Musings on Strategic Investigation, Performance Improvement, and Rhetoric

The Sign of a Good Answer

In stage 16 of the 2006 Tour de France, the favourite, Floyd Landis fell badly off the pace in the last 8 minutes and crawled to the finish with his chances in tatters. The next day, stage 17, he produced the most inspiring comeback many cycling fans have seen. He attacked early, broke away from the favourites and alone sustained a pace to which the peloton, with all its wind-saving advantages, couldn’t respond. He made up enough time to eventually be crowned Tour champion.

Explanations came flooding in for this stirring physical achievement. To many fans it was a story of the triumph of human spirit and athletic supremacy. But the accepted explanation in knowledgeable circles was that Landis, by being out by himself, could to keep his body temperature under control, giving him a major physiological advantage. You see, it was an incredibly hot July day, and the riders in the peloton were suffering from sky high temperatures; meanwhile Landis spent the day pouring cold water over his head, supplied by the team car.

Seems reasonable?

A few days after Landis’ victory, his urine sample, taken after stage 17 tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance - synthetic testosterone.

OK, which explanation for the inspirational performance do you believe now?

You see, as we all know, it’s very easy to come up with a reason or theory for any phenomenon: why our competitor is doing twice as well as we are; why we’re not as profitable as we once were; why we’re struggling to get a foothold with a customer group; why growth has fallen off, or whatever is puzzling us.

When you review businesses and markets, as you unearth the facts and analyse the data, you come across a whole raft of potential explanations and solutions for the business’s condition and theories on what it should do next. The first set you come across is usually complex, nuanced and subtle, often received wisdom from proclaimed experts, and very tempting to believe. But if you have the gumption to ignore these temptations; if you carry on researching, challenging and turning over stones, I guarantee that you will eventually come up with a better answer that’s as plain as the nose on your face.

Scientists have a principle called Occam’s Razor, the common understanding of which is as follows, “Of several acceptable explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest is preferable, provided that it takes all circumstances into account.”

At my company, we describe it differently. We just carry on investigating, testing and searching for explanations until we uncover the one that fits our golden rule: when looked at in retrospect, it must be absolutely obvious.

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