Evaluating Success Criteria

by Krishna on June 16, 2007

Recently I saw a video interview with usability consultant, Steve Krug, the author of “Don't Make Me Think!” During the discussion, he was asked how Google’s simple user interface contributed to its success. He said that the success was not because of the user interface, but because of the fact that Google returned relevant results. The user interface made it pleasant, but alone, it would not have made Google successful.

But it would be a mistake to just attribute Google’s entire success to PageRank. For example, what would have happened if every Google search took 10 seconds to return a result? What if every third time you visited Google, the site was down? What if links spammers managed to get all their results on the first page of Google? What if AdWords was not a success? What if a million other things?

Everyone likes to simplify. Unfortunately, too many business successes are over-simplified and tirelessly imitated, causing the imitators considerable frustration when the expected results do not materialize. The fact is that behind every success, there are many different factors — some known, others unknown even to the successful persons or companies. Some factors contribute more than others — something very difficult to quantify.

So, what should one look for when evaluating success factors?

  1. Don’t just look at successes, look at failures too. Did failing companies have the same success factor? In many cases, the answer will be “Yes”. In fact, most companies automatically try to imitate the public success factors of the leading companies, but fail. The classic example is the automobile industry where most companies have spent billions on quality programs trying to match the Japanese, but never caught up with them.This doesn’t mean that the success factor is not necessary. It just means that it is not sufficient.
  2. Are there companies who are successful without that particular success factor? For example, Apple’s success is attributed to its attention to product design. So is product design essential for success? But then, think about Microsoft. It is a bigger success, but it never reached the level of design quality that Apple takes pride in. In Microsoft’s case, other factors such as great development tools played a factor.This doesn’t mean that you can just leave out the success factor to succeed. It just means that it could be (and probably must be) substituted with some other factor.
  3. Be careful of your own emotions. We all love stories about rags-to-riches, David vs. Goliath, the charismatic leader, team heroics, etc. Sometimes we tend to cast success stories such that it doesn’t disrupt our way of thinking and philosophies. For example, Southwest Airlines has a great internal culture, but that alone would not have made it a success without the low prices and secondary-airport strategy.This doesn’t mean that Chicken Soup stories are necessarily wrong. It just means that there may be more to the success than the feel-good reason.
  4. Watch out for people who have an agenda. Some people have professional links with a company that they may or may not reveal. Others may nurse grudges against a company. With such people, you have to evaluate what they say carefully. There may be bias. There may be unsupported statements. Another example is the case of a person who wants you to do something and uses an example. The example is just a prop to get you to act and not necessarily true.This doesn’t mean that the information you get from them is automatically wrong. It just means that you have to pay extra attention to separate fact from fiction.

A structured way to evaluate success factors is to pass them through a test of logical fallacies. In my opinion, every manager must be trained in understanding errors in logic. This way, they can recognize false arguments and reasoning. Of course, this does not necessarily bring good results. But having seen managers go overboard with every fad they see or hear, I think it is a good start.


Pamela June 21, 2007 at 1:33 am

I agree with each one on the list, especially with considering failures. Before we can achieve success, we should be aware of the factors that may bring failure. Having known those factors would mean avoiding them easily.

Krishna June 21, 2007 at 10:28 am

pamela, thanks for your comments

Howie June 21, 2007 at 6:48 pm

Great post. You make a good point about success. Every factor should be consider and missing one would be a longer way to achieve success. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

Krishna June 22, 2007 at 9:48 am

Thanks, Howie. We should continue examining assumptions and understanding what works.

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