Those LinkedIn members who know me, will be well aware of my tilting at the windmill of the cult of the celebrity quote. You know, the pithy saying that encapsulates the reason for their success. With the admiring “likes” and fulsome comments comes the implicit assumption that if only you too do as Branson or Jobs or whoever, you also will be assured of success.

This ignores the reality that for every Branson there are thousands who have trod the same path, never to have reached stardom or tasted success.

So when I see a celebrity quote, my response is to ask why did that person succeed where countless others have failed? Why should the poaching of one high achieving executive not achieve the hoped for results?

This is an issue that has interested me since my undergraduate days studying History and Anthropology. And one which continues to interest me today within my own field, digital optimisation. We all basically undertake the same activities, so why should one site list higher than another?

In Making Decisions in a Complex Adaptive SystemShane Parrish argues how we we often make the mistake of, “extrapolating the behaviour of an individual component, say an individual, to explain the entire system.” He goes on to explain how focusing on the individual [an SEO tactic for example] ignores its place within the system which means we ignore how the other elements of the system contribute to success, indeed are vital for that success to occur. Simply taking the individual without addressing the system from which they come, will, more often than not, lead to tears.

This is not a world shattering insight. It is one that has been around since at least the time of the Greek philosophers and is one which pops up every now and then on these pages. However given the prevalence of  executives who are going through a period of poor performance opting to solve their performance issue by hiring a star from another company, or the ongoing deluge of “top ten things to do to be successful with social media” suggests that such insights are honored more often in the breach than the observance.

Anyone who is interested in understanding how innovation works, or is looking for a possible framework for decision making within complex organisations, would do well to read this article. If you are still with me after reading that article, you may also like to read this article, Mental Model: Complex Adaptive Systems, by the same author.

This article was originally published in LinkedIn (Pulse), 19 September, 2015 under the title, Just because Jobs or some such said it, does not mean you should blindly imitate: misplaced focus on the individual