communities, we must rise above this common pitfall by embracing change as if we were newborns. We must hunt down and kill assumption with the ferocity of a wild boar.

What assumptions are currently holding you back? Assumptions about yourself, your team, your product, your processes, your customers? What aspects of your business do you believe are untouchable? These assumptions become a heat map of opportunity when you’re willing to confront them.

The irony is that WD-40 helps unstick things, yet their own success ended up locking the gears of progress. To lubricate your momentum, revert back to the thinking that put you and your organization on the map in the first place. The unrestricted blank canvas that’s ready to embrace all creative ideas becomes your roadmap for friction-free success.

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