Applying the Scientific Method to Business

Successful collaboration in a consuting relationship starts at the endpoint, that is, defining client goals. Agreement on measurable target(s) is critical: it eliminates false starts, wasted time and other resources, and establishes the practice of working together from a project’s start to its satisfactory conclusion.

The scientific method has been used by practitioners in the natural sciences for centuries. This process incorporates observing, measuring, experimenting, creating hypotheses and then testing and modifying the initial hypotheses as needed in order to arrive at practical conclusions. As you might imagine, this process applies just as well to achieving management goals that were agreed upon at the beginning of the project.

Let’s look at the different parts of the image below so that you’ll be able to recall easily how all the pieces work together for just about any type of project or business situation.

Process Overview

Starting at the left, the Process Overview segments the twelve activties and outcomes into three basic parts. As we said at the top of this page, you need to begin with defining the desired endpoint and then work your way to that endpoint from where you are currently. Note that all the arrows are two-headed, emphasizing that the entire process is iterative. That is, as new information becomes known, you may need to modify steps that you have already taken to encompass that new information.

Once you know where you want to go, build your foundation (A) by:

  • Conducting Research by gathering information to generate Facts and Data;
  • Analyzing the Facts and Data you’ve gathered to increase your Understanding of your current situation.

You can begin developing your strategic plans (B) once you have a fairly good grasp of where you are:

  • Experience you’ve gained by performing the Research and Analysis; Experience gives you Practical Knowledge, which leads to Wisdom (the ability to use good judgement);
  • Create your Strategic Plan, which should incorporate the many Quality Decisions for your desired future. These Decisions emanate from the Wisdom derived from your growing Experience in studying your current situation.

Finally, the time comes for setting the wheels in motion for realizing your goals (C) by:

  • Taking advantage of approproiate Tools to increase the value and efficiency of your undertaking;
  • Putting into Action the specific Tactics you decided upon in drawing up your Strategic Plan to Achieve Your Objectives.

Process Activities and Process Outcomes

In a consulting context, you can think of Process Activities as those which consultants pursue (or or guide their clients in pursuing) for the purpose of producing the Process Outcomes that their clients desire. Let’s now move to the right side of the first diagram for a closer look at each paired activity and outcome.

(A) Building Your Foundation

Success needs to rest on a solid foundation that can withstand the inevitable ups and downs from which no business is immune. The material of this foundation is relevant information on how your situation fits into the greater environment. Understanding how your situation fits into the bigger picture will reveal viable options you can pursue to fulfilling the business goals you’ve set.

(1) Research

As it is in the scientific realm, Research is the process of gathering information: assemblng facts (qualitative information) and data (quantitative information) that are relevant to achieving your goals. Note the word relevant. The lure, especially for those new to research, is the abundance of information that is readily available and just begging to be included. Fight the tendency to look every which way and follow every interesting path you encounter.

Instead, think of a pebble dropped into a pond. Start with the point of impact, namely, the most closely-related players in the marketplace, e.g. direct competitors if you’re researching the competitive environment for a new product you’re hoping to introduce. As the pebble hits the surface of the water, it creates ripples that emanate from the center and diminish the farther away they get from the center.

After direct competitors, the next-closest ripple might be close substitutes, especially if they are less expensive. If your new product is a disruptor, let’s say due to embedded advanced technology to create new uses, or using a revolutionary manufacturing process that seriously reduces your cost of production, pricing might occupy the center of your attention. The social and economic environment, cost of advertising, promotion and other marketing are other factors you’ll eventually need to research (and are out of the scope of this tutorial), but you get the idea.

How do you go about conducting valid Research that will build your information foundation? Check out some of our other Tutorials: 10 Keys to Collecting Information; Business Intelligence and the Internet (1, 2, and 3); and Customer Value Knowledge Base.

Keep in mind that Research includes internal factors as well as the external factors we’ve been discussing. These include SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and other analyses.

What You Don’t Know Can’t (or CAN it?) Hurt You

Here’s another thought to keep in mind when designing your research, especially for super-critical, high-risk issues. We’ll be writing another tutorial on this concept in the future. For now, here’s a sneak peek.

(2) Facts and Data

Facts describe characteristics that may or may not be measurable or compared. Open-ended questions on surveys seek opinions, preferences and new ideas that are definitely qualitative (e.g. “what else would you like to have our widget do?”). Data, on the other hand, is measureable and can be represented by numbers, charts and illustrations.

In the initial stages, Research outcomes often resemble a bag of colored confetti rather than useable information. Analysis to the rescue!

(3) Analysis

It all lies in the interpretation of the Facts and Data generated by your research. What’s relevant? What are the “red herrings” that can lead you astray? After your database is designed, built (a topic beyond the scope of this Tutorial) and populated, it’s time for slicing and dicing the data you’ve collected. Here’s a simplistic example.

Imagine a three-dimensional cube with data you’ve collected on prices and color preferences at multiple locations. Let’s say you’re most interested in price and color results. Slice out the “Location” data to analyze just the other two factors. If you want to analyze all three factors, but are interested only in certain values within those variables, dicing allows you to choose just Red and Blue out of all the product’s available colors, for Chicago and Tokyo out of all major cities around the world, and $5 or less and $20 or more out of the range of prices charged.

Numerous books have been written by IT experts on data analysis, so consider this Tutorial as “an-even-less-than-a-thumbnail” introduction. Check out our 7 Keys to Practical Information Analysis from our archives to shed a bit more light on the meaning behind the facts and data you’ve collected.

(4) Understanding

What has your slicing, dicing and other analyses revealed to you? How do you picture what the non-numerical qualitative data you’ve collected really represents? Are there important information gaps that need to be filled before you proceed with developing you action plan?

The objective of all these analyses is to be able to interpret the meaning behind those numbers and other information so that you can proceed to developing a successful plan of action.

(B) Developing Your Plans

Mapping your pathway to your goals becomes a lot more intuitive and a lot more likely to lead to success once you’ve defined your desired goals and built your foundation of relevant information.

(5) Experience

You’ve heard it said that job interviewers ask themselves: “Does this candidate have twenty years’ experience, or just one year’s experience twenty times?” The beauty of conducting (or reviewing the results of) a project’s Research and its Analysis is the Experience you gain from this and from prior observations and discoveries you’ve made that need not be related to the project at-hand. These accumulated experiences mingle with each other to create a deep reservoir of Practical Knowledge that you can tap into, especially if you build a record log for easy retrieval and review. Wisdom is the art (and science) of applying that Practical Knowledge.

(6) Wisdom

Those who exercise good judgment consistently are recognized for their Wisdom. Developing a sound strategy needs all the wisdom it can get.

(7) Strategy

Strategy is your high-level plan to reach your goals despite many unknowns (see Knowns and Unknowns graph above, section (1). Successful preparation for the unexpected is helped by a fair amount of luck along with a fair amount of Wisdom, which is derived from Experience. Segments of your Strategy will depend on your goals, for example: growth rate, profitability, as well as your honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses.

(8) Quality Decisions

Developing a strategy requires numerous Decisions, based on understanding the implications of selecting different options. Sometimes unexpected roadblocks pop up, prohibiting you from implementing your preferred decisions (Plan A). Anticipating such occurrences, you’ll be able to put plan B or C into action when Plan A becomes no longer viable.

(C) Reaching Your Goals

This is the fruition of all your previous activities: employing effective tactics to activate the strategy you’ve worked so hard to develop. Paying attention to details may be stating the obvious, so here’s another perspective: without “short term” (tactics) success, there won’t BE “long term” (strategy for reaching your goals) survival. BUT, you need both. Think of riding a two-wheeled bicycle. You steer the direction of the front wheel with the handlebars (strategy), while the rear wheel (tactics) balances and provides power via the pedal and gears to move in the direction you steer. Our upcoming Entrepreneurship book expands on this imagery. See the section on Writing.

(9) Tools

Have you ever noticed an auto mechanic’s toolbox, or a home repairer’s van? There’s a tool for every job: high tech, low tech and everything in between. The tools you select depends on the job (function), your industry, and the skills available to use those tools, either in-house or outsourced (see our Tutorial 7 Reasons for Using an Outside Resource).

(10) Increased Efficiency

Sometimes (certainly not always), simplest is best. If you’re already using a particular type of analytical software, for example, and it’s serving you well, there’s not much point in replacing it it’s a “sunk cost”) — unless your needs have changed, increased capabilities are available that provide valuable new insights or save you time by faster response. Regardless, you need to consider the cost of the tools (including installation and training) vs. the return on your investment in them (among other factors).

(11) Action

This is where attention to detail really pays off. All the “moving parts” of your action plan need to work together seamlessly or you’ll experience unnecessary frictional losses (just as important in a business/social context as it is for the extra fuel costs due to screeching railcar wheels).

(12) Goal Fulfillment

Just as in sports such as sailing, hang-gliding and skiing, course corrections are a vital part of achieving your goals. Unexpected events are inevitable in any worthy undertaking; they can knock you off course unless you’ve planned for them and have several options at the ready to put into place, as noted in section (8). Wishing you successful projects! Knowledge Branches:

  • Management. Functions: Business Intelligence; Strategy Development
  • Management. Sector: RELEVANT ACROSS SECTORS
  • Management. Soft Skills: Change Navigation; Communication