Looking for traction: when rational plans produce nothing but wheelspin

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter March 2014

Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas

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Wheelspin 3I’m seeing a number of very good businesses where leaders are frustrated with a lack of speed. The vexing formula: rational plans + talented people = slow progress.

These are substantial growing businesses, with top-notch engineers, professionals and commercial deal-makers. Consider these examples:

Cross-selling. The spreadsheet says it will juice up sales and profits nicely. At meetings, everyone around the table gives enthusiastic support. A new CRM and knowledge manager are installed. The executive committee wait in anticipation. It turns out to be ‘the calm before the calm.’ What’s going on? In one UK top 20 law firm, a corporate partner was handling an acquisition that involved a property matter. A great cross-selling opportunity, you would think. So why did he refer his client to a property partner at a rival firm? Because he was scared of losing control of the client relationship. This is not an issue where a new CRM can help one iota, and financial incentives won’t do much either unless they are far larger than you would ever dream of countenancing.

Introducing an obviously superior upgrade. The strategy calls for a sales drive on a new version of a product which customers will love, but months later the CEO is amazed to find their customer is still installing the old version, which is less attractive and wears out twice as fast as the old one, and worse, faster than the new solution offered by the competition. It makes no sense, except that the sales people understand how to sell the old one – they take the order and get on to the next meeting – so they see that as safer for their bonuses (product training is unlikely to make a scrap of difference.)

Innovation from those ‘close to the customer’. The executive team wonder why they are always the ones who have to come up with new ideas. They exhort those in the thick of to bring them innovations relevant to customers, but nothing ever happens. What’s the matter with people?! Well someone tried it once and was treated like a fool, because in their inexperience they articulated the idea badly and it was ripped to pieces. Now people believe coming up with a poor idea will be career-limiting. What won’t help: a suggestion box or a seminar on brainstorming 50 uses for a brick.

OK, so what will help?

Well, starting by checking out how you would feel in their position. Easy to say, but incredibly rarely done. You have to, as realistically as you can, adopt their point of view and then ask yourself if you feel like doing what you have been asked (not just if you think it makes logical sense).

  • Would you want to lose control of a key client relationship?
  • Would you want a reduced bonus?
  • Would you want to be thought of by the directors as the idiot who brought that half-baked idea into the dragon’s den?

Of course not. So now you can start asking questions which will take the brakes off and allow your rational plans to move forward at an accelerated rate:

  • How could cross-selling enhance the corporate partner’s relationship with the client?
  • How would you enable the salespeople to increase their bonuses as a result of selling the new item?
  • How would you enable would-be innovators to nurture and strengthen their nascent ideas?

I opened with the frustration formula:

rational plans + talented people = slow progress.

Adding one element, rarely considered by some of the brightest analytic thinkers, makes a lot of difference:

rational plans + talented people + the feeling it is in their best interests = rapid progress.