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Dave Coffaro


Leading by Cause

Why do business leaders focus so heavily on analyzing their numbers?

Published: Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 12:03

Lessons throughout history inform us that cause precedes effect, and actions create results. Plato explained the principle of causality, saying “Every­thing that becomes or changes must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause.” In Codex Atlanticus Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “No effect is in Nature without cause; you understand the cause and you do not need any experience.”

And as every schoolchild learns, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” per Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion.

With such depth of affirmation around cause preceding effect, why do business leaders focus so heavily on analyzing their numbers—or focus on the effect instead of the cause? A recent conversation with a community bank CEO focused on his vision for the company. He opened the dialogue, saying he and his leadership team had put a lot of thought into where they want to take their bank, and the vision they committed to was to deliver top-decile return on equity and return on assets, as well as topline revenue growth: a quintessential example of focusing on effect, not cause.

In their CFO Magazine piece, “How an Obsession With Metrics Is Killing Your Company,” authors Alexander Van Caeneghem and Jean-Marie Bequevort write, “The quest for financial performance and the pressure to measure can corrode organizational cultures, narrow the focus of leadership, reduce intrinsic motivation, and support unethical behavior.”

With a similar theme, Michael Harris and Bill Taylor’s Harvard Business Review article, “Don’t Let Metrics Undermine Your Business” said, “A company can easily lose sight of its strategy and instead focus strictly on the metrics that are meant to represent it.”

Logic tells us we can manage cause, but only measure effect. Yet we often overlook the real story: the aggregation of activities that created the results reflected in our numbers. Leading by cause is an approach that says. “Use results to understand activities, effectiveness, and efficiency in context of the organization’s vision and strategy.” When results do not meet expectations, the root cause is embedded in one (or more) of these elements: choices of activities performed, performance effectiveness, and performance efficiency. Shifting to cause-based analysis of results positions leaders to laser-target interventions such as coaching, guiding, managing, or taking direct action, to change the trajectory of outcomes.

There are three paradoxes to navigate when making the shift to leading by cause.

Effect vs. cause conversations
Cause-based performance analysis requires understanding the composition of activities that created results. A common effect-based conversation among managers when results that don’t meet expectations might start out with, “Revenue is 5-percent below target, so let’s do everything we can to drive it up to make plan.”

A cause-based conversation, however, gets at the root: “What were the sales activities last month that created these results? Which customers did we focus on? How did we engage those customers? What was their reaction to what we have to offer? What is getting in the way of our new business development activities?”

Appearance of improvement vs. improvement
In the effects domain, managers often look for steps to improve the appearance of their profit-and-loss results, yet no real underlying change takes place. For example, a manager might delay travel or defer other expenses during the last weeks of a quarter to create the appearance of lower operating costs and thus a better bottom line. Results look better, but the root cause that is creating undesirable results has not been sleuthed out.

Math vs. behavior
Operating results presented in an organization’s profit and loss reflect an aggregation of activities. It’s easy to analyze operating results in a sterile manner, quantifying month-over-month changes and variance to plan; of course, numbers don’t lie! But every numeric result—product development, marketing, sales, manufacturing, and distribution—reflects human behavior. Cause-based analysis of results seeks to understand the behavioral factors contributing to outcomes reflected in the profit and loss: “What changed in our business development activities last quarter vs. the same period last year? What effect is our largest competitor’s new delivery strategy having on our sales? How effective is the collaboration between product management, manufacturing, and sales?”

Leading by cause requires deconstructing results into elements. Understanding the numbers is important; knowing what caused the numbers is empowering.


About The Author

Dave Coffaro’s picture

Dave Coffaro

Dave Coffaro, principal, Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, has more than 30 years of experience expanding and refining his craft as a strategic organizational advisor, leader and developer of people. Coffaro has a distinguished record of leadership in the design, development and implementation of growth-oriented business strategies. Coffaro's areas of expertise include leading organizations in the process of strategy development and execution, change leadership, organization transformation and innovation.


Cause-based analyses

Dave Coffaro's remarks are right on target. We sometimes forget to use the entire quality improvement tool kit by getting overly fixated on graphing data.

The old maxim applies here- If all you use is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Prior to graphing data, displaying the array as a histogram can give one a feel for how they are distributed. This might provide a suggestions for rationally organizing the data into meaningful sub groups.

Additionally, Cause and Effect diagrams and Flow Charts help understand how the underlying causal system operates.