Uncertain Outcomes

t the Gartner Tech Growth and Innovation Conference last week, our guest keynote speaker, Maria Konnikova, brought up a few things that resonated with me.   The intersection of three ideas particularly hit home:

  • The Illusion of Control – Thinking that you can control everything,
  • The importance of understanding the situation, and
  • Process over Outcome

“Process over Outcome” is the most important one.  In business, I don’t think I can come up with anything that is a 100% guaranteed result.  Virtually every decision is subject to a wide variety of circumstances, unique issues, and in many cases-luck.  This is the connection to illusion of control.  You can not control everything and guarantee an outcome.

Photo by Nicola Barts : https://www.pexels.com/photo/bearded-men-with-a-red-tie-gesturing-7927256/

The process component needs to connect to the situation element.   When Maria talked about process, she was not talking about a rigid path that you followed all the time.  She talked about having a structure to organize thinking and a well-defined decision process (for her, learning to manage ego and emotions was key to following her process and not getting sidetracked).  Part of organizing thinking is to examine the situation in depth.  The situation changes the odds.  The situation can give clues.  The situation can help you decide what path to follow.

But even if you do everything right, “bad beats” happen.  That is when luck is a cruel master.  In business, there may be a lot of bad beats:

  • Your champion leaves the company at a bad time
  • A critical system that yours relies upon fails—but the blame falls on you.
  • You guide the customer through an effective buying process and build a business case that you can show is likely to be achievable (there is no guarantee, as we’ve talked about, so you may not say “likely” to the customer), and they decide to go with a competitor for whom the risk seems smaller (often to someone who has not been deeply involved.

Maria had to learn not to dwell on bad beats.  She was coached and trained to analyze hands and assess if she was following a good process and making sound decisions.

That is where we need to focus on business.   The latest craze, other than Generative AI of course, is the promise of business outcomes.   In reality, no promise of outcomes is guaranteed.  All we can do is help our customers improve their odds of generating those outcomes.

For ourselves, we need to improve the odds of winning good business.  And that is about understanding odds and tilting them in your favor.  How can we do this?   A few things come to mind:

  • Target the Right Customers – Build a rich ideal customer profile (ICP) that goes beyond firmographics (regular readers are probably shocked I am bringing this up).   Capture elements like psychographics and other business context that favor you.   As you do this, you don’t have to exclude everyone-luck can go against you and for you.  That is why we talk about acceptable profiles.   There is a group, your unacceptable profile, that you should avoid spending resources on unless there are clear, unique signals to the contrary.
  • Think Mindfully – You’ve already done this if you build a great ICP, but as you engage–whether in marketing or sales–you need to be looking for other signals and clues.   A great ICP fit may be in a situation where there is just too many other things going on for them to buy from you.  You may discover a blocker that you need to manage around.   A proactive offer of content or a value assessment may be called for.
  • Don’t make get in the habit of bad shortcuts-There may be times when a shortcut works, but analyze if that was because of luck.  If luck, then don’t adopt it all the time.  If not luck, it may be a way to improve your process.  One of my fears around Generative AI is that it could promote shortcuts that get in the way of mindful thinking (the better use is to support your efforts to think mindfully)

This also means that a full focus on outcomes is not a way to get better.   Whether good or bad results happen, analyze the process (do post mortems for successful activities as often as unsuccessful).  Take that mindful thinking and apply it to how you assess efforts.

For your first step, Look at my three elements and assess where you are, what I see and hear too often:

  • ICPs that are almost non-existent (“Everyone can benefit from our product” or “We target large enterprises in North America”).
  • Situational context that is often ignored (“Follow our process to the letter” or “Use this script for every prospect”)
  • The search for shortcuts disconnected from thinking (“Let ChatGPT generate a message that I’ll use without thorough review” or “Use this winning sales presentation”)

Business is all about uncertain outcomes.   Evolve your approach to improving (and understanding) the odds.

Uncertain Outcomes