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Pester or Persistence – the business development dilemma

June 6th, 2014

Pester vs persistence

A big challenge for sales people today is increasing length of sales cycles, the global recession had the effect of making decision makers highly cautious, risk averse and hence slow to make decisions This phenomenon has only highlighted the sales persons of dilemma, how often do you contact prospects, what is laudable persistence vs what is pure pestering.  In developing new business and successfully moving deals through the funnel recent research shows that persistence pays !

Follow up post contact

  • 48% of sales people never follow-up with a prospect
 after the first contact
  • 25% of sales people make a second contact and stop
  • 12% of sales people make a third contact and stop
  • Only 10% of sales people make more than three contacts

When the sale is actually made

  • 2% of sales are made on the first contact
  • 3% of sales are made on the second contact
  • 5% of sales are made on the third contact
  • 10% of sales are made on the fourth contact
  • 80% of sales are made on the fifth to twelfth contact


That having been said,  you have to add value, contact for contacts sake is counter productive, it looks like pestering rather than persistence ..

You need to have a series of communications that offer the customers value, insight or challenge even to keep building your credibility with the contact throughout the process.

What’s your messaging or communication strategy to be able to be positively persistent throughout your sales cycles?

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Sales and Marketing 2.0 – Upgrade to improve your commercial effectiveness!

March 2nd, 2014

5 mega trends effecting sales and marketing that you need to respond to.

Shift happens, changes happens, whatever it was that got you where you are today is not enough to keep you there. Commercial history is littered with brands from all industries from technology to retail to banking that are no longer in business because they got greedy, complacent or both.

Everything needs upgrading and how you approach the commercial aspect of your business, particularly the sales and marketing is no different; you need to upgrade from sales 1.0 to 2.0, but what does that mean?

We can identify 5 key trends that we need to address:

  • Broad or narrow?
    There been a change of focus from broad to niche, Jack of all trades to specialist…
  • Art or  Science?
    Is sales and marketing about art or science? I’m going to suggest it needs to change from art to science.
  • Direct or Channel?
    Do you do business directly or via a channel? 70% of businesses use channels but should you be looking to operate more directly?
  • Giving information or adding value?
    Sales and marketing is about informing customers and consumers isn’t it? Or is it? Should it move away from just information transfer?
  • Big or Fast?
    Is the key to success scale? Is big beautiful? Or is speed now more important?

Point 1 – broad or narrow offering?

Let’s look at the first question … Who are your customers? Are you trying to be all things to all men?

How do you stand out?

When competition is tough, how do you defend and grow your business? We know that one size doesn’t fit all … if we want coffee… we don’t just want coffee, we want a vanilla spiced latte or a cappuccino. If we want a PC we want to specify the RAM, ROM, mother board, graphics chip and lots of other things that I don’t even know what they are!!   We don’t expect to go into any fashion retailer and find the same clothes from one month to the next.  We expect things that are tailored – that are always changing and new and we have high expectations of the functionality of whatever we buy.

We have so much choice we can afford to be picky …. So it is with business …. How do you stand out? Not sure? If you’re a business, try looking at the hedgehog concept, developed by Jim Collins (in his book “Good To Great”).  A hedgehog might not know as much as a fox, and might not be as cunning, but it knows one thing very well… how to roll up into a ball and survive. The moral of this story being – know what you’re good at and be outstanding at it.

Ask yourself these 3 questions:

What are we deeply passionate about?

What can we be best at?

And the critical one – how can I measure it?

It is really important to find your niche. What can you be truly expect and specialist in?

If you’re a sales person, know what your organisation really stands for, what value you can truly bring to your customers. To do that requires focus and expertise, not breadth /  jack of all trades

 Point 2………to follow!

Posted in customer centricity, Sales, Uncategorized | No Comments »

CRM doesn’t work ! How can a $12b industry provide a product that doesn’t deliver? Why doesn’t it and what can be done?

December 13th, 2013


Who are the best sales people in the world? I think it must be CRM sales people. Why? Because the CRM industry did not exist 10 years ago, now it’s a $12b industry and yet, let’s be really honest here, it doesn’t work. Research suggests that 90% of businesses using CRM do not feel that they get significant value from their investment. And let’s also face it, how many of us as sales people honestly feel it’s of value to us? And yet it sells and keeps selling.

In many organisations it’s the truth that dare not speak its name; it’s like the fairy story of the Emperor’s new clothes. We have this system, we paid £X million to get it and £Y million annual fees to keep it, it doesn’t really work but we’ve invested all this resource in it so we can’t really admit it doesn’t work, so we’ll just go along with the polite fiction that it does work, that Emperor does actually have a fabulous suit of new clothes and we’ll just hope that nobody is impolite enough to point out the fact the emperor is in fact naked!

But if we are brave enough to face the facts, what is the real story? Why is CRM so pervasive if it doesn’t really deliver value, what is the promise we’ve been sold that we’re missing? And why doesn’t it deliver value?  Crucially, what could and should we, in sales be doing about it?

CRM is a child of our time; we’ve become accustomed to thinking that if we have an issue there must be a piece of software or an app that will fix it for us. Heaven knows there are many amazing pieces of software out there who’s functionality is simply astounding, the reason they are not fully utilised is user error and this is certainly true of CRM.

CRM is designed to help commercial operations within businesses function more effectively and efficiently. Its designed to provide us with data and critically not just data but insight from that data that will help us make better business decisions like which customers to focus on, where to prioritise our time/ resource, which strategy to pursue, what are the most effective methods etc .  This is the dream we’ve been sold, it is compelling and that’s why it keeps selling.

So why doesn’t it work? What are the problems and issues?

  1. The first issue is lack of strategic clarity.

“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to” said the cat.
“I don’t much care where”, said Alice
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.     (Alice in Wonderland)

Organisations need to know what really the essence of their business is, what are key driver that when done well make the difference between delivering results and not. This needs to be defined clearly and a small number, not just be a shopping list of “mom, apple pie and world peace” platitudes that any business could say. A business with real clarity on its strategic drivers should be able to define clearly what they want and need the CRM system to tell them. Without the former you can’t define the latter. Many, many organisations stumble into CRM without a clear idea of what they want to achieve. They can’t answer with any precision questions like, Who is CRM for? Is it Sales? Marketing? Operations? Finance? Senior management?  What is it going to do for us?  Help target marketing campaigns? Help forecasting? Enable control over the sales force? Management reporting?  Something else? All the above?   This lack of clarity then quickly leads to poor system specification and a myriad of design flaws follow. For example, “data creep”, by which I mean the tendency for all functions to pile in to the CRM commissioning process and nominate dozens of types of information that would be “useful”. This leads to unwieldy CRM systems with an implausible number of fields that are wholly impractical to actually fill in!  Without real clarity on strategic aims and alignment of CRM to this, the design and structure of the CRM system will be seriously weakened from the start.



2.The second massive issue is that lack of methodology or process.

You must know, with absolute clarity WHAT you need sales people to do to be effective before you can specify HOW they capture information about it. The analogy is that you need to have presentation skills before you can make good use of PowerPoint, Keynote Prezzi or your presentation system/ tool of choice. Many organisations have a CRM system before they have a clearly defined sales process or methodology which is a classically, “cart before horse” phenomenon. So some organisations will say “but we do have a sales process” but when I investigate what they mean by that, it transpires they have a lengthy, impenetrable and dusty document labelled “sales process”, that hardly anybody has read, much less understood and that often is bad combination of generic and yet over complicated. The methodology needs to be highly tailored, robust, consistent and universally known and understood by the whole commercial organisation. It should have been arrived at via consultation and input from all the right people. For example, 80% of all information on CRM is input by sales people and yet often CRM projects are driven by IT/ operations with only a passing nod to sales involvement. That’s why, one particularly dysfunctional system a client had, consisted of a 27 step sales funnel that was dead on arrival the moment it was announced to sales. It isn’t easy to get a fully functioning methodology in place, its time consuming and expensive. This is why many organisations don’t do it or do it badly. The consequence of this is that the sales operation is ad hoc, variable and the CRM system is effectively operating in a vacuum.

3. The third issue is lack of management involvement

It has to be said that management are often guilty of hypocrisy. They buy the dream of CRM, insist everyone uses it and then fail to engage in it themselves.  They fail to spend the time to get the strategic clarity needed at the outset, they don’t give the right level of management guidance to ensure organisational alignment with other systems (for example HR systems, forecasting/ ERP systems) they frequently don’t learn the system so they can’t use it themselves. I have one client where the senior management, despite having a methodology and CRM system in place, still insist on a labour intensive fortnightly email status updates on all opportunities from all sales people. The message this sends to sales people? Don’t bother with the methodology or the CRM system because we are not looking at that.  (mainly because we don’t know how to!)  Bottom line, leaders must lead, they cannot dismiss this whole area as “detail” and not get involved. It is fundamental to the effectiveness of the organisation and should therefore be of primary importance to senior management.

CRM should be the tool that sits at the top of the pyramid of factors of organisational effectiveness. It should provide everyone in the organisation with highly accurate data that provides insight and actionable information on performance against critical business strategies. Its essence is simply about the clarity to make better business decisions.

CRM tools cannot however do that if the foundations below it are weak or non-existent.


What can be done to get to this Nirvana of operational effectiveness?

Especially if you / your organisation are already in the majority that has a system perhaps even a process but neither are actually working well?

How to make it work?  Awareness and acceptance are curative.

If it’s not working, face it and do something about it. Review what you have, honestly and frankly.  Answer these questions; Do you have strategic clarity?, Are senior management full and actively involved? Have the right people/ right functions been involved? Are sales closely enough engaged and involved? Do you have a clear sales process or methodology? Does everyone know it and use it? Do people fully understand how to use the CRM system? Have the right dashboards/ reports been specified and made available to actually be able to make practical use of the data? And my favourite question which is simple ROI; Is the information the system requires worth the effort of gathering it?

One issue in answering these questions is that often within a business there are IT/ CRM experts, sales experts, methodology experts reporting/ operations experts but who of these can answer all the questions? Who is responsible for aligning them and creating a cohesive operational whole? Is it the sales VP? possibly but probably not as their time is often focused on the day to day revenue achievement. Who then? There needs to be someone employed whose primary task is to bring this all together. It needs to be someone who has a broad skill set that grasps strategy but also knows sales and operations. It doesn’t matter  whether that’s someone internal or an external consultant and long as there is someone!

If the methodology and the CRM system work well together to create a great sales operation it is a thing of beauty, providing results, efficiency, clarity and good decision making. Done well, it allows you truly to make the phrase, “work smarter not harder” a reality.

So actually it is not the case that CRM doesn’t work. The software works brilliantly, it just cannot work in a vacuum. Organisations often have far too narrow a view of what it’s all about and completely underestimate the scope and scale of the wider organisational development that also needs to be put in place to make the whole system work well.

So whether you are a sales leader who owns this area or  a sales person or sales manger that uses it,  if you’re involved in it at all, from individual sales person upwards, you have the ability to influence, to raise the questions, to make the recommendations to move towards realising the promise of CRM.

Posted in change, CRM, Sales | No Comments »

The noise before defeat

December 12th, 2013

Today’s sales leaders do not have the luxury of a slow victory or a major defeat in any context. Sales professionals can’t afford to individually recreate account or opportunity tactics for every customer situation. Both need a strategy to guide and prioritise their activities.

Strategy can be something that gets in the way of activities. Sales leaders avoid developing a real strategy because it slows down the initiatives they want to execute. Many times leaders feel that if they just start doing things then the strategy will most likely begin to unfold. While there is certainly value in an action orientation, action needs to have purpose. Almost inevitably this mistake ends up derailing initiatives and forcing leaders to go back to the drawing board. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

A clear strategy is the connecting point for all parties. Whether it is a new compensation plan, a different approach to building a coverage model, or a new way of managing customers, a clear strategy allows the organisation to gain agreement on direction as a starting point. The sales force will reject or ignore any tactical initiative unless they understand the strategy. A tactical leader may think he or she is making progress because everyone appears to be complying. But when execution falters, a new tactic will be launched repeating the noise before defeat.

When there is a clear understanding of the strategy and why it matters, then almost everyone can quickly gain agreement and evaluate the best tactics to make it happen. With a strategic frame of reference, people can contribute ideas and insights. But without a clear understanding of strategy, it is impossible to get everyone moving in the same direction.

Strategy provides the framework and focus for execution. It targets resources, prioritises activities and defines output. For the sales leader, customer management strategies, how the sales team connects with their customers, will dictate their business management strategies. For the sales professional, strategy provides a proven account, opportunity or interaction structure, common language, and clear objectives. Strategy makes collaboration possible and binds sales organisations to a common goal.

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Michael Gove – lessons in public speaking needed?

October 27th, 2013

Michael Gove’s speech, as he sped through Hertfordshire this month, didn’t exactly hit the high spot of public speaking skills!

He actually spoke very briefly and spent the rest of his 45 minutes answering questions. Although it has to be said this was Hertfordshire and therefore very polite, if not quite reverential, questions. In true genteel Hertfordshire style, even the handful of protesters outside the venue had left before Mr Gove actually arrived, any unpleasantness thus avoided!!

Mr Gove has the look of a permanently surprised schoolboy and has a choppy, staccato, slightly breathless delivery style. This of course may be a function of his whistle stop tour of Hertfordshire that allowed him a 45-minute post lunch slot and then off to another 6 engagements, but in reality I think it’s just his style.

He certainly had the politician’s knack of making even the implausible sound eminently reasonable, but was he convincing? Was he engaging? Did he take his audience with him? No he did not.

Why not? He lacks warmth … his tone always makes him sound rather off hand and matter of fact and it doesn’t feel like it comes from a place of real conviction. In fact he sounds a bit like the Mr Chumley-Warner character from some of Harry Enfield’s repertoire.

He also sounds like more like he is delivering a lecture than actually speaking to you. Excellent speakers are able to make their audiences feel like they are being talked to directly, personally almost. When Gove congratulated someone for being brave enough to be opening a free school, the stiffness and coldness about him was incongruent with the words of praise and so the net effect came off as patronising.

Even his warm words about the local conservative MP and how very splendid she apparently is, and how we should therefore all vote for her at the next election, all felt a little stained. The staged hug/ kiss felt positively excruciating… The lack of warmth, the discordant feel between his words, tone and body language made me wonder if they in fact hate each other?!

What would improve Mr Gove’s speaking?

He needs to relax a little, perhaps be himself more, a little humour or self-depreciation might have taken the harsh edges off. Perhaps if he slowed his delivery somewhat so we didn’t have the feeling that he was just churning out the answers as quickly as possible so he could get off to his next gig, might also have helped!

Posted in Communication, political speeches, poor presentation, Presentation, speech, Uncategorized, Use of language | No Comments »

REAL CONNECTION IN A DISCONNECTED WORLD (or at least a dysfunctionally connected world)

October 3rd, 2013

“The deepest principle of human nature is to be appreciated” (William James)

People crave meaningful connection at work, with their bosses and their peers, people crave acknowledgement and appreciation but few are satisfied with the quantity or quality of the connection at work and fewer still feel appreciated. And this is despite all of the communication technologies companies have at their disposal. Research indicates that the typical workplace seems to be “dysfunctionally connected” with people having the tools necessary to stay in touch, but not having the communication skills or common language needed to get the most out of those technologies.

What do we mean by lack of communication skills?

Technology allows us to increase the quantity but often not the quality of communication. I’ve read several articles recently with people mourning the death of etiquette in communication and human interaction. We’ve all experienced being with someone who is only half present with us as their eyes fly regularly to their smartphone and away from engagement with the real live human being in front of them; only to come back to us clearly disengaged and distracted from whatever it was we were trying to communicate.  That’s probably a daily occurrence for many of us and how does it make us feel? Understood?  Appreciated? Even acknowledged? Absolutely not. The tragic thing is that it’s a classic lose-lose communication scenario. The person communicating feels any or all of ignored / snubbed / unacknowledged / misunderstood and unconnected and the person who’s attention went elsewhere is struggling to really understand or take in whatever it was the person in front of them made the effort to be there to communicate! This often leads to misunderstanding, confusion, lack of clarity and ultimately ineffective decision making. So lack of focus – basic rapport building skills is one, big issue.

Another huge area of dysfunctional communication is people hiding behind their machines. Technology allows you to send an email rather than talk to someone (even if they are just down the corridor!). Emails can often be abrupt and expressed in a tone that is transactional and abrasive rather than one that builds relationship and is encouraging, nurturing or indeed persuasive. Technology can have a dehumanising effect; people will say things online and in emails that they would not say face to face. The horrifying abuse that Caroline Criado-Perez got via twitter for her campaign to get Jane Austin put on a bank note was an extreme example, people unfriending others on Facebook or dumping partners by text or altering their relationship status to single are also examples but more routinely, people can just be harsher and less polite digitally than they would be in front of another human being.

 What do we mean by lack of common language?

For all that we talk all day every day; it’s surprising that communication is so difficult! Actually communication is easy; it’s good communication that’s tough. Because we all filter communication through our own individual lenses we all have different interpretations of any given situation or communication and this can make it hard to be really understood. Given that many businesses these days are international places, and there are people with many different 1st languages, that phenomenon is exacerbated.

Organisations have historically addressed this by having their own common languages that organically grow- phrases, terms and acronyms that were commonly and regularly used and that helped promote understanding within that particular organisation. Some add to this by adopting certain processes or methodologies that have a defined common language within them. This however is being disrupted by the pace of change and the churn of personnel through organisations that often means that common languages fail to get established or ones that were there atrophy.  Organisations and individuals now have to work really consciously and actively to promote and maintain common language if they are to reap any of the benefits of this.


So if you or your organisation want to get the most out of people, (be they internal or external customers) and be best placed to influence and persuade them, encourage them and lead them; then you need to think about how you can deploy communication skills to make people feel acknowledged and appreciated and work out how you can establish a common language or framework for communication that is mutually clear and understood (and that doesn’t mean send out an email!).

Posted in Communication, Uncategorized, Use of language | No Comments »

Harnessing “Big data”; Rising to the Challenges of the 21st century sales environment.

September 17th, 2013

For sales organisations, making it up as you go along isn’t good enough any more! Skillful improvisation may have worked in the past but not now.


Technology, the internet and access to information are making each and every customer much more demanding and well informed. Customers are looking for products and services that are more complex, offer more customised solutions and often with different levels of sales support.

This environment is changing how sales teams need to operate in order to be successful.

It is no longer sufficient to show up and tell customers about the product. Companies accustomed to selling products and walking away, are being forced to prove how they can add real value.

Successful sales people and organisations large and small are following the lead of business-to-consumer (B2C) retailers such as Amazon and Tesco by making smarter use of customer data to predict behaviour, drive sales, and deepen relationships. Ernst and Young identified “Big Data” as one of the top 5 mega-trends effecting business today, so  “Big Data” and it’s importance to commercial success is the big topic of the moment.

By using big data effectively, top B2B sales organisations find a way to add more value to customers, to provide differentiated, tailored solutions, not products, and to devise delivery and service models that are more effective.They are using granular customer data and predictive analytic s ( just like  B2C sellers such as . B2B sales teams who have successfully taken this approach report that the rapid adoption of these techniques has increased the volume and quality of sales leads and improved conversion rates.

Predictive analytics are beginning to be used both in markets serving smaller customers (larger data sets facilitate predictive modelling) and in those with large customers (companies can examine statistical variations in performance across accounts to highlight opportunities).

These analytics are prompting sales and marketing teams to create additional strategic and operational roles. They are also forcing frontline sales people and their managers to become sophisticated data users, reducing the influence of old-fashioned gut instinct in driving the decisions of sales teams.Sales organisations must now re-train staff, re-tool processes, and allocate time in new ways.

The million $ issue however, is that, as a start point, you need good, robust data that you can rely on to analyse and to provide insight. That insight then allows you to make smarter decisions. AND you then need to execute with consistency and rigor.

The issue for many sales organisations is that they are still struggling with step 1 here, which is to gather truly reliable customer data. The challenge of implementing disciplined sales methodology and robust CRM systems, which are the bedrock of robust data, is a huge one. Research suggests that although an increasing proportion of sales organisations (c80%) now have CRM systems only about 25% of those who do, actually believe they have successfully implemented it such that they derive any value from it.That suggests that in the race for a competitive edge for 21st century sales , many sales organisations are falling at the first hurdle.


Next month’s blog will deal more with how sales organisations can create the foundations for robust data that will enable them to enhance the sophistication of their operation and respond effectively to the dynamics of the 21st marketplace.






Posted in customer centricity, Sales | No Comments »

So, how do you get competitive advantage?

August 14th, 2013

Differentiation is dead!

Differentiation has a long and obvious history. It’s a tired business buzzword easily ignored.

The theory has been Sales are simple. When you see competition, you differentiate.

Buy mine; I can prove it is different.

They offer X, I offer Y. They cost this, I cost that.

The trouble is that now customers can easily Google the offer and costs, so what are sales people now?  Waiters that just show up to take the order?

The thing is, true differentiation is selfish; it’s individual and only really works at the customer level. It’s the act of the sales professional with intense knowledge of and interest in his or her customer, with deeply thought through reasons why a customer should buy their “thing” instead of the competitor’s “thing”.

Remarkable has little to do with Marketing, certainly in B2B sales.  Remarkable is in the eye of the customer, the person who ‘remarks’. If people talk about what you’re doing, it’s remarkable, by definition.

The goal, then, isn’t for the marketing department to draw some positioning charts and a weighty presentation and announce that you have differentiated your product.

No, the opportunity is for good sales people to actually work out what their total offer of goods services and support can deliver for their customer that the customer finds exceptional and then chooses to talk about, to remark on, regardless of what the competition is doing.

Then you have differentiation.

Then you have a competitive advantage.

Don’t be different… be remarkable!

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Managing Challenging relationships

July 3rd, 2013

In every working life there’s at least one person or group of people that you’ll find difficult to handle and you find yourself thinking that everything would be better if only it wasn’t for them. Sometimes it’s a customer, sometimes a particular colleague and sometimes a member of staff.

The truth is that “it takes two to tango” and you can influence the behaviour of others by managing your own behaviour and the key to it is to understand more about that “if only they weren’t there” person.

One particularly helpful framework for understanding people is the DISC system, which is a behaviour style profiling tool.

In the early 1920′s, an American psychologist named William Moulton Marston developed a theory to explain people’s emotional responses. Until that time, work of this kind had been mainly confined to the mentally ill or criminally insane, and Marston wanted to extend these ideas to cover the behaviour of ‘ordinary’ individuals.

In order to test his theories, Marston needed some way of measuring the behavioural styles he was trying to describe. His solution was to develop his own technique to measure four important factors. The factors he chose were Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Compliance, from which the technique takes its name – DISC.

Marston published his findings in a book entitled The Emotions of Normal People, which included a brief description of the system he had developed. From these humble beginnings, the DISC system has grown to become probably the most widely used assessment tool in the world.

DISC is a tool for looking for people’s individual styles and their differences; it promotes self-knowledge and outlines strategies for working with those differences. For example for salespeople, DISC demonstrates how to prepare a winning presentation to the different buyers. In the workplace, it addresses conflict resolution; it looks at the habitual communications styles of the people you work with.


If for example you are an energetic, outgoing, big picture / ideas type person, then you may find the person who is detailed, precise, and methodical irritates you beyond measure! Your immediate and often sub-conscious emotional reaction is that the individual concerned is being perverse or is out to get you. Using the DISC framework to think through situations, means that you can analytically understand your emotional reaction to your diametrically opposed styles and are therefore in a much better place to deal with it positively.

To get a DISC profile is relatively inexpensive and takes 10 minutes to do via an online questionnaire. People always remark that the resulting report is amazingly accurate.

If you’re interested in a free trial call or email us to find out more. Click here for contact details

Posted in personal development | No Comments »

What’s the connection between CRM systems and Hans Christian Anderson?

June 4th, 2013

Let me come back to that.

Why is it that we so often read of spectacular failures of grand initiatives? The government that bought aircraft carriers that didn’t actually work with the size of  planes they had, the massive rebranding exercise that  had to be reversed to return to the original brand within months, the billion $ IT system that crashed and had to be almost immediately replaced?

Similarly the research tells us that most organisations experience similar failures in trying to implement new initiatives well, whether that initiative is a new sales process, an HR process or a CRM system.

Is it because the people employed by these organisations are idiots, too stupid to look at the data and reach the right decision? Seems hardly likely, so why then?

There are undoubtedly many different reasons behind these types of epic failures, but there is often one common denominator, one powerful factor that is the root of the problem. Someone, in an influential position, makes a decision and will not move from it. Someone decides that this is the right aircraft carrier or CRM system and if they say if often enough, emphatically and loud enough, then other people start believing it too. Eventually it becomes received wisdom that that no one dares challenge, regardless of the facts or the practical details.

So the answer to my question about connections at the beginning of this article then is the Emperor’s New Clothes. The initial sponsor who took the original decision is like the Emperor in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale who was beguiled by the miraculous claims of the tailors and who decided that it was true that they had created a fabulous suit of clothes that only the wise and learned could see and so against all logic and better judgement he wore the “clothes” and paraded butt naked through the streets of his kingdom!

Managers are similarly seduced by claims of wonderful new systems, and while many of these systems or initiatives probably have tremendous potential they do need a lot more effort, resource, work and adaptation than there appears to be initially. Having taken the decision, managers then feel fully vested in defending their original decision come what may. They close their minds to other inputs, to any flaws or issues that others may point out, insisting instead that they are right and others just don’t understand the situation well enough. They often drive through processes or initiatives that are patently flawed simply to justify their decision.

Why do they do this? 

The Chinese fully understand this concept and they call it “face”. Loss of face or damage to someone’s credibility, reputation or standing in their community is something they will do anything to avoid. Having made a public decision, retreat from that decision represents loss of face and so must be avoided at all costs. Chinese society understands that you should never put someone in a position where they lose face, unless you want to make an enemy. Robert Chaldini, a leading expert in influence and author of “The 7 principles of influence” talks about the deep rooted human need to be right. This psychological driver is incredibly powerful and often subconscious. This is maybe to do with our caveman origins when you needed to make the right judgements when the sabre tooth tiger came bounding towards you, in order to survive. To be wrong was to die.

So in this context we begin to understand why otherwise intelligent, committed people are capable of passionately defending wrong decisions to the bitter end. But what explains why other people around the decision maker do not stop them and pull them back from the precipice of disaster?

In the fairy tale, none of the courtiers stopped the Emperor; none of them furnished him with the simple truth that he was in fact naked. As the story continues, still nobody tells him.  As he paraded, none of the townspeople spoke out; they all went along with the fiction to the extent of commenting and marvelling at the wondrous suit of new clothes. It was in fact a small child who uttered the immortal words.. “but he’s got no clothes on”.

In the story the reason nobody pointed out the obvious nudity of the Emperor was because the scenario that the swindling tailors created was that the new suit of clothes was woven out of such a unique and fine cloth that only the wise and the discerning could perceive it. The Emperor, the courtiers and all the townspeople were therefore terrified of appearing stupid and ignorant by saying they could not see it.

Herein lies one of the key reasons that sometimes people do not stop decision makers from progressing with clearly flawed plans. They are afraid. They fear perhaps that they don’t understand it fully, they don’t want to risk looking foolish, or they don’t want to be the one to stick their neck out and say something different from what everyone else is saying. They don’t want to risk being seen as the trouble maker. The other important part of this is that the more senior or influential the decision maker, the less people are prepared to challenge or question the decision.

There was a story in the press recently of a UK “businessman” that made £50 million by selling fake bomb detectors. The plastic casings he sold turned out not to even have a battery inside them! How was he able to sell 50 million pounds worth of fake plastic boxes? Where was testing and due diligence? The interesting part of this story was that he sold his devices in war torn, chaotic societies, where he would get to a relevant senior leader or General and convince them. Once they “bought” all their minions then just did as they were told to unquestioningly, to complete the purchase. Whereas this story seems bizarre and extreme, in fact I don’t think it is. There’s an irony that often senior leaders are necessarily not at all close to the detail  that might inform the accurate assessment of a situation and hence the best decision, yet often they take the plunge and make the big decisions, which then they and their subordinates feel compelled to tenaciously defend.

How then do businesses avoid these classic mistakes? 

Firstly if you are in the decision making role, and particularly if you are “the emperor” (a senior manager), be sure that you are very well advised, by a broad variety of stakeholders before making any decisions, certainly any publically announced decisions! Be cautious of which mast you nail your colours to! It doesn’t need to be an endless consultation process but it does need wide input.

Secondly be flexible and willing to adapt. Be prepared to admit mistakes, yours or your organisations and move on wiser and stronger. All the world’s great thinkers and leaders acknowledge that we only grow by mistakes. The pace of change in the world is such that fewer people today are critical of the need to change course.

If you are involved in the execution of key decisions, you are a “courtier” or a “townsperson”. Be prepared to speak up. Just because your view or your data isn’t consistent with the mainstream view does not mean it’s wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to create a scene and shout out in the crowd, like the little boy. There are ways of communicating more subtly that avoid loss of face for the decision maker that will enable you to influence for the good and perhaps save the day, avoiding a classic failure situation for your business.

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