Applying Les McKeown’s “Predictable Success” Map

Before we dive in: this is a slightly longer note than normal because I needed to riff on one of my favorite “business” books, “Predictable Success.” One of my goals for 2023 is to write more posts about things I reference all of the time but don’t have an anchor – like this – to direct people to. 

Having a map means you can figure out where you are, where you’d like to go, and how to get there. 

Maps are primarily geographic. They tell you where A and C are, and how you’ll need to go through or around B to travel between them. 

Planning is the process of looking at the map and calculating time, effort, and costs to your travel considerations. 

How do we get into B? How do we get out? How long should we stay? 

How long did you stay last time? Do they still have that spot with the smoked kielbasa sticks? 

These are planning questions. 

The genius of Les McKeown’s Predictable Success is all captured in this one image:

Early Struggle, Fun, Whitewater, Predictable Success, Treadmill, The Big Rut, and Death Rattle are all locations. Technically, they’re stages or phases, but a map can be of mental locations as much as it can be of physical locations. 

I think of this map all of the time. 

Every business idea, fully functioning business, family – you name the “thing” – is in one of these places. It has a past and future trajectory we can trace. It has a way to stay there, or get out of dodge, for better or for worse. 

Having a map means these places – and the paths between them – are all predictable. 

Just as important to apply this knowledge – my 3 sacred P’s (People, Purpose, Processes) are on full display in each place. And McKeown breaks them down beautifully in the book.

YOU CAN STOP HERE IF you don’t want to know about each place, and how you approximately get in and out of each. 

YOU CAN KEEP READING IF you want to be able to approximately diagnose: A. where you or someone/something else currently is, B. where they’ve been, and C. where they’re headed. Since the problems, advice, and answers is different per location, this mental model is invaluable, particularly to those of us who work with leaders, business owners, etc. 

Early Struggle is the beginning, when people find just enough of a process to get a purpose off the ground. It’s tricky, but so rewarding. 

Fun is when the real excitement kicks in. It’s when you realize if you do it once, you can do it twice. And if you can do it twice, maybe you can do it 10x. And then you do it 20x because why not. And – holy crap what is happening…

If you mess up Fun, you revert to Early Struggle. Some people are addicted to Early Struggle. Just be aware of that. 

If you successfully enjoy Fun, you hit Whitewater. 

Whitewater is when you realize stuff is complex. It’s when you know that whatever you were doing before worked, but is impossibly inefficient. When you start letting customers down even though you never did before – you’re in Whitewater.

If you mess up Whitewater – because the complexity isn’t worth dealing with, you can go back to Fun. And that’s fun! But it’s a ceiling. Some people are addicted to Fun and never want to do the work that gets them through Whitewater. Be aware of them too, it’s super common. 

If you successfully nail down the complexities, get systems and processes in place to do what you (and your customers know you) rock at, you’ll arrive in Predictable Success. 

Predictable Success is the happy place. It’s where people, purposes, and processes are all humming, together in unison. And like any successful long-term partnership, it has its hiccups as things bounce about, but everyone knows how to keep things interesting without losing trace of the overall purpose.  

You can mess Predictable Success up in (at least) two ways. The first way is by “making things too spicy.” In pursuit of growth, you inadvertently introduce new complexities that push the organization back into Whitewater. It’s a necessary risk, but it can make the wrong kind of the right work. 

The second way to screw up Predictable Success takes us to the right-of-center part of our map. If instead of “making things spicy” you just want to fully institutionalize what works and trade your thundering herd of bulls for an industrial farm of milk-cows, you might (re: will) hit Treadmill. 

Treadmill is when you’re working hard but going nowhere. It happens because you’re not just managing, you’re over-managing. 

If you want to get off of the treadmill, you’ll need the right amount of spice to break up the over-managing and get people back to innovating in a way where Predictable Success is (again) achievable. It’s possible, if not likely (!) you’ll overshoot to Whitewater, but the answer to Treadmill is you need to spice things up more than you, or possibly your people/partners/coworkers are going to be comfortable with. This is hard.  

An organization can stay in Treadmill a long time. I’ve been there, at multiple levels, and this is where people who want to shake things up either succeed or die trying (or, less dramatically, get fired or leave). The company continues to mint money, but the profit growth has become a function of the broader business cycle. Steady profits mean each level of management becomes more concerned with keeping their job via hitting their metrics than anything else. 

When the shaker-uppers are no longer able to shake things up, the company messes Treadmill up. The joyless over-management of it all finally says, “Our way worked in the past, our way will work into the future, and instead of changing anything – let’s double down on OUR way. Nothing is broken and there’s nothing to fix. Get back to work everyone, there are numbers to hit.” This is when Treadmill, and the potential return to Predictable Success, gives way to The Big Rut. 

I can’t stress this enough – but companies can stay in Treadmill a LONG time. It’s where it is on the map, adjacent to Predictable Success, because in the same way Whitewater requires operational efficiencies to bring a team to the promised land, Treadmill requires just enough operational inefficiencies to try (and fail at) new ideas to keep the team from falling into The Big Rut. Stew on this, it’s an extremely important detail. 

The Big Rut is when the organization is in its truest and deadliest comfort zone. It’s doing things the way they’ve always been done, and firmly believing “if sweat pants are comfortable, I should be comfortable 24/7 because I’ve earned it.” Entities in The Big Rut know how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. They don’t know how to look sexy anymore. 

If Fun was all about selling and growing for sale’s and growth’s sake, The Big Rut is all about patting yourself on the back for all the work you (or someone before you) did, while staying as far away from actually selling or growing (or really working) as possible. 

It’s very hard to move from The Big Rut back to Treadmill. It takes hitting almost hitting an iceberg and a bunch of key people falling off the boat to have a chance. And even then, the risk to overshooting Treadmill and hitting Whitewater before ever finding Predictable Success again is usually lost in the company’s DNA by this point. And so The Big Rut gives way to Death Rattle. 

Opposite Early Struggle lies Death Rattle. It’s the sale or liquidation of the idea. If Early Struggle is the gasping effort to prove a point, the Death Rattle is the final, “I told you so!”

OK – so that got dark. 

But back to this map and applying it – if you look around, you’ll see this ALL of the time. 

Whether it’s a business, a community, or a family – the very achievable goal should be to strive for Predictable Success. 

Yes, I hate the title for all the inherent 80s/90s kid eye-rolling I am pre-programmed to experience, but McKeown is making an amazing point here people. 

If you can get an idea off the ground, and you’re willing to operationalize the inefficiencies, you can land in Predictable Success. 

Once there, you have to work to keep it there. It’s easy to slip out. 

The good reasons to slip out are because you have to change with the world around you. The good news is, the world is going to change with OR without you, so you might as well get on board. At least with this map, you know what to keep aiming/course-correcting for. 

The bad reasons to slip out are because you’re either getting too comfortable or have gotten too comfortable to notice the world is still changing, with or without you. By all means, milk your cow, but recognize the cow has a lifespan and so do you. 

When People, Purpose, and Process click – magic happens. It makes life worth living and work worth doing. Les McKeown’s Predictable Success map helps us plan how to get AND stay where we want to be. 

I, for one, am internally in his debt for this mental model. If you want more, get this book and check his others out as well.

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