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Be suspicious of great results

Companies can't ignore or marginalise situational factors that might contribute to performance
Be Suspicious horses

Illustration by Chris King

When speaking with clients about results, the conversation invariably turns to the 'bad' results. We talk about missed revenue forecasts, lower-than-expected market share and/or out-of-control expenses. It's not hard to find a consultant or employee of a company who can make the time to discuss bad results. After all, if you're the employee it might mean the difference between having a job and not having one. And if you're a consultant, it could mean the difference between having a client or not.

Around the end of a quarter or, certainly, around the end of a fiscal year, emails tend to fly furiously and boardrooms to be booked quickly to analyse trends, run rates and projections and to 'call the number' for the rest of the year. Typically, we can spot something early on when we look at why we're not doing well. Examining the 'bad' in our results is, well, in our human nature.

The best managers and leaders always have a 'healthy paranoia'

What about the 'great' results? How often do we spend discussing these? Very little to be truthful. Here's the thing: we can learn as much about why things are going well as we can about why things aren't. The best managers and leaders are always suspicious of great results. They have a 'healthy paranoia'.

The notion of a self-serving bias is at play here - when we view great results we tend to over-attribute them to our decision-making, judgment and/or insights. We tend to ignore the fundamental question of “Why are we doing so well?” and we ignore or marginalise situational factors that might contribute to our success. As commercial leaders and front-line managers, we assume that we are doing well because we have the right strategy and execution. But what if that's not why we're doing well? The purpose of dissecting great results is as much about validating our strategy and execution as it is about ensuring that random and haphazard events have not played a disproportionately high role in our success. Did the competitive product launch get delayed by a quarter or two? Did a competitive product go on backorder? Was there a change (for better or worse) in the reimbursement or market access conditions that provided significant 'tailwinds' for our commercial success?

Replicating and imitating

The other reason that it is imperative to dissect great results is for replication and/or imitation effect. None of us are strangers to the concept of bad behaviour leading to bad results. In our personal lives, we replicate or imitate good behaviour that leads to good results (if we exercise, we lose weight, if we sleep 8 hours a night, we have more energy). However we don't do this in workplace situations enough. Being suspicious of great results and forcing oneself to spend the requisite time asking “why?”, is paramount in being able to replicate, imitate or transfer that strategy to other parts of the organisation.

Take the sales territory that has had significantly above-average results. We recognise and reward the sales person for his efforts but do we dissect the reasons for that success in the same way that we tend to analyse an under-performing territory? Hardly. The same applies to successful marketing campaigns and product launches. Because of the self-serving bias, we assume that the successful sales territory or marketing campaign is the result of internal factors and we ignore the external (random) events that may have had an influence. On its face, it would be absurd to suggest that all 'successes' are flukes that require deep dissection and analysis. There are, of course, many instances where a 'success' is just that because the strategy and execution were perfect.

What is suggested here is to imply that copying/imitating or replicating successful behaviours is crucial to sustained organisational performance. However, what may be even more crucial is the understanding of which behaviours to avoid in order to be successful. Copying the exact right behaviour of a successful sales representative or the tactics for a successful product launch would inherently ignore the critical point that no two sales territories or product launches can ever be identical, however there is probably more upside to copying the behaviour(s) than there is to ignoring them and chalking up the successes to internal factors and trying to re-invent the wheel.

The key drivers in being obsessively suspicious about great results are part about validating strategy, part about finding out what's 'right' and replicating the 'right' and part about finding out what was 'wrong' and avoiding the 'wrong'. But, perhaps, the greatest reason for this obsession is to rule out randomness. Because randomness cannot be replicated. 

Article by
Rohit Khanna

is the managing director of Catalytic Health, a healthcare communications, advertising & strategy agency.He can be reached at:

5th December 2014

From: Sales, Marketing


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