John P Kotter, a New York Times bestselling author, Professor of Leadership (Emeritus) at the Harvard Business School and an expert on change management, wrote: “A higher rate of urgency does not imply ever-present panic, anxiety, or fear. It means a state in which complacency is virtually absent.”

Complacency in business is something I wanted to explore today. Time after time, we see examples of businesses that seem to “have it made”; they’ve developed great products, captured huge market share, increased their profitability year on year and established a loyal customer base.

And then what do they do? They blow it. Kodak. Blockbuster. Blackberry. Huge names. International brands. How on earth can that happen?

More often than not, it’s down to complacency; “the silent business killer”, as I’ve heard it brilliantly described. Or as Sir John Bond, former Chairman of HSBC said, “Complacency is the Achilles heel of most businesses.”

Complacency is very natural—and widespread. Potentially, it’s the beginning of the end for a business.

Too many companies get some success under their belt and then a culture develops where the received wisdom is that they’ve cracked it. They continue to do the same thing in the same way they’ve always done it—again and again and again.

Why? Because it worked.

So, they don’t review their approach, their products, their processes or their infrastructure. They begin to take their customer base for granted. Before they know it someone newer, younger, more innovative and hungrier is snapping at their heels and eating up their market share.

My view is that once you’re thriving, the single biggest thing you can do to differentiate your business is to keep pushing. Here’s how to avoid the complacency trap:

  1. Don’t fear change. Disruption is good. Risk can equal opportunity.
  2. Be positively paranoid; pose the “what if” scenario. What would you do if the worst happened?
  3. Develop a culture where “nothing is sacred”; constructively but constantly challenge the status quo.
  4. Engage employees; encourage fresh ideas and insights.
  5. Understand the changing face of your marketplace and keep ahead of the curve.
  6. Track legislation and regulation that affects your industry; it can be the one thing that catches you out.
  7. Hire great people who know more than you do.
  8. Read and learn from other industries, businesspeople, experts, world-class operators—even in different fields to your own.
  9. Innovate incrementally; ask how we can do this better. And then even better. And then better Again. Keep doing it.
  10. Remember Kotter’s words; a higher rate of urgency does not equal panic but does help defeat complacency.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking that they can’t lose,” said Bill Gates.

Don’t let that happen to you.