The only common feature of organisations, like individuals, is that they are all different. Company culture, organisational structure, policies, procedures and peculiarities always vary.

Business gurus and successful entrepreneurs naturally want to tell their own story, and explain how they became so successful. Often this fits into a nicely packaged narrative, with some sort of childhood spark, adolescent failure or life-changing experience. Some of these are well thought out with constructive advice, while many other autobiographies are self-satisfied gloating about the author’s own ability to overcome all challenges through sheer charm, ability and force of will. Sign up to their workshop and learn the secrets of [their] success pour out from behind too many luminous white teeth.

Case studies, biographies and “real-world examples” often become best-sellers when they combine the right amount of interesting narrative, entertaining stories along with a few simple messages. Often these are uplifting and inspirational stories which conclude that you, too, can be very successful if you do this one thing (three strategies, five disciplines, seven habits - self help always comes in odd numbers).

But why put so much stake in individual stories? How many conclusions can be drawn from one person’s experience? Should case studies be treated as evidence or editorial?

Well-written stories can be engaging, interesting and use real and relatable examples. Almost anyone can understand or relate to difficult circumstances, problematic relationships and personal tragedy. Decisions and realisations from certain life experiences are immensely relatable. The death of a family member sparks a new drive to succeed; the end of a relationship forces a new way of thinking; losing a job suddenly imbues entrepreneurial spirit.

Case studies are at their best when used to illustrate a particular type of evidence. We know that hard work pays off, but it has to be the right kind of hard work. A case study can describe how, why and when a particular type of hard work led to success.

But stories, allegories and fables from business should not be confused with other types of evidence. They tend to reveal more about that individual story than any substantial insight into life, success and achievement. Ariana Huffinton’s tersely titled “The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder” (remember, success always comes in odd numbers) describes a broken cheekbone sparking a realisation and subsequent transformation. It would be unwise to recommend that course of action to others.

Case studies, just like all allegories, are open to interpretation, and will be interpreted through multiple lenses. First, the author adds their own slant, through which the reader can interpret the information. In any single story there are limitless interpretations. More notable characters and achievements tend to spawn ever-expanding numbers of biographies, all with different interpretations.

Consider the following three categories when judging any particular case history.

  1. Interesting. How enjoyable is it to read? If the story is told well, the writing is good and the content engaging a story can certainly be judged by its’ telling. But on this basis alone, the story may be no more or less useful than fiction. And indeed, one may be better off reading Mary Shelley, Dostoyevsky or Marin Amis to gain insight into human behaviour.
  2. Reliable. Are the contents believable and accurate? Or is it a self-serving, ego driven narrative to create an image of success or a tautological argument, defining success in order to make one’s own approach appear successful. Unreliable accounts can certainly fit the first category, but are excluded from the third.
  3. Valid. Do the conclusions fit with the scientific evidence? If it is a story, filled with personal accounts and opinions, it is never really possible to say whether or not those experiences, actions and attributes will have the same effect for anyone else. If the stories are used to illustrate concepts that have been well researched and validated, case studies may indeed be a valid way of telling the real story.

Psychology is extraordinarily complex, as are most people. Many individuals and businesses have their own highly publicised “secrets” to success, but if there really was one (perhaps three or seven) secret(s) to success, or one path to greatness there would only be one good book on the topic.