3rd, September, 2021

Does the end always justify the means?

“The end justifies the means”, we’ve all heard that phrase, right?  It is used to suggest that any activity, whether or not that activity could be considered ethically or morally bad, is worth doing so long as a desired end result is achieved. Surely, it isn’t right though that morally bad activities & decisions should exist & be tolerated to bring about successful outcomes in any walk of life, is it?

Furthermore, what happens though when the desired end result isn’t achieved? What happens when the outcome we expected doesn’t happen Why is it then & only then generally that we tend to start delving into the cause and effect having some sort of post-mortem on what has just happened?

Wouldn’t it be better to be curious and inquisitive when results are going well to be sure we understand & focus on what brought about a successful outcome rather than merely celebrating the outcome itself?

One such organisation is building their business on understanding the elements of the process that brings about better outcomes is Brentford FC who represent one of the most interesting stories in football at present, outlining their continued rise & how they have applied data analysis to the running of their club.

In short Matthew Benham, the former hedge fund manager, professional gambler and lifelong fan saved the club back in 2012 then set out on a significant journey investing in the club, its facilities & personnel. This isn’t another of those football stories though that involved a super-rich individual investing £millions into a vanity project; no, it’s much more interesting and complex than that.

Basically, Benham & his team work with a philosophy of analysing data to drive strategic, managerial & recruitment decisions, however, that data isn’t taken from results but from key performance indicators & factors that occur during the game. In other words, they analyse the actions not the outcome to avoid being unnecessarily influenced by results that may have happened by purely chance.

Benham has tested his philosophy elsewhere too when he invested in Danish football club Midtjylland in 2014 and appointing Rasmus Ankersen – a former player, Uefa A-licence coach and author – as the chairman Rasmus openly discusses this philosophy and how it’s helped a small club in the centre of the country to become national champions and competing regularly in European competition.

Ankersen explains that in a game like football where the scores are relatively low there are so many factors that can influence a result outside the control of the players- random acts in other words. A one nil win can very quickly turn in to a 1-1- draw or worse still a 2-1 defeat in a matter of minutes just on the back of a moment of chance, a deflected shot, a slip in defence, even a missed penalty. A good example of this is Manchester United’s European Champions League victory in 1999 where literally the last 3 minutes saw a dramatic reverse in fortunes for both United and Bayern Munich on the back of just 2 corners!

As such at Midtjylland & Brentford the manager and team are judged not on their league position but on their ability to achieve certain agreed KPI’s. Further to this extra focus is given to what is termed “dangerous situations” during the game which tracks shots taken in the zone where a significant number of goals are scored together with set pieces, again an area of higher scoring percentages than in free play- its all about focussing the team energies on those areas of greater productivity.

Ultimately the takeaway here is about not making decisions based on outcomes; appreciating the importance of not being seduced by the belief that results are always the consequences of good decisions and good performances when very often it could come down to pure luck. Its as Ankersen says “treat success with the same scepticism as failure”.

So, what about dangerous situations in our companies and businesses? What about understanding where our areas of activity are that deliver better and more productive outcomes? We’ve all worked in environments where the tough questions get asked when we fail, but when we’re successful, we become complacent & take success for granted, expecting the results to continue automatically & those questions don’t get asked ; therein lies the danger.

So, why do we cling on to success so tightly and justify great results as the product of great decisions, conveniently putting aside some of the less colourful and less positive moments of the journey? In short, we fall victim to outcome bias– this is where the result is known and we look for reasons to justify the means- in other words, it doesn’t matter how we got there so long as we got there-right?

Surely it does matter how we get there though? We must understand what the process was and the ingredients to success if we are to maintain and sustain a successful business? We can’t just believe that success comes on the back of good fortune and that’s more than a good enough strategy to build for the future, can we?

So how can we apply these lessons in business life? Are we the victims of outcomes bias and trusting success or do we realise that success can be marginal at times; the difference between success and failure can be slim & open to random unexpected acts of human behaviour that alter the course of an outcome? How often in sales for instance do we see the salesperson of the month or year fall from grace so quickly after picking up the accolade?

Back to Rasmus Ankersen, who speaks so authoritatively on the subject of avoiding complacency in business & also writes about it in his book “Hunger in Paradise”– to avoid complacency in business companies need to be equally suspicious of success, making decisions on outcomes rather looking at the reasons for that success and processes that created that success- focus on the process, the decisions during the process that leads to the success rather than the outcome itself. Further to this he extols the virtues of never losing your sense of urgency and falling into a comfortable mindset, especially when success has been constant, as he warns that’s when complacency sets in.

So, the end clearly always doesn’t justify the means, in fact it seems we need to appreciate that there maybe is no end, maybe there are only means!

Image courtesy of Timbertopper