How to Sell New Things

I meet a lot of people who have brilliant new ideas to sell, and so many of them are frustrated. The video is a short summary of a seminar I did for a group of such people. In a nutshell, you need to offer something new, but also something old.

Change Management: Physics or Psychics?

A lot change  management is framed, implicitly, as physics. There is resistance, which needs to be overcome. Applying force to the situation (urgency, fear of what happens if we don’t change, excitement about what happens if we do) overcomes that  resistance. This is well exemplifed in John Kotter’s work.

This makes perfect sense if you are moving heavy furniture around in your house. The theory however runs into difficulty when we attempt to generalise from objects to people. Change causes fear, which causes resistance. If we try to overcome that resistance with more fear, then we set up a powerful vicious circle. It’s psychology, not physics, that operates here.

Consider a different approach, which works with the grain of human nature, not against it. Most people most of the time don’t like change which they don’t control, and would prefer to keep things as they are.  Here are two examples of the “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” approach.

One was the recently appointed head of an organisation with a lengthy history but which was in complete disarray. Radical change was clearly needed, but he realised that “radical” and “change” were the two words he most needed to avoid. Instead, he did all he needed to do under the banner of “longevity” – what do we need to do to ensure the longevity of the organisation, and the longevity of the careers of the people working there? The result was huge change with minimal resistance.

The second was the CEO who asked the question “how much do we need to grow for the organisation to remain sustainable?” The answer turned out to be (as I am sure he knew from the start) that it needed to double in size while abandoning a part of the business which had been central to its identity for decades. Again, very major change with minor resistance.

The models we use tend to create self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect change to be a battle then it will be, just as if you go out on a Saturday night looking for a fight you will usually find one. I don’t think that’s what you want, is it? Try a little subtlety instead.

Acknowledgement: “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” is a line from a novel, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It’s about a decadent and decaying aristocratic regime threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution, so you may or may find it relevant to your own situation. The quote, however, applies very widely. And it is an excellent novel.

What is a Theory For?

People use theories for two different purposes, one of which is much more helpful than  the other.

The recent death of Clayton Christensen of The Innovator’s Dilemma – “disruptive innovation” – fame reminded me of controversies related to the theory.  The book was hugely successful in the business world, and then came the backlash –  a New Yorker article in 2014 by Harvard historian Jill Lepore questioning its factual basis. Now Prof Lepore is a distinguished historian and what she said was very probably true, but the criticism misses the point. Or at least, it ought to miss the point.

Prof Lepore’s article was entitled “What The Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong.” And that is the problem. These sorts of theories are not gospels – not big overarching explanations of how everything is supposed to work. The problem with Christensen’s theory, which is not his fault, is that it got stretched too far. In his book (1997) he in fact says that most innovations are not disruptive. By 2014, however, the idea had developed that all significant innovation was disruptive.

If you look to Christensen’s theory as a theory of how all innovation works, or as a way of predicting which innovations will be significant and which will not, or even more as a recipe for creating huge change in a given industry, then it’s not up to the task.

Alternatively, if you look at it as “here are some interesting descriptions of  things which operated through a particular mechanism and produced results that were very good news for some people and very bad news for others, which suggest that you, particularly if you are a long-established incumbent in a market, should keep a careful watch out for similar things in your world which might operate according to similar mechansims and cause you similar grief, ” then I would suggest that the Innovator’s Dilemma is a must-read.

So, what is a theory? Is it a position to defend, or a tool? If the first, then the Lepore-Christensen debate has a point. But if on the other hand a theory is a tool, then it is something we can keep in our mental toolbox and use when necessary. Disruptive innovations may be fundamental in the development of our industry, or they may be irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. We have the tool if we need it.

Using theories as tools not as positions to defend has two huge benefits.

We avoid sterile debates about whether our theory does in fact explain everything. (The fact is, it can’t. The Unified Theory of Everything is still tantalisingly out of reach of even the physicists, but here we are in the realm of social science where it is nowhere in sight).

Using theories as tools means that we can chooose between them. We have not a single view but a toolbox. And the thing about toolboxes is that the more tools they have, the better.

(Acknowledgement: the idea of theories as tools or positions to defend comes from a book, Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy On The Path Of Liberation by Bruce Tift. It takes the idea in a different direction altogether, but if the title intrigues you it’s an excellent book).

What Do You Do When You Learn Something New?

I used to do a lot of speaking to groups of Chief Executives. Results were quite mixed – I seemed to be a “Marmite” – love it or hate it – proposition. On one occasion I did a natural controlled trial. I went to one group, then travelled 50 miles to stay overnight and do the same session with a different group. The second group loved it, to the extent of inviting me back three more times (and referring me to another group organiser who to date has invited me four times). The first group, on the  other hand, hated it. I remember presenting to them – I have had more fun at the dentist.

Why was this? The demographics of the two groups were identical – same age group, same job profiles, same types and size of business, but the response was completely different. I got the answer from a man who had heard me speak to one group (who had loved it) and recommended me another group he belonged to (who hated it).

“The thing is, Alastair” he said “you are inviting them to think differently. Some people like that, and others don’t.”

One of my case studies summed it up. This is the case of the software company who struggled to collect money from customers. What should they do? I have presented this case many, many times and everyone always comes up with suggestions related to the credit control staff  – motivate them, incentivise them, offer them bonuses, fire them and replace them…

The answer turns out to have nothing to do with the credit control staff. The problem arose because the late payments were caused by disputes over whether the software performed in accordance with documentation, the quality of consultancy work done, or how invoices related to contracts. All these needed help from other people in the organisation, and those other people just thought they had better things to do than waste time with accountants.

The message is that sometimes (in fact often) when you see a person or group underperforming the reason has nothing to do with them but is to do with the system in which they operate; what information do they have, what power can they exercise, who can they ask for help?  This is contrary to a very basic human bias, and comes as a shock. For some people, it’s a welcome shock; “I see it now, I feel more resourceful, I can solve problems which seemed intractable.” For others, it’s an unwelcome shock. “You are shaking the pillars of belief which support my world. Please stop””

It’s a question of open or closed. Do you know everything you need to know about how the world works, or are you still open to discovering more?



Actionless Action

The time I should have been doing an MBA, I spent studying Taoist philosophy.

It’s a maddening, fascinating collection of elliptically expressed ideas from a bunch of characters who were probably completely fictitious.

That was 33 words that probably drove away 90% of the readers who happened across this. If you are still with me, welcome! Relax – you are among friends.

One of the most interesting Taoist concepts is wu wei – which can be translated as “actionless action”. Achieve everything by doing nothing or, as Lao Tzu says “the sage does nothing, and nothing remains undone.” This is really quite strange and I felt a little silly talking about it, until I realised I knew a master practitioner. In fact, I was married to one.

My wife is Italian. We met while I was working in Italy. When we married and moved to the UK, she got a job as a psychotherapist in a big central London hospital. She was very effective, able to help people who came to her with files two inches thick from previous contacts with a whole range of services. One of her patients, who presented as a homeless woman with a history of suicide attempts, is now a qualified lawyer.

What this has to do with wu wei is that, at the time, Sara didn’t really speak english. Hardly at all. You might think that this would be a handicap in delivering a “talking cure” but it  wasn’t. Somehow, she was able to change the climate around her in a way that made people more resourceful, more able to help themselves, less desperate or suicidal.

There are probably other people like this. Police officers who just need to walk onto the scene for everyone to calm down. Salespeople who sell without selling. Managers who never exercise their authority because people just do what’s expected of them. Experts in conflict resolution who leave everyone wondering what all the fuss was about.

I am left with the tantalising thought that there is a different, more subtle, less stressful way of doing almost anything that involves human beings. And it’s there, right in front of us, hidden in plain sight because it looks like nothing.

Activity Rates

In a conversation  recently I heard the words “activity rate.” This took me all the way back to a conversation I had in Madrid in the mid-90s, and an issue that has come up repeatedly since then.

I was talking to Santi, the Spanish country manager of a big UK medical publisher. He was under pressure from his boss, the Sales and Marketing Director, to up his activity rate; “you have to make sure you spend enough time on the road. Get into all the small towns.”

The problem was, that wasn’t how you sold medical texts in Spain. The way to succeed, and Santi had been very successful, was to understand that in each speciality – gynaecology, cardiology, orthopaedics or whatever – there were two or three opinion leaders. They were the professors who all the other professors in all the other medical schools looked to for guidance. If you wanted to sell your medical books you had to identify the opinion leaders and then concentrate on persuading them to endorse your texts. If they did, then the other professors would follow their lead. But it’s hard to find the time to do this when your boss is pushing you to travel all over Spain trying to meet everyone.

There are different ways of reading this story. It could be about not imposing your local views on how to do a job on other countries where things work differently. It could be about trusting your people to find their own way of getting things done. Or it could be about focussing on results and not methods.

These are all valid perspectives, but I’d like to take another angle. What is the great attraction of activity rates? It seems to me that the attraction, common to all strictly quantitative method, is that they eliminate a leap of faith. You don’t need to trust someone when they tell you that, in their country, things work differently. You don’t need to suspend your disbelief when you see people doing things in ways that seem odd. You don’t need to accept that someone else might know better than you, and that there is no easy way to determine who is right.

I say that focussing on activity rates avoids a leap of faith, but that’s actually wrong. Imposing your strictly quantitative view of the world actually entails a much larger, but hidden leap of faith; that greater objectivity is always better, and that your view of what to measure is the right one. One can  look back through history and see plenty of people who held these views and came to grief because of them. That is easy. What is harder is to accept that maybe, just maybe, we are one of those people.

The Labours of Hercules: New Light on an Old Myth

You know the story – Hercules was set twelve supposedly impossible tasks, with the reward of immortality if he achieved them.

The fifth was to clean the stables of King Augeas. These contained 30,000 cattle and had not been cleaned for 30 years, yet Hercules had 24 hours. Hercules did it, by diverting two rivers through the stables and washing all the dung away.

A recently discovered manuscript, however, adds an interesting detail. While Hercules was working in the rivers, building the dams and cutting the channels that would enable him to achieve his impossible task, he was regularly distracted by passers-by making comments like “Hey Hercules, why are you wasting time in the river? You only have 24 hours – you need to be in those stables shovelling shit.”

OK, I made that last bit up,  but you see the  point. My little fiction illustrates one of the key challenges of the truly creative person. If you want exceptional results you need to use unusual means, and you will need to become good at ignoring people who are convinced that you are doing it “wrong.”  You will also, if you work in any sort of organisation, need to carve out a space which enables you to do apparently “crazy” things in pursuit of the supposedly impossible. Otherwise, you will just spend your days shovelling shit to no avail.

And if you are the boss of a Hercules, you need to give them that space. Interfere with them and you won’t enjoy the fruits of their brilliance. In fact, you won’t probably have them around for that long.

The Strangeness of Sun Tzu

The name of Sun Tzu will be familiar to just about anyone who has studied business strategy. I know one business school academic who told me that it was the only text you needed to read to pass the course.

But yet, if you read Sun Tzu carefully you discover that he is actually quite subversive. Follow his advice and, even if you are successful, you will seem quite strange to most of your colleagues.

For example:  “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”, or;

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom or credit for courage.”

These come quite early in the book. As we move on, the advice becomes less contentious. For example,  “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” Very few would disagree with this in principle, even if not everyone observes it in practice.

A careful reading leaves us with an impression of a commander who follows a sound and generally recognised set of strategic precepts but whose principal aim is to avoid the sorts of things – big frontal attacks,  decisive victories, any sort of drama – that win fame and glory.  A commander who, despite their successes, may well appear to be doing very little.

Think back over all the admiring profiles of CEOs that you have read. How many of them were lauded for the battles they did not fight, the competitors they subtly persauded to pack up and go home, or the problems they forestalled?

These people exist – I have been lucky enough to meet a few of them. You probably know some of them too. I’d encourage you to reread Sun Tzu and start to recognise them, and their value.

Very Creative Pricing

Very often I find myself helping clients with pricing. It’s one of the biggest levers to raise profitability.

Usually I’m showing them ways to raise prices, but here in this video is an example that goes one better, changing the transaction from “I pay you” to “you pay me.” It’s also shot on a lovely sunny summer’s day, which might cheer you up if you are watching on the grey November morning that I’m posting it.



What’s Your Super Power? (It’s Probably Not What You Think)

Remember the story of King Arthur? At the start, he’s a nobody. A poor relation tolerated in a noble family, a lowly squire serving the son, Sir Kay. One day when they are staying in London, Kay forgets to take his sword with him and sends Arthur back to the inn for it. The inn is all closed up, but Arthur sees another sword stuck in a stone and brings that instead.

Kay says “that’s not my sword, where did you get it?”

“I found it stuck in a stone,” replies Arthur. “I hope it’s alright.”

Now everyone is down on their knee to Arthur because, as everyone but he knows, the only person who can pull the sword from the stone is the rightful future king of England. Yet to him, pulling the sword out felt like nothing – he just hoped it would be good enough for Kay.

This is often how it is with super powers. I meet many people who can do remarkable things, effortlessly. But it is exactly because they can do them effortlessly that they don’t realise how remarkable they are. With many creative tasks, the better you are at something, the less effort it feels like and the less likely you are to realise that for other people it is very hard, or impossible.

Understanding this apparent contradiction is enormously powerful. There is something you can do, that most people can’t, that can create huge value, with little effort from you. This is the starting point of a very profitable business.

So what is your, or your firm’s, super power? Actually, your chances of answering that question are vanishingly small without some external help. As one of my associates put it brilliantly, “you can’t read the label from inside the bottle.” One of the first things I do with most clients is to help them identify their super powers. From that, many others things flow – better clients, higher fees, less competition. It all starts with understanding your super power.


Known Knowns, Unknown Unknowns…but don’t forget the unknown knowns

Here’s US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talking about the famous “unknown unknowns”, in the context of the Iraq war. But there’s one category he misses, and it is the most important of all.

“There are known knowns, the things we know we know, and known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know. And then there are the unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know…”

But there are also the unknown knowns, the things we don’t know we know.

By now your brain may be well on its way to being fried, but an example will make it crystal clear. The reason the Iraq war turned into such a tragedy is not because of what Rumsfeld and Bush didn’t know they didn’t know, but what they didn’t know they knew. Or, to put it simply, the assumptions they “knew” but never stated, so that they never examined them. The big unknown known of the Iraq war was “once the Iraqi people have been freed from the horrible Saddam Hussein, they will joyfully embrace a Western-style liberal democracy.”

Now when you actually say this you see the improbability of it. And even a cursory familiarity with history would tell you that this isn’t what usually happens when people are freed by force from tyranny.   But the assumption was never stated, so it was allowed to pass without challenge. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu, it was one of those things which “go without saying, because they come without saying.”

Or, in the much neater formulation of Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Why It Can Be Harmful To Know Too Much About A Field

It can be positively dangerous to be too much of a subject matter expert. The following comes from a body of work originally developed by the CIA as guidance for analysts.

Consider the following simple experiment. Read the text in the three triangles below.

Did you notice that in each case the article is repeated? If so, you have exceptional powers of observation, were lucky, have seen a similar exercise before, or are a professional proof-reader. Mostly, we see what we expect to see. In fact, the more fluent you are in english, the less likely you are to see the repetitions – the more likely you will unconsciously “correct” the “faulty” text.

As a more relevant example, consider the case of the two Germanies at the end of the 1980s. The Soviet Union was collapsing and had announced that it would not interfere in the affairs of its satellites, and unrest was growing in East Germany. The Berlin Wall was about to fall. German reunification was becoming more and more probable. Yet is was often the German specialists in the foreign ministries and intelligence services who had the most difficulty seeing this. They needed considerable prodding from their more generalist supervisors to accept the significance of current events. 

This by the way is an alternative angle on the problem of disruptive innovation described by Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Many established businesses suffer because they miss or resist new products. Christensen ascribes this to either financial or organisational factors – the new products are less profitable than the old, or the most powerful people in the organisation are those in charge of the established businesses; they have no desire to cede power or influence to those bringing forward the new. The German example suggests another reason – they simply cannot see what is happening.

The Takeaway

In a world which is changing fundamentally, deep domain knowledge on its own can be dangerous. It predisposes you to see what you have always seen, and blinds you to the new. This is not to deprecate it altogether, but to say that it is probably necessary but certainly not sufficient. It needs to be complemented by someone who has skills in complex and ambiguous situations in general, not knowledge of your situation in particular.

There is No Such Thing as Culture

Try this experiment. For six months, ban the use of the word “culture” in your organisation. (The only exception is if you are a pharmaceutical company, in which case you may still have cultures, so long as they live in petri dishes).

Instead of “culture” say “the collection of habits and beliefs that determine how we do things around here.” This is not  a controversial redefinition, but it has remarkable results. How do you feel when someone says “we need to change the culture”? It seems like a huge task, like chipping away at an enormous  granite monolith.

Where you would even start?  But if you say “we need to change habits and beliefs,” that invites the question “all of them, or just some?” The answer, of course, is just some. Progress already! We have broken the task down into more manageable parts. And we know how to change habits and beliefs. 

The other reason for avoiding “culture” is that the word covers a multitude of different things, some of them deserving of respect, others not. As a diverse society we put a great deal of importance on understanding different national, ethnic and religious traditions and, quite rightly, respecting them. Organisational “cultures”, on the other hand, are more instrumental. They help the organisation achieve its goals or they do not. They may be dysfunctional, or simply outdated. 

An organisation which historically worked in a stable and predictable environment may have developed a habit of  risk aversion which serves it well so long as the environment remains stable and predictable. If it doesn’t, then that risk aversion can become dangerous. General Motors pre-bankruptcy was notorious for its belief that it knew everything and had nothing to learn from anyone. Asking someone to take more sensible risks or listen more to customers is not the same thing as offering the Rabbi a bacon sandwich. At its most degenerate “that’s not in our culture” is simply a way of giving spurious authority to “we don’t want to do that.”

Words have power. They determine what we think, what we notice, and what we believe right or possible and thus what we do. It may seem strange that a simple change of vocabulary could make such a difference, but give it a try.

Creativity: a New Look at a Very Old Puzzle

You know this one, but I have a new twist on it….

Without lifting your pen from the paper, draw 4 straight lines which go through each of the nine dots exactly once.

When you first came across the problem you were probably foxed, at least for a while. Then you either noticed, or were told, the unspoken assumption that was holding you back. You assumed that the lines had to stay inside the nine dots. Once you realised that this was nowhere stated in the problem, the answer became simple:

Literally, the answer comes from going “outside the box.”

So far, so familiar. But …there is a simpler solution. You can in fact join all the dots with only 3 lines. Give it some thought. The solution is here.