The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success; Down-to-earth advice for getting out of a rut

May 22, 2013 4:18 pm

Down-to-earth advice for getting out of a rut

By Trisha Andres

The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success

Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson

Dutton Books, $27.95

You could call it being stuck in a rut. Or, as the authors of this new book put it, you could say that effort follows the law of diminishing returns, eventually causing both people and companies to reach a point of stagnation where marginal returns disappear.

In The Plateau Effect , Bob Sullivan, an NBC News columnist, and Hugh Thompson, a maths professor and IT security expert, argue they have found a cure for this condition. They call it “constant recalibration”, or always rethinking your approach to problems.“Plateaus are a sign – a tangible warning – that your life, your relationships, or your business is clogged,” they write. “[A] plateau means you have stopped growing. It means your mind and senses are dulled by sameness.”

To explain the idea, the book transports readers to the Stinking Rose, a garlic haven restaurant in San Francisco with a menu that ranges from garlic spaghetti to garlic ice cream, and an aroma that crowds out your sensory faculties. Once seated, however, something incredible occurs. You suddenly stop noticing the garlic and your normal sense of smell returns. While the body’s ability to adapt is a critical element of evolutionary design, this kind of “acclimation” is also the origin of complacency – the bête-noire of so many motivational books.

The authors write in clear, engaging and sometimes irreverent prose as they dart across case studies from Amazon to Zappos.

Part personal development manual, part business book, The Plateau Effect identifies and offers remedies for eight types of plateaus: immunity (closely linked to acclimation); the “greedy algorithm” (picking the best short-term solution while ignoring the long-term outcome); bad timing (executing things at the wrong intervals); flow issues (problems encountered just when things seem to be sailing along); distorted data (measuring the wrong things or incorrectly assessing risk); distraction (falling victim to the illusion of multitasking); failing slowly (forging ahead even in the throes of a plateau); and perfectionism (procrastinating because it is never the right time to start).

Many of the solutions offered to these problems seem like sound enough advice but are also decidedly down to earth: do less, not more; take a break; listen and set deadlines to counteract procrastination.

The writers are perhaps at their best when examining success through the lens of case studies.

There is the Denver pizza chain that gave over its premises to a start-up coffee and biscuit shop in the mornings. This halved its rent and gave it access to crossover customers in a way that would not have been possible if it had simply relied on incremental investments to yield incremental gains.

The authors also show how remedies such as “accelerating failure” can work by citing the example of Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm Computing and Handspring.

Zoomer, its first product, was an “epic fail”. Using customer feedback from that failed device, he crafted a prototype out of wood and a chopstick, and carried it around with him for months, constantly testing the design. He was thus able to identify faults and correct them – and from his experiment, the PalmPilot was born.

One could quibble with some of the examples. For instance, tenacity is the more obvious lesson to draw from Mr Hawkins’ experience. Meanwhile, the darting from psychology and mathematics to science and sports to explain the plateaus we encounter in both business and life is, at points, dizzying.

Nonetheless, The Plateau Effect is, on balance, a stimulating read, offering some inventive theories and solutions.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: