After months on the edge of their seats, members of the physics world celebrated last week as the discovery of the Higgs particle (or Higgs boson) was announced. More than 50 years after it was first predicted, a finding like the Higgs particle is a rare occurrence with the power to transform our understanding of how the world works.*
I find this fascinating not only as a former student of physics, but also as a marketer. If you’re scratching your head wondering, “Why?” here’s the answer:
The process of discovering the Higgs is not one of analyzing direct evidence or simple cause and effect.
To find the elusive Higgs particle, physicists had to explore what wasn’t there.
By analyzing at the results of experiments conducted at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, scientists were able to explore the effects of the Higgs boson without actually seeing the particle. After smashing sub-atomic particles in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to create even smaller particles, researchers looked for markers that signaled the recent presence of the Higgs, although the Higgs particle itself would have already decayed.
In business, we must follow a similar approach to truly understand the impact of our decisions on customers. It’s not enough to assume we can fully understand a problem through basic observation. To see clearly requires looking at a bigger picture, observing the ripple effects and working backwards to the real cause.
Here’s an example:
Suppose your business is losing customers, and you don’t know why. It’s easy to assume that customer attrition is the problem to be addressed. It’s not. Attrition is merely a symptom of a problem that has yet to be discovered.
If you did deeper to look at the environment in which those customers are leaving, you may discover a number of factors that lead to their defection. Perhaps a competitor is offering a new and superior product. Maybe you recently changed a policy and created an unintended negative impact on customers. Or your customer service is not living up to standards.
Whatever the real cause of the problem, you won’t find it by simply exploring the obvious. What’s obvious is that you have a problem, the origin of that problem is rarely so apparent. With any business challenge, from pricing pressure to compression of market share, there’s usually a deeper reason than what you see at first glance.
While some would argue that by the time symptoms appear, it’s too late to do anything about them, I disagree. People that fall in to that trap are the ones who focus on patching up the superficial, without addressing the underlying issues. That won’t fix your problems any more than painting a house with a bad foundation will make it more stable. It may look nice, but it certainly won’t survive when the earth moves.
To keep you business in good health, keep asking “Why?” until you get to the bottom of things. Why are customers leaving? Why don’t they like our new product? Why are sales down? Why is the new sales rep beating the pants off the old one? Why did that policy fail?
Keep digging like the scientists searching for the Higgs boson. They achieved their goal with a certainty of five sigma, concluding, “It can’t possible be anything else!”
Do the same, and when you run out of whys you’ll be on the cusp of the real answer. Then (only then) will you be in a position to answer “How” will we fix it?
*The Higgs particle is important because it helps unlock the mystery of why some particles have mass when others don’t.