houston voices

Houston expert: Know when to trust your intuition — and when to think outside the box

Why relying on intuition can backfire when it comes to crafting a successful business strategy. Photo via Getty Images

When a fast-casual restaurant chain started to see stagnating sales, the company’s CEO came up with a solution: adding new, higher-quality menu items.

To validate his thinking, he informally interviewed a few dozen diners at different locations, asking them how they would feel about more and higher-quality menu items. After getting enthusiastic responses from several customers, he went ahead with his plan. Sales fell further.

So what went wrong? Systematic surveys showed that what created the most value for customers was a fast dining experience with a short wait time, a simple menu with a few items, ample parking and a bill under $12 per meal. Higher quality and an expanded menu did not correlate at all with customer value. Where the company’s CEO went wrong was by relying on salience instead of importance.

Salience refers to factors that are top-of-mind and easy to recall, which become prominent and are then incorrectly prioritized. A classic example is a 1979 study that surveyed people about their perceived risk of dying from causes like drowning, murder or cancer. The study’s authors found that people thought they were more likely to die from causes that were mentioned more often in their local news, such as murder, when in fact they were at much greater risk of dying from common but less prominent causes such as cancer.

The CEO made food quality and expanded offerings salient to himself by talking about them to a small group of customers. It was an easy way for him to feel good about his efforts. But, like many executives, he relied on salience.

Salience is easy and convenient, but it’s also the curse of decision-making. It simply reinforces executives’ prior beliefs rather than diagnosing the true cause-and-effect relationship. Imagine if a doctor saw a patient with stomach pain and recommended an appendectomy because a patient she’d seen the day before needed one. Or if the doctor asked the patient to recommend the treatment himself. Patient outcomes would likely falter and the doctor would go out of business (and perhaps lose her medical license).

Thankfully, doctors don’t operate this way. They rely on the statistically measurable relationship between critical inputs and outputs for decision-making. So should senior executives and CEOs.

Informal customer conversations draw primarily on gut feelings, hunches and top-of-mind ideas, and as such, aren’t reliable indicators of true customer value. Like all of us, customers often tailor their responses to the audience they’re addressing. So a company’s vice president of service might speak with a customer who says they love the service, while the same customer might tell an HR executive they love the employees and then go on to tell the VP of sales that they would like lower prices. These on-the-spot responses typically have no significant impact on or statistical correlation with customer value, which ultimately drives sales and profits.

To craft a successful strategy, executives need to use a systematic, statistical process that starts with choosing a clear outcome or output, such as customer value or employee retention. The next step is to measure inputs that drive that output, and then quantitatively correlate each input to the output. Only those inputs that drive the desired output should be included in the company’s strategy.

Take, for example, a nursing home that attempted to craft a strategy for decreasing employee turnover. Relying on casual conversations with a few dozen employees, executives assumed higher pay would increase retention. They were wrong.

When they statistically correlated multiple inputs — higher pay, health benefits, supervisor respect, promotion opportunities and paid vacation — with retention, they realized their intuitive leaps had been incorrect. Only health insurance and promotions were correlated with increased employee retention. Higher pay had no effect.

Committing to this type of systematic review to drive strategy requires humility on the part of senior executives. The nursing home executives were able to look past their own assumptions and learn from this type of statistical analysis, recognizing the limits of salience-driven thinking and deferring to algorithms that could better predict the inputs of turnover than they could.

Doctors understand this as well. To treat their patients, they rely on data from groups like the Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes of Health, which run clinical trials and rely on data, statistics and an infrastructure of knowledge.

Unfortunately, many senior executives lack humility when it comes to strategic planning. They equate decades of salience-laden thinking with a deep understanding of correlations between inputs and strategic outputs. They might think, “I’ve been in this industry long enough to know what works,” or “Since this worked then, it will work now as well.” But more often than not, relying on salience-laden intuition alone will not achieve the desired outcome.

“Focus: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth” lays out specific steps for senior and mid-level executives who want to follow systematic, statistical processes to drive their company’s strategy.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Vikas Mittal, J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business and author of “Focus: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth.”

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Building Houston

 
 

Folks are making a run to Missouri City. Photo Courtesy Missouri City

More movers hauled their belongings to Texas than any other state last year. And those headed to the Greater Houston area were mostly pointed toward Missouri City and Conroe, according to a new study.

In its recently released annual growth report, U-Haul ranks Missouri City and Conroe at No. 13 and No. 19, respectively among U.S. cities with the most inbound moves via U-Haul trucks in 2022. Richardson was the only other Texas cities to make the list coming in at No. 15.

Texas ranks No. 1 overall as the state with the most in-bound moves using U-Haul trucks. This is the second year in a row and the fifth year since 2016 that Texas has earned the distinction.

“The 2022 trends in migration followed very similar patterns to 2021 with Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and the Southwest continuing to see solid growth,” U-Haul international president John Taylor says in a news release. “We still have areas with strong demand for one-way rentals. While overall migration in 2021 was record-breaking, we continue to experience significant customer demand to move out of some geographic areas to destinations at the top of our growth list.”

U-Haul determines the top 25 cities by analyzing more than 2 million one-way U-Haul transactions over the calendar year. Then the company calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering a specific area versus departing from that area. The top U-Haul growth states are determined the same way.

The studies note that U-Haul migration trends do not directly correlate to population or economic growth — but they are an “effective gauge” of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents.

Missouri City is known for its convenient location only minutes from downtown Houston. The city’s proximity to major freeways, rail lines, the Port of Houston, and Bush and Hobby Airports links its businesses with customers “around the nation and the world,” per its website.

The No. 19-ranked city of Conroe is “the perfect blend of starry nights and city lights,” according to the Visit Conroe website. Conroe offers plenty of outdoor activities, as it is bordered by Lake Conroe, Sam Houston National Forest and W. Goodrich Jones State Forest. But it also has a busy downtown area with breweries, theaters, shopping and live music.

To view U-Haul’s full growth cities report, click here.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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