What really drives success? Countless people’s works have tried to pin it down and our performance-driven society’s obsession with KPIs suggests we desperately want to pursue it in a systematic way. Yet somehow the formula eludes many and is not fully realised through our focus on simple benchmarks of performance.

We need to take a ‘boy and his first radio’ approach – pull it all apart to see how it all fits back together. Just like the radio, no one part is solely responsible for the radio’s function – they interact with each other to deliver the whole experience of ‘listening to a radio’. Some parts are more dependent on each other and some parts are more important than others – but they all play a key role in realising holistic function.

“In order to keep my pants up I have a belt, but it needs my pants’ belt holes to make it work…SO JUST WHO IS THE REAL HERO HERE?”
Mitch Hedberg

Together all the parts make up a whole that is much greater than just the sum of the constituent parts. This is the Gestalt Phenomenon.

The success of an organisation has a mind boggling amount of moving parts that drive this. However, when we start measuring the performance of these individual parts we risk falling into the ‘’correlation is causation trap’’ – a classic case of trying to untangle cause and effect.

The examples below demonstrate the caution we must exercise when correlating KPIs with success and therefore imputing causation (or in watching Nicholas Cage movies which only encourages him!)

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
Henry Ford

So we shouldn’t be solely focusing on individual indicators, and rather looking at them more holistically in terms of how they interact with one another. We need to uncover the higher level conceptual clusters of these factors that are really behind successful interventions and understand what is driving them.

But first we need to be clear on how we define success. In business it is ultimately sustainable profit growth. Not just growth. Improving efficiencies may not require growth and can in fact negate it. Growth that is unsustainable or breaks the machine is not true success. Generously rewarded banking executives meeting short term KPIs with innovative debt products and low doc loans had their ‘success’ viewed very differently post sub-prime meltdown.

Consider this example:

A company commissions research which advises it to segment clients and prospects. The company goes on to develop a disciplined retail channel that triages prospective clients to appropriate service and specifically matched servicers.

The company experiences great success and doubles its lead conversion rates. Clearly these specific individual actions are exclusively responsible – or are they?

Of course these specific actions likely play a critical role but it is probable that the mere fact the company took them on reflects more broadly on how they operate. They systematically seek information for evidence-based decisions, fashion these insights into actionable intelligence and follow through with consistent action. They have champions of change and ensure buy in across the organisation. This in turn reflects many other factors including recruitment processes, internal culture, communication skills and use of integrated technology. Whatever drives these behaviours and organisational culture is the true source of success and likely influencing many other components of the operation working in concert.

Sometimes what we perceive as the cause of success is merely a symptom of it.  All this points to the power of assuming a more holistic ‘Gestalt’ perspective on change management – we need to understand how all the parts work together in unison. One piece of discreet research or obsessional tracking of a simple set of metrics will not get you there. Clear vision, strategic planning, the right people, the right culture, sufficient resources, learning from experience and most importantly obsession with efficient, organisation-wide implementation is a much more prudent bet.

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”
Colin Powell