Misinterpreting Success Factors: Necessity vs. Sufficiency

Necessity is that which, if it lacks, guarantees failure. Sufficiency is that which, if it’s present, allows success.


We are all familiar with the typical "what Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, and these other 37 ultra-successful people have in common" type of articles. We have also heard about the "success formulas" of unicorn startups. And sure, most of us are aware that these analyses are challenging because of survivorship bias - the tendency to focus on winners in a given area and ignore the losers, thus inferring incorrect causations.

However, survivorship bias is not the only reason why those perspectives can be misleading. It’s also our inability to distinguish between what is necessary and what is sufficient. Simply because all successful people work hard (or wake up at 4:30am), it does not mean that working hard will make us successful. Read that again.

A necessary condition must be present for an outcome to occur, but its presence alone may not guarantee the outcome. No hard work, no success. But success doesn’t follow from hard work alone. There’s a lot more at play: timing, intelligence, strategy, luck, and so on.

Necessity is that which, if it lacks, guarantees failure. Sufficiency is that which, if it’s present, allows success.

Take a bestselling book. A captivating story is necessary, but without proper editing, a strong publishing team, and effective marketing, it isn't sufficient to hit the bestseller lists.

For our unicorn startups, not having a great product guarantees failure. However, success will only become a possibility if effective business models, strong marketing strategies, and efficient execution are combined as well.

Why do we often only focus on what is "necessary" and have a hard time distinguishing it from what is "sufficient"? This happens frequently, even with highly experienced managers at great companies.

Necessary factors are typically more obvious, within our control, and easier to achieve. They represent the basic requirements. Sufficiency, on the other hand, often involves multiple factors and external circumstances that are harder to control and predict. Achieving sufficiency requires a deeper understanding of context and a balanced orchestration of many elements.

This simple question helps:

Will the presence of this be enough to achieve our goals or will the absence of it just guarantee failure?

Here are 3 other concepts you will enjoy:

The What vs. How Of Thought

3 Hidden Thinking Flaws

False Dichotomies