I wrote in a recent post “Why Thought Leadership Is Harder than You Think” how original insights are almost always derived from primary research. In particular, I explained that if you plan to underpin your post, article or white paper with secondary research, you will encounter several significant difficulties.
I was reminded of this today when I read a post which derives a universal management truth from an already well-aired example – unconvincingly, I thought. I don’t need to point to that particular one (which wasn't about Apple), but it made me wonder what I would find if I looked for management truths derived from the story of Apple Inc.
Here’s a small selection of the reasons for Apple’s success – from which the rest of us can all apparently learn – in blog posts and articles on the website of the Harvard Business Review.
- Creating mystique
- Disrupting markets
- Crowd-sourcing hype
- Overcoming legacy thinking
- Pursuing customer perception
- Reinventing the business model
If all these are reasons for Apple’s success (and there are many more on this site alone), the total universe of Apple’s possible secrets to success must be near limitless. If the Apple story can validate almost any management idea, what is going on? (Scratting, by the way, is the process of grinding apples into cider.)
These examples contend that Apple followed approach A, the company was successful (outcome B), and therefore A is the key to success. To assume that because B comes after A, A caused B is known by logicians as the post hoc fallacy. That does not mean that any of these examples are wrong, in fact I expect that there is some truth in all of them. But by this standard, if Apple had outsourced landscaping, someone in the landscaping business can claim that to have been a critical component of Apple's strategy and one that other companies should obviously follow. (I will no longer be surprised if someone already has.)
This is a workaround to one of the two major problems of secondary research which I pointed to in that post, that “it’s almost impossible to say anything new on the basis of things that have already been published; whatever new angle you are pursuing will not have been covered by the original authors, and if you aren’t talking live with a protagonist, you can’t explore the angle you are interested in.” It’s a workaround because these posts do generally say something new. However, they don’t all have unassailable logic; they can’t, because they can’t all have identified the prime reason for Apple’s success. And since this approach validates almost anything Apple has ever done, there is no way to tell whether any particular one is important or incidental.
So perhaps I should have said that it’s almost impossible to say anything new and credible to a discerning reader (e.g. one with significant budget authority), on the basis of secondary research. And even if it is, these examples don’t circumvent the second challenge, which is that readers’ eyes may glaze over when they see yet another pundit (or scratter) grinding Apple into blog juice.