Have you ever read a Sherlock Holmes mystery?  It starts with a case presented to Sherlock and Dr. Watson with quirky circumstances and odd details.  As you read things become even less clear with increasingly bizarre events and nonsensical information.  At the end though, the great detective explains all with brilliant deductive reasoning that puts each element into its place in a logical series of events.

New endeavors have a lot in common with Sherlock’s cases.

You start out with a plan, an idea of what will work, but when you execute that idea it doesn’t work like you thought it would.  Your mental model of the world and your project within it are inaccurate.

At this juncture, you question why things aren’t working? And as you take stock you realize that nothing makes much sense.

What you know is far surpassed by what you don’t know.  There is a sea of information, a foggy Victorian London teeming with possibilities, but no clear answers.

You have a couple guesses about why your endeavor isn’t working.   You try each guess about why things aren’t working.

Sometimes, you’re close enough to guess your way to cracking the case.  But more often, you end up stuck.   And stuck is where most people file their project away as “unsolved.”   Usually, people assign a verdict to the outcome- “Diets don’t work” or “People won’t pay money for x product.”

I’ve done this many times.  You probably have too.

The Chain

What I’ve realized through experience is that this method is lacking.  We need to be more like Sherlock and take a more rational approach.

The detective relies upon deductive reasoning to follow the chain of events backwards from the event to the crime.

In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards.

This won’t work for you because you’re building forwards towards a goal without a functioning chain of events in place yet.

But in both situations their is a causal chain.

Cause > Effect > Cause > Effect

This is like a row of dominoes where each falling domino is dependent upon the previous.

The chain is your key to making progress.

Analyzing The Chain

Your project started off as a mental model of how the world worked.  It functioned based upon a hypothetical chain of events.

Step 1: Map Out the High Level Links

The first step to make progress is to map out your assumptions in the causal chain.

As an example, let’s talk about a project that I wrote about on this blog- A Productized Service Story.

My mental model in building that service product was that I would use SEO  to build traffic and turn that traffic into a paid service to recover hacked websites at $1,500 a pop.

It didn’t work.

Here’s how the chain links looked at a  high level:

  1. Get traffic.
  2. Present that traffic an offer.
  3. Convert those people into sales at $1,500.

This is what was occurring:

  1. Get the traffic.  I got the traffic.  We had the numbers I thought we would.
  2. Present that traffic an offer.  When I looked at our Analytics I realized enough people weren’t looking at the sales page.
  3. Convert those people into sales at $1,500.  We did this several times when we got a lead. 

Step 2: Narrow In and Isolate the Broken Links

After you’ve mapped out the chain, you should be able to see the high level broken links where you need to focus your work.

Once I could see the causal chain, it was easy to identify that Step 2, “Present the traffic an offer,” was where the broken link was.

In considering that step, these were the chain links at a more granular level:

  1. People land on our content guide about how to recover a hacked website through SEO.
  2. We make them a short offer in a sidebar asking them to visit a sales page.
  3. They visit the sales page.
  4. They click on the call to action.

In this chain, they weren’t making the transition from the content guide to the sales page between link 2 and 3.

Step 3: Form Hypothesis About Broken Links & Test

Once you can see where the issues are, then you gather data and form hypothesis about why the issue is there.

I tried a couple different things:

  • Making the sidebar offer glaringly obvious.  Hypothesis:  Maybe people weren’t noticing the offer in the sidebar. 
  • Using a lead magnet offer in the sidebar for more content on recovering hacked sites to initiate an email sales sequence.  Hypothesis: Maybe people weren’t ready to buy in the moment, but would buy if we could follow up with them over email.

Neither worked.

In this example, I ultimately wrote the project off as “unsolved.”

My verdict was that web developers were reading my content guide, not website owners, and they weren’t interested in any offer to hire work out to us because that would be stealing projects from them.

In assessing the data and trying things I determined that the people who read the content guide, do-it-yourselfers, weren’t interested in a “done for you” service.

Broken Models & Other Chains

In the example, I came to a dead end.

My model was fundamentally flawed.  This happens often.  Most things don’t work- at least not initially.

In the startup world, this is where you “pivot” and alter the model.

I walked away from the project because it failed to meet my time limited success criteria.  But I’ve often wondered if that was a mistake.

Consider that I had identified two working links:

1. I could develop traffic for the topic.

3. I could sell recoveries at $1,500.

These were essentially assets.  Critical bits of know how and intelligence that I didn’t have at the start.  This sort of intelligence is expensive to develop and I threw it away.

What other chains could these have been links in?

For the first link, getting traffic, developers were reading my content.  Might they have bought tools to help them fix their client sites?  An educational course?  What about affiliate ads (I actually did run these and made some beer money.)

For the third link, making sales, what chain of events could I reliably create leads around?  The content guide wasn’t it.  But I probably could have created PPC ads in a larger market for high dollar recovery services.

Bring Your Model in Line With What’s Possible

Again, most things don’t work in their initial conception.

In new endeavors, it pays to be sensitive to how the world is, to feel out through testing what works.

Sherlock often admonishes Watson:

“Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”

Sherlock reasons backwards by ruling out the impossible.

It’s your job in building forwards to identify the causal chains that do work and navigate the narrow path between all those impossibilities.