My son, who is a little league pitcher, pitched in the first game of the year a few weeks ago. During the game, he used solid mechanics and high effort, and he threw a lot of strikes. In the third inning, he threw a great pitch, and the batter swung and hit a home run. My son did everything he could do—he threw the ball hard and accurately—but the outcome was a home run. He was upset. He’d never given up a home run before.
I talked to him after the game. I asked him, “Why were you so upset about the home run?”
“He hit a home run—it means I’m a bad pitcher,” he said.
I told him he had done everything he could, that he took a very good process, and if he continued to use the same process in the future he would have much better results. I said, “You did everything right. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
The Problem with a Results-Only Focus
Recently, I have coached several business leaders with strong results orientations. They focus on short-term results, and they take a no-excuses approach to managing results. When they get good results, they are happy. When they get bad results, they are not happy.
The problem with a strong focus on results in the short term is that managers who do not achieve desired results may throw out a good process that has failed in the short term for some reason other than the process itself. Conversely, they may buy into a bad process that was only successful in the short term because of some external factor unrelated to the process.
Every result is a function of factors inside your control and factors outside your control. That a process does not yield the result you are seeking in one month, or two months, or one quarter, or one year does not necessarily signal that the process is bad. If the process is sound, it will eventually lead to the result you are seeking. A short-term result focus tends not to allow for time and patience for the process to work.
Evaluate Results From Two Lenses
A better approach in evaluating a result is to examine it from two different lenses:
- How much of this result was due to the people involved and the process we took to obtain the result?
- How much of this result is due to factors outside of our control?
Looking at the result this way leads you to re-evaluate the steps taken; it also causes you to look at the skills, attitude, effort, and execution of the people carrying out the process. Here’s the hard part: if the people involved did everything right, and the process was sound, you may need to leave the people and process alone. The process may just need more time.
The most difficult part about this approach is that you will often have to wait to see how the process plays out in the long term. This means you will have to put your trust in the process and the people carrying it out. If the process does not produce the result you are looking for over the long term, it may be the wrong process. The rebuttal to this is, “If we are going to find out that this was the wrong process two years from now, wouldn’t it be better to change the process now?” Maybe. Before you go down that road, you may want to ask yourself these questions:
- Why did you select the process?
- Were the logic and conclusions made when selecting the process sound?
- What were the fail points in the process?
- Has the process worked elsewhere?
- How will the process play out in the future?
- Has something changed in the external environment that would cause you to rethink the process now?
The Cost of Switching Processes
The cost of switching processes is high. There can be a high dollar cost to switching, but a less obvious cost happens with the people you lead: they may lack commitment to the processes you put in place. They may think they can wait out this idea until the short-term results tell us it doesn’t work, and you will switch to a new idea.
Rarely is a process executed with perfection, so there are always things you can change in the process or in the people completing the process to optimize results. Don’t let external factors prevent the team from making improvements to themselves and the process. But be careful that you do not begin to micromanage processes and people that do not require micromanagement.
Let’s say a manager has received his monthly KPIs, and they are below what he expected. Here are three possible ways he could approach his team:
- We failed to achieve our goals this month. We need to do better.
- I know we had a lot of bad luck this month—a lot of stuff happened that we couldn’t control. But we can’t use that as an excuse. Let’s spend some time re-examining our process to see where we can do better.
- Let’s spend some time considering some of the events that transpired last month that have led to our current result. Specifically, let’s evaluate those negative events that were outside of our control in order to forecast whether similar events may impact our ability to be successful in the future. Also, there are a few parts of our process that I believe we can improve, so let’s also spend some time thinking through how we might be able to improve those things.
The first scenario makes the results completely personal. It completely disregards any external factors that may have influenced the results and puts the onus in a very non-specific way on the team to get better. The problem with this approach is the very attempt to ignore external factors will lead employees to place focus on the external factors. They will immediately look to defend the results they achieved by bringing up factors outside their control. These employees are more likely to use external factors as an excuse.
The second scenario acknowledges factors outside their control that were partially responsible for the results achieved, but it immediately discounts them, saying, “We can’t use that as an excuse.” Again, this places employees in a defensive posture. They will again try to explain to their manager that the external factors really do matter. The second statement is more helpful; it focuses on improving specific parts of the process.
The third scenario acknowledges and gives proper weight to external factors without making them an excuse. The team will examine external factors, and evaluate how the same factors may continue to affect them in the future. They then move on to specific improvement points in the process.
Undue focus on short-term results often gives rise to frustrated and demotivated employees. They feel powerless. They may cut corners, or they may employ scorched-earth tactics to win in the short term. In the end, they know it won’t matter how they get the result—just that they get the result.
Reward Good Process
If you want to encourage more long-term thinking in your organization, try rewarding good process. This is not easy, especially when results are disappointing. If you have good people and good processes in place, the responsibility is on you to trust them. Employees who do the right things the right way will eventually get you the results you seek.
My son has played a lot of baseball since the first game where he gave up the home run. He has taken a similar process, with gradual improvement here and there, and he has had good results. It’s obviously hard for him at his age to see past short-term results, but I think his focus on process has helped him, and his team. In one game, his team’s best pitcher threw a fastball that was crushed by a player on the other team—a home run. The pitcher looked distraught. My son approached him from his position and said something to him. After the game, I asked him what he said. “I told him he made a good pitch,” he said, “I told him to keep doing what he’s doing. Then I told him, ‘I’ve been there before.’”