Where Else Is This Working? Reframing the “Guaranteed Success” Problem

by | Dec 6, 2021

Business is risky. There is no way around it. You need to try new things to advance and yet you also somehow want a “guaranteed success.” Thus two major impulses are constantly in conflict: wanting to innovate and at the same time wanting the reassurance that what you are contemplating has been tried before. This is the paradox of success and safety.

How do you convince your stakeholders, and yourself, that the risks of the new venture are worthwhile?

The most attractive proof, of course, is an example of somewhere else the idea has worked well. This provides tangible evidence that this new opportunity will give you all-but-guaranteed success. But this is a false promise based on a faulty expectation. The answer is to reframe the problem.

If You Acted On This Definition

Based on the desire for a “guaranteed success” you would research examples of where what you propose is working. You would look for organizations in the same business as your client. You might arrange site visits, references, and a feasibility study.

Reframing “Guaranteed Success”

“Where else is it working?” seems like it’s a valid and compelling inquiry. Who would argue against learning from others? The problem is that the question perpetuates the belief that others know and we don’t. This does not mean that we cannot learn from others. It is just that asking “how” is a poor method of learning.

We learn by bearing witness to how others live their lives. We learn from the questions others have the courage to ask. We are more likely to be transformed from dialogue about what is real and what is illusion.

These conversations are qualitatively different from seeking methods and answers.

“Where else has this worked?” is a reasonable question, within limits. It is dangerous when it becomes an unspoken statement: If this has not worked well elsewhere, perhaps we should not do it.

The wish to attempt only what has been proven creates a life of imitation. We may declare we want to be leaders, but we want to be leaders without taking the risk of invention. The question can lead us down a spiraling trap: If what is being recommended or contemplated is, in fact, working elsewhere, then the next question is whether someone else’s experience is relevant to our situation—which, upon closer scrutiny, it is not.

The value of another’s experience is to give us hope, not to tell us how or whether to proceed.

While it is prudent to try to mitigate risk and do your homework, guaranteed success does not truly exist. Even if it is working somewhere else, there is no assurance that it will work here. Every new idea has to be customized locally. Although it is tempting, you risk making a false promise if you support the idea that a change can be imported with little risk into your client’s workplace. Although there may be much overlap in some details, there are always hidden factors that may have allowed success in one setting, but which would prevent it in another.

The Root: Doubt and Anxiety

So what can be done? The role of the consultant, in this case, is to help the client understand that behind their question of where it is working are doubt and anxiety. They have a wish for a guarantee that this “risky thing” will be successful. It would be strange if this were not present. Yet as a consultant, working in partnership, you cannot make this promise, because so much depends on the energy and investment of the client. Part of the work, therefore, is to help the client see that while wanting reassurance is natural, the expectation of a guarantee is driven by fear and is not realistic.

On the other side of the table, consultants can also face the tension between selling and consulting. You are really doing both but lean toward the consulting. Selling means your goal is to make the sale; consulting means the goal is to help the client make a good decision. Because there is tension here, beware of any tendency to “oversell” a course of action, especially one that you have successfully pursued before. This inadvertently reinforces the false hope for “guaranteed success.”

Clients will make a better decision if they understand all that is required to make a change, especially at the local level. The field of consulting carries the shame of promising too much too soon. The search for what is working elsewhere might be useful, but can’t be a substitute for a willingness to try something new, with little more than your own faith as proof you are making a good decision.

To act in this new frame:

  1. Don’t assume that success elsewhere guarantees success here.
  2. Help the client and yourself by recognizing the place of doubt and anxiety in any new venture.
  3. Bring as much local knowledge to bear as possible. The more the idea is locally customized, the better chance it will succeed.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 401]

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