Complacency Kills. It finds vulnerability in the comfort of past success and plants itself in the crevices. It waits for you to develop over-confidence, to lose sight of the dangers around you, to become blissfully unaware of the deficiencies you have developed. And then it strikes. Slowly. Methodically. Fatally.

Who amongst us has not heard or read the stories of famous failed brands and businesses (i.e., Kmart, Blockbuster, Kodak, Sears, Circuit City, Blackberry…) and practically snickered at their foolishness? How could they have been so blind? How did Blockbuster not see the danger posed by the internet and streaming video? How did Kodak invent digital photography only to shelve it in favor of doubling down on film? At the end, you probably thought to yourself – “Not us. Never.”

Unfortunately, what may seem obvious looking backwards while sitting in a classroom or a conference room becomes much harder to recognize in real life, in real time. As vigilant as you might be when you first start anything, as time goes on, complacency is constantly at danger of settling in – and, without paying attention, you may never even realize it is happening. It is human nature. It is also corporate nature.

To understand complacency, let’s first define what it means. To many, complacency equates to laziness. But that is not accurate.

Merriam-Webster ( defines complacency as:

1: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. When it comes to safety, complacency can be dangerous.

2: an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction.

Based on these definitions, complacency is not so much laziness as it is a degree of smugness. Of “self-satisfaction.” Of “unawareness of actual dangers.” But how could people and organizations with so much success become so unaware of the dangers? How could Blockbuster not see the looming danger of the internet and streaming?

The answer lies in the idea of Survivorship Bias. According to Wikipedia, “Survivorship Bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility… Survivorship Bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored… It can also lead to the false belief that the successes in a group have some special property, rather than just coincidence (correlation proves causality).” Essentially, it means that the more you succeed, the more you believe what you did worked.

You get lulled into believing that what you did in the past, since it led to success, will also lead to success in the future. You start letting your guard down. You lose sight of changes taking place around you. You get over-confident. You get complacent.

So, “what’s the alternative?” you might ask. Paranoia? Forever walking around expecting the worst from every corner? No. Because the opposite of Complacency is not Paranoia. It is Vigilance.

I will go through the HOW’s of being vigilant in another post. For now, though, I wanted to cover 8 questions you can ask yourself / your team / your organization that will give you an indication that you are getting complacent – or, perhaps, are even already there. Be honest about your answers and your complacency danger level will become clear.

Question 1: Have you enjoyed a lot of recent success?

The ironic thing about complacency is that its most common cause is SUCCESS.Kmart, Blockbuster, Kodak, Sears, Circuit City, Blackberry… What did they all have in common? They were all, at one time, INCREDIBLY successful. They were all behemoths. They all owned (even created) their categories. And they are all now all but gone in the ways they were once known.

People like to simplify the reasons for their demise. Believe me, I’ve seen enough speakers on the stage at the Brand ManageCamp marketing conferences reference them. The reality is that they all died long and complicated deaths that had as much to do with debt loads, real estate transactions, and bad investment choices than anything else. But they all were also victims of their own successes. They all succumbed, in one way or another, to Survivorship Bias. They did not remain vigilant.

Their initial successes resulted in fear of change. Hubris. An over-confidence in their abilities to withstand competition and morphing consumer preferences. A reliance on the status quo, and an ability to fully understand what their businesses were really about. They developed an “unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.”

So, if you have been experiencing a fair amount of success recently, you probably want to be extra vigilant…

Question 2: What would people in your organization say if they were asked why they do everything they do?

If the majority of answers are somewhere along the lines of “because that’s the way we have always done it – and we ain’t fixin’ what ain’t broke!,” then it is likely complacency is a concern. You should be able to affirmatively answer WHY you do the things you do. If you can’t come up with a good reason, start questioning why you do it in the first place. A desire to keep the status quo is a sign of weakness and invited outside challenge.

Question 3: How much of what you do would you consider “routine”?

If you find your days, weeks, and years are blending together and everything seems routine, you are in the complacent zone. Here’s an example: Do you spend the better part of 6 weeks every year, starting about the same time, going through the motions of doing your Strategic Plans? Do they always use the same templates? Ask the same questions? Do they take the same spreadsheets from the year before and just change the numbers? If so, ring the alarms – complacency is afoot.

Question 4: How important is your company’s / brand’s heritage vs. what is being done TODAY?

If your value is derived from looking backwards, and you spend a great deal of your time and energy “protecting” that history and basking in its glory, the present may just be passing you by. When I was at Coca-Cola, one of our clients was Smoothie King. Their main tagline at the time (the late 90’s) was “We Created The Whole Smoothie Thing.” My reaction was “who cares??” Consumers don’t care who created the smoothie – they care where they can get the best one that meets their needs TODAY. If your heritage helps drive home salient points that are relevant TODAY, then great! If it just equates to holding onto the glory days, it may be time to let go and focus on winning the here and now.

Question 5: Is it safer to lay low and toe the line or stand up and push for change?

Be honest. What is the secret to longevity in your organization? I worked at Coca-Cola in the 1990’s and, as impressive of an organization as that is from the outside, that culture of keeping your head down definitely existed. It was back when people could do 20 years at a company, especially Coca-Cola, and then retire with a bunch of stock (that was actually worth something). Nobody ever got fired for doing what they were supposed to do, even if the results were sub-par. But it was risky to stick your neck out for something new and different. The rewards were definitely there if it worked out – but people didn’t get to stick around very long if they were wrong.

If toeing the line is the path to success, the corporate culture is really paving the path to failure.

Question 6: How stale is your personnel roster?

Do you have people who have been doing the same job for years? How often do you more people around? Do you use the excuse that you don’t want to move them because you don’t want to have to train someone new? Here’s the thing – without fresh perspectives, you can’t get fresh thinking. And, without fresh thinking, you get stale, complacent thinking.

Question 7: How much time is spent looking within vs. looking outside?

If the majority of your organization’s time and effort is spent on internal analysis and planning vs. external research and information gathering, it is probably because you are over-confident. You value your own thinking and information above your customers’ and, certainly, above your competitors’. Get over yourself. This is a signal you are far more complacent, and vulnerable, than you probably ever imagined.

Question 8: When was the last time you disrupted yourself?

At this year’s Brand ManageCamp marketing conference, speaker and best-selling author on innovation, Soren Kaplan, will be teaching us about Disruptive Innovation. The reality is, if you are not disrupting yourself, your brand, your industry, then it is only a matter of time until someone else does.

And, if you are not actively disrupting it is a pretty good sign that you have become complacent in your past success.

So…how did you do? Is your organization vigilant? Or have you been lulled into complacency?

Don’t worry if it is the latter of the two. There are things you can start doing TODAY to move yourself away from complacency back into vigilance. I will cover them in Part 2 of this post…

Until then, check out Soren Kaplan and all the other speakers at this year’s Brand ManageCamp marketing conference (our 16th annual).