How closely do Activities correlate with Results? What factors might affect a correlation between the two?

todd herman web

The idea for this month's topic began with a training conversation I had with my newest staff member. While discussing how I approach Business Development, I began talking about the difference between activities and results. Thinking I had already written something explaining this, I searched our web site for relevant e-newsletters. While there were a number of "close" topics, none addressed these concepts quite the way I wanted. With this in mind ... I wrote this month’s e-newsletter.

To Get Results, Start With Activities ...

The goal of Business Development (BizDev) – the domain encompassing Networking, Marketing, and Selling – is to generate revenue. Revenue is the end Result of performing a variety of BizDev Activities.

In general, any Result is the outcome of performing certain Activities. And the converse is true – doing certain Activities yields certain Results. Graphically, this could be depicted as:


This diagram, however, is too simple for most real-world cases. Why? Because it implies that the desired Result will always occur if you perform the specified Activities – that is, there's a 100% correlation between Activities (cause) and Result (effect). Perfect causality is rare, at least when people are involved.

... And Add Some Variability ...

A better depiction of Activities and Results might be:

Activity A

In this example, a person performed Activity A at a low level of skill, yet achieved Result A, which is typically associated with a middle level of skill. A perfect example is me hitting a golf ball. Even though I'm not much of a golfer, I can still hit a few good balls on the driving range, because everything required for a good shot can occasionally come together for me while hitting a bucket of balls. In other words, I got lucky.

That's the purpose of the black box in the diagram – to indicate that some variation can occur affecting the relation between Activity and Result. Just as I can occasionally hit a nice ball, so can a PGA player occasionally muff a shot.

Activity B

Thus, there's always some element of chance affecting your results. To illustrate, let's consider three sets of two common examples.

Example Set A – Low Variability

These first examples illustrate low variation between activities and results.

Hitting the gym to build muscle is an activity with fairly straightforward results, yet there are variables affecting how quickly you obtain these – how frequently you strength train, how much you push yourself when you do, and how well you keep good posture while training are all factors affecting how quickly you build muscle.

If you’re a regular gym-goer like me, you’ll be at the gym (or do some sort of exercise) 5 times per week, likely strength training 3 times and cardio training 2 times, including abdominals work each exercise session. The desired end goal – a generally fit and toned body. Overall, there’s low variability between activities and results, as long as you stick to your routine.

A competitive body builder takes things to an entirely different level. He or she plans exercises by muscle group for each day, then tracks – and likely charts – the amount of weight and number of repetitions achieved. Multiple body measurements are taken daily, as are visual assessments of physique and muscle definition. Meals and snacks are highly structured, and calories, fat grams, and protein grams consumed are all recorded. This person’s goal is to control virtually every factor affecting the body, so that variability – already low for someone exercising routinely – becomes virtually non-existent.

Example Set B – Medium Variability

As examples with some variability, consider two different types of writing.

In business, you may have to write a proposal for a prospective customer. You have all the information you need, and your job is to put it together in a way that is accurate, yet interesting to read – making a logical case for your product or service, yet also appealing to the prospect's emotions. While creativity is needed to do this, there are generally other proposals you can mine for ideas.

Contrast these proposal-writing activities to writing a newsletter article. The key thing needed with a newsletter is not information – it's insight. I get nervous when I don't have an idea for my monthly e-newsletter, so I might rummage through my idea bins or brainstorm ideas with one of my associates. Eventually, I will have that "ah-ha!" moment and identify the key idea or concept. After that, it's generally off to the races, because I have decades of experience, four overflowing bookcases, and a knack for Google searches to help me take it to the finish line.

Example Set C – High Variability

Finally, consider the area spawning the idea for this newsletter – business development.

Let's compare and contrast two sales reps – one selling newspaper ads, and a second selling bespoke professional services.

Assume each sales rep has a qualified prospect. The rep selling ads typically has a prospect knowing what she wants and needs, what she's going to get, and what she's willing and able to pay. This is a relatively straightforward sell, with a short decision cycle.

Selling highly-customized solutions is much harder for the other rep. Her prospect may have – at best – a vague idea of what he wants and needs, have no sense of what the solution looks like, and have little idea of what an appropriate solution might cost. In short, this is a complex sale requiring the rep to educate the prospect, ask probing questions to uncover the real issue, be creative in devising a proposed solution, and demonstrate patience in explaining how the solution will address the issue. Such sales typically have a long decision cycle with a highly uncertain outcome.

Lessons From These Examples

What lessons can we draw from these examples? Here are a few I readily saw:

  1. Results Can Only Be Achieved By Performing Activities – While we always want results, we also have to devise and carry out appropriate activities to achieve these results. Wishing, hoping, thinking, talking don’t equate with action.
  2. Activities and Results Are Correlated – There is a correlation between, say, studying and grades – generally, the more you study, the better your grades.
  3. There Is Always Some Variability In Correlation Between Activities and Results – Even if you study well, you can still bomb a relatively easy problem, yet ace a hard problem – as happened to me in my first test in Advanced Accounting. While I completely blew the first of only two problems on the test, I got the second problem, which was actually from the NEXT chapter, completely right! (Professor Hylton was tricky. He wanted to see how well we could handle a problem with concepts he'd not yet taught!)
  4. Quality and Quantity of Activities Affect Results – Merely logging more hours studying does not necessary translate into better grades. If you just read and re-read the material, without reinforcing the concepts by working more problems and taking practice tests, you'll likely improve your grade only marginally.
  5. As the Number of People Required to Perform an Activity Increases, Variability Also Increases, and Perhaps More Than Linearly – When it's just you, you've got 100% control of the situation. Introducing a second person complicates things slightly, while having a third person complicates it even more. Going from one to three persons will complicate a project significantly, because it’s much harder to coordinate multiple persons and tasks to marshal the desired result. In such a case, variability may increase only slightly if all three persons work well together, yet it may increase five times – which is greater than a straight line increase in the number of persons – given different personalities and required proficiencies.
  6. Outputs of Activities That Are Intangible, Expensive, Hard to Understand, or Difficult to Explain Increase Variability of Results, and Perhaps More Than Linearly – This is related to the prior item. Any of these factors complicates coordinating people and tasks to achieve desired outcomes.
  7. As Variability Increases, Your Ability to Control Activities and Influence Results Decreases – As the number of people increases (Item 5), compounded by any complicating factors for the outputs (Item 6), results become harder to achieve. You can only CONTROL activities you perform and only INFLUENCE other people as they perform their activities. This is why, for example, a musician can both play in and lead a jazz trio, while a symphonic band needs a dedicated conductor.
  8. The Only Thing You Can Control is YOU – You are the one thing you can control. You cannot control anything or anyone else – you can merely exert influence over them. Thus, the more you simplify, streamline, delegate, automate, and otherwise improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your activities, the more you can reduce – yet never eliminate – variability in your results.

While I initially knew some of these lessons, thinking through the examples provided me with deeper insights about activities and results, and factors relating the two. It also helped me clarify my thinking to better explain activities and results to my new staff member. This helped her better understand why she and I need to do a large number of mundane activities, to lead to a small number of interesting activities and to thereby enhance the likelihood we would achieve our desired results.

Other Lessons?

What are your own examples or stories of activities versus results? What other lessons do you see in the examples I’ve shared? Please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.



Todd L. Herman