What happened, how it happened, why it happened

As business owners, we can quickly forget about the good things that happen, and how they happened. The danger is in forgetting what made you successful in the short-term, which denies you the opportunity to notice patterns that will create success long-term.

As business owners, we can quickly forget about the good things that happen, and how they happened. We’re so excited about the new project, the new sale, the new customer, that we forget to consider how we got here. Or maybe we’re too worried about the future and too focused on tomorrow that we neglect to note victories, major or minor.

That’s a problem, because business owners must be pattern-seekers. To create sustainable profits through marketing, you need to be serving your highest value customers and lowering your marginal costs on each sale. If every new sale or customer requires a completely customized process or marketing technique, it will be difficult to create the systems that allow for profit in your business.

The danger is in forgetting what made you successful in the short-term, which denies you the opportunity to notice patterns that will create success long-term.

So how do you notice the patterns? In my business, we have a system we use every time something good happens, like getting a great referral or testimonial, or signing a new contract. Whatever it is, we try to take note of it.

My business partner and I pause and then recognize out-loud that something good has happened. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s uncle used to do, we say something to the effect of, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Next, we pull out our box of index cards and write out three new cards. One says “What Happened,” the next, “How it Happened,” and finally, “Why it Happened.”

What Happened:
On this card, we write down the event or incident we’re recognizing. In this case, let’s say it’s a signed contract with a new client. So we write that down, some detail about the client or project, and any important notes about the process. This card is all about recording the moment of excitement and success.

How it Happened:
Here we write down what we actually did to help make the sale. Was our proposal short and to-the-point? Did we have follow-up conversations to get to know the client better? Did they come to us based on a great referral or marketing tactic? Did we provide interesting case studies? This card is all about the actions we took to create the success.

Why it Happened:
Finally, we write down a repeatable principle we can derive from how it happened. If we made a connection because we were conversational and not pitchy, we might record, “No pitching.” If the client came to us, and knew exactly how to best work with us, we might write, “Clear marketing position.” The purpose of this card is to capture the principles that led us to take the above actions.

The process of writing these down accomplishes a few things. First, it’s a reminder that you’re on the right track, and that you know what you’re doing. Celebrating every win is a necessary component to maintain the motivation to keep moving forward and improving.

It also helps you keep a record of your successes that you can look back on in darker days to remind yourself you’ve done it before, and you can do it again.

But most importantly, it helps you craft what we’ll call—to borrow some language from Exponent—our principle stack. Basically, a set of ranked principles that guide the decisions you make in your business. Vitally, these aren’t abstract ideals or concepts you’ve merely pondered—these are the principles behind your successful actions. Repeating them will be part of your secret to long-term success.

After doing this a few times, you’ll literally have a stack of cards that form the principles for your business that have been the key to your accomplishments so far. Arrange them in order of your priorities based on your personal values and you’ve got your company’s principle stack.

Now, when you have a decision to make, or you’re wondering if you’re pursuing the right client, or you’re thinking about making a change in your business, you can refer to your principle stack. Is what you’re thinking about aligned with what’s made you successful? Is it aligned with your personal values? Have you seen similar success before?

For us, when given the opportunity to have an informal conversation rather than pitch ourselves, we chat, based on our principles. If we’re wondering if we should take on work that’s outside of our core services, we pass, because it’s more advantageous to have a clear market position.

I see so many business owners struggle to make even minor decisions when they don’t have clear numbers to base their decision on. Should I pursue this work? Should I make this purchase? Should I follow-up or wait a little longer? In the absence of data, we can lose our confidence. Your principle stack are your data. Base your decisions on them.

I recommend asking Siri or Google Assistant to remind you every two or three months to review your principle stack. Keep it fresh in your mind, and add to it as often as possible. And, over time, if you notice you’re making more and more decisions in violation of a particular principle (perhaps something like, “we only work with this one type of business”), you might decide that principle is no longer useful—take it out of the stack.

If you’re wondering if this can be done in reverse, absolutely. If you screw something up, write down what happened, how it happened, and the principle you could have enforced that would have avoided it. This has the calming effect of helping you derive meaningful lessons from errors, which smooths the edges and makes them less harmful to your confidence.

But, most importantly, pay attention to your successes. Record what happened, and what you did to make it happen. And look for repeatable patterns that can form principles.

And then refer back to your principle stack every time you need to make a decision.

And remember to say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”