* * *
Companies cannot achieve superior and lasting business performance simply by following a specific set of steps.
Beware the halo effect
Many studies of company performance are undermined by a problem known as the halo effect. First identified by US psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920, it describes the tendency to make specific inferences on the basis of a general impression.
How does the halo effect manifest itself in the business world? Imagine a company that is doing well, with rising sales, high profits, and a sharply increasing stock price. The tendency is to infer that the company has a sound strategy, a visionary leader, motivated employees, an excellent customer orientation, a vibrant culture, and so on. But when that same company suffers a decline—if sales fall and profits shrink—many people are quick to conclude that the company’s strategy went wrong, its people became complacent, it neglected its customers, its culture became stodgy, and more. In fact, these things may not have changed much, if at all. Rather, company performance, good or bad, creates an overall impression—a halo—that shapes how we perceive its strategy, leaders, employees, culture, and other elements.
As an example, when Cisco Systems was growing rapidly, in the late 1990s, it was widely praised by journalists and researchers for its brilliant strategy, masterful management of acquisitions, and superb customer focus. When the tech bubble burst, many of the same observers were quick to make the opposite attributions: Cisco, the journalists and researchers claimed, now had a flawed strategy, haphazard acquisition management, and poor customer relations. On closer examination, Cisco really had not changed much—a decline in its performance led people to see the company differently. Indeed, Cisco staged a remarkable turnaround and today is still one of the leading tech companies. The same thing happened at ABB, the Swiss-Swedish engineering giant. In the 1990s, when its performance was strong, ABB was lauded for its elegant matrix design, risk-taking culture, and charismatic chief executive, Percy Barnevik. Later, when the company’s performance fell, ABB was roundly criticized for having a dysfunctional organization, a chaotic culture, and an arrogant CEO. But again, the company had not really changed much.
The fact is that many everyday concepts in business—including leadership, corporate culture, core competencies, and customer orientation—are ambiguous and difficult to define. We often infer perceptions of them from something else, which appears to be more concrete and tangible: namely, financial performance. As a result, many of the things that we commonly believe are contributions to company performance are in fact attributions. In other words, outcomes can be mistaken for inputs.
Wise managers know to be wary of the halo effect. They look for independent evidence rather than merely accepting the idea that a successful company has a visionary leader and a superb customer orientation or that a struggling company must have a poor strategy and weak execution. They ask themselves, “If I didn’t know how the company was performing, what would I think about its culture, execution, or customer orientation?” They know that as long as their judgments are merely attributions reflecting a company’s performance, their logic will be circular.
The halo effect is especially damaging because it often compromises the quality of data used in research. Indeed, many studies of business performance—as well as some articles that have appeared in journals such as Harvard Business Review and McKinsey Quarterly and in academic business journals—rely on data contaminated by the halo effect. These studies praise themselves for the vast amount of data they have accrued but overlook the fact that if the data aren’t valid, it really doesn’t matter how much was gathered or how sophisticated the analysis appears to be.
This reliance on questionable data, in turn, gives rise to a number of further errors in logic. Two delusions—of absolute performance and of lasting success—have particularly serious repercussions for business strategists.
* * *
Our business world is full of research and analysis that are comforting to managers: that success can be yours by following a formula, that specific actions will lead to predictable outcomes, and that greatness can be achieved no matter what rivals do. The truth is very different: the business world is not a place of clear causal relationships, where a given set of actions leads to predictable results, but one that is more tenuous and uncertain.
The task of strategic leadership is therefore not to follow a given formula or set of steps. Instead it is to gather appropriate information, evaluate it thoughtfully, and make choices that provide the best chance for the company to succeed, all the while recognizing the fundamental nature of business uncertainty. Paradoxically, a sober understanding of this risk—along with an appreciation of the relative nature of performance and the general tendency for performance to regress—may offer the best basis for guiding effective decisions. These complex decisions, made without any guarantee of success, are ultimately the main contribution of business strategists. If a set of steps that could guarantee success did exist, and if greatness were indeed simply a matter of will, then the value of clear thinking in business would be lower, not greater.
* * *
Here is a direct link to the complete article.