Successful Business and the Halo Effect

Being influenced in my thinking on business strategy and execution mostly by the work of Igor Ansoff (see Implanting Strategic Management), I have always wondered why business books like In Search of Excellence and Good to Great had such huge success. Ansoff stressed that business performance is highly dependent on the specific environment your business finds itself in at any given time. Consequently, he was very much against the notion of an ‘if you do this in any situation, it’ll always work’-approach as advocated by such business books.

So, following Ansoff, to me it seems that the prescriptive mantras for long-lasting high business performance are just not in sync with a situational or conditional approach (based on so-called turbulence levels of the business environment). Moreover, companies hailed as consistent high performers at one point in time, will sooner or later come crashing down. (As you may well ascertain when browsing through the companies listed as high performers in older business blockbusters.)

So, the question really is: what’s going on here? Are there really business laws (like laws in physics) that safeguard lasting high business performance? Or are these laws a mere fallacy?

It was only recently that I came across a fascinating theory called the The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig (the book with the same name was first published in 2006 with an updated version published in 2014). It tries to shed some light on the apparent attractiveness of a recipe for long-lasting business success. Rosenzweig argues that our thinking about business performance is shaped by a number of delusions:

For all their claims of scientific rigor, for all their lengthy descriptions of apparently solid and careful research, they [i.e. science in business books] operate mainly at the level of storytelling. They offer tales of inspiration that we find comforting and satisfying, but they’re based on shaky thinking. They’re deluded.

He goes on naming a number of delusions in our thinking about business performance. The pre-eminent delusion Rosenzweig names the Halo Effect:

[The Halo Effect is the] tendency to look at a company’s overall performance and make attributions about its culture, leadership, values, and more. In fact, many things we commonly claim drive company performance are simply attributions based on prior performance.

It’s not so much the result of conscious distortion as it is a natural human tendency to make judgments about things that are abstract and ambiguous on the basis of other things that are salient and seemingly objective. The Halo Effect is just too strong, the desire to tell a coherent story too great, the tendency to jump on bandwagons too appealing.

It turns out that most business blockbusters that tell you precisely which companies to mimic for success, suffer from the Halo Effect. Consequently, the companies that are given as examples in most business books (e.g. Xerox in In Search of Excellence, Fannie Mae in Good to Great; also see this article in The Economist) are not consistent high performers after all:

Yet for all their promises of exhaustive research, Collins and Porras [in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies] didn’t address a basic problem: the Halo Effect. Much of the data they gathered came from the business press, from books, and from company documents, all sources that are likely to contain Halos.

You would have been better off investing randomly than putting your money on Collins and Porra’s Visionary companies.

But why the appeal then? Why are these prescriptive books such a huge success? Time after time? The answer, Rosenzweig argues, is that we like stories:

Managers don’t usually care to wade through discussions about data validity and methodology and statistical models and probabilities. We prefer explanations that are definitive and offer clear implications for action. We like stories.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with stories, provided we understand that’s what we have before us. More insidious, however, are stories that are dressed up to look like science. They’re better described as pseudo-science.

And:

Readers, too, prefer clear stories. We don’t really want to hear about partial causation or incremental effects or threats to validity. And there’s a further problem compounding all of this. As Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker observed, university departments don’t always represent meaningful divisions of knowledge. If you’re a professor of marketing, you care a lot about market orientation and customer focus, and there’s a natural tendency to want to demonstrate the importance of your specialty.

Does this mean that everything that is written about good business practices is just nonsense and everything might as well be left to chance? No:

Success is not random – but it is fleeting. Why? Because as described by the great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, the basic force at work in capitalism is that of competition through innovation – whether of new products, or new services, or new ways of doing business. Where most economists of his day assumed that companies competed by offering lower process for similar goods and services, Schumpeter’s 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, described the forces of competition in terms of innovation.

But the main point is that high performance is difficult to maintain, and the reason is simple: In a free market system, high profits tend to decline thanks to what one economist called “the erosive forces of imitation, competition, and expropriation.” Rivals copy the leader’s winning ways, new companies enter the market, consulting companies spread best practices, and employees move from company to company.

These findings show that performance is not random but persists over time, yet there is also a tendency to move toward the middle, a clear regression toward the mean. Competitive advantage is hard to sustain. Nothing recedes like success.

However, real science on business performance, as opposed to mere storytelling, is out there. But it might not make for such a good story:

Anita McGahan at Boston University and Michael Porter at Harvard Business School set out to determine how much of a business unit’s profits can be explained by the industry in which it competes, by the corporation it belongs to, and by the way it is managed. This last category, which they called “segment-specific effects,” covers just about everything we’ve talked about (…): a company’s customer orientation, its culture, its human resource systems, social responsibility, and so forth. Using data from thousands of U.S. companies from 1981 to 1994, McGahan and Porter found that “segment-specific effects” explained about 32 percent of a business unit’s performance. Just 32 percent. The rest was due to industry effects or corporate effects or was simply unexplained. So maybe all of the studies we’ve looked at make sense after all! It’s just that, as we suspected, their efforts overlap – they all explain the same 32 percent [italics mine]. Each study claims to have isolated an important driver of performance, but only because of the Delusion of Single Explanations.

Rosenzweig stays clear from coming up with his own take on a recipe for long-lasting business success. However, understanding that strategy always involves taking risks, that links between input and outcomes are sketchy at best and that flawless execution (once you have made up your mind about your strategic direction) is needed at all times, can veritably be read as a good starting point for discussing your company’s performance. It also means you do not have to resort to the latest and newest four, five, or eight-point list promising the holy grail of ever-lasting high business performance.

So, what’s the very mundane advice that Rosenzweig has to offer to managers?

When it comes to managing a company for high performance, a wise manager knows: (1) Any good strategy involves risk. (2) If you think your strategy is foolproof, the fool may well be you. (3) Execution, too, is uncertain – what works in one company with one workforce may have different results elsewhere. (4) Chance often plays a greater role than we think, or than successful managers usually like to admit. (5) The link between input and outputs is tenuous. But when the die is cast, the best managers act as if chance is irrelevant – persistence and tenacity are everything.

Will all of this guarantee success? Of course not. But I suspect it will improve your chances of success, which is a more sensible goal to pursue.

If you want to read your management books more critically, the lessons drawn by Rosenzweig in The Halo Effect  might just be invaluable.

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