Corpses on Everest
There is an internet meme which simply reads: “Every corpse on Mount Everest was once an extremely motivated person”.
While parodying motivational posters, it is also – probably unintentionally – an insight into the fallacy of analysing success. An analysis of people who successfully scaled Mount Everest, for example, might reveal a list of common attributes: of a certain age, physically fit, good communication, focused, highly motivated. You might decide that in order to reach the summit, you’d need to have or at least acquire these traits.
Except, as we know, the corpses on Everest had some of these traits too – particularly motivation. In other words, motivation had no bearing on a climber’s success.
We regularly see this approach in football. Clubs often analyse teams whose success they’d like to emulate: studying their tactics, their squad profile, their transfer activity, their approach to youth development.
We may, for example, note that World Cup and European Championship-winning teams this century have had an average age of 27 years. National associations might use this as a target for future tournaments while doing succession planning, but in doing so overlook the fact that teams that didn’t win these tournaments also had an average age of just over 27 years. Average age has therefore had no historical bearing on international results, and is therefore a misleading KPI. Or – the average tournament ‘corpse’ had an average age of 27, too. (For what it’s worth, the distribution of squad age varies slightly between successful and unsuccessful teams, and is therefore the smarter KPI to focus on).
Football isn’t alone; there are countless business books and LinkedIn posts that focus too much on successful outcomes. Analysing failure – and the differences from success – is often where the really useful answers lie.