Drinking at the trough

October 12, 2007

An interesting question came in last night from Les Handford over in Canada. He had been reading my paper with Stanbridge on The Landscape of Management and picked up on this quote: …executives need to pay more attention to management theory rather than to pay more attention to simple recipes derived from superficial understanding of past practices in other organizations ‘in the naive belief that is a particular course of action helped other companies to succeed, it ought to help theirs too. His question was deceptively simple: How can one lead “leaders” to the trough and get them to drink?

Now there are various meanings in the use of the word trough in connection with leadership; snouts in the trough being amongst the least attractive. One might consider City bonus levels which seem disproportionate to value created being as one such example but there are many others.

However in this case the question is clear but in two parts: How do you get leaders to pay attention to an idea?, and How do you get them to take action?. Now these are separate questions, and the second is not always dependent on successful achievement of the first. Action without understanding is not uncommon in leaders, indeed you could argue that a key characteristic of a really good leader is in their ability to avoid micro-management and to make safe-fail decisions without excessive analysis.

I think the answer comes in a range of do’s and don’ts and no one has a perfect answer. I have been reasonably successful at selling new, unfamiliar and conceptually difficult concepts over the years – I would not be here otherwise. But I have also had my failures. So the list that follows is a reflection based on that experience and I have organised it into a series of threaded bullet points.

  • One thing that never works is to present a new or novel way of thinking to a leader in isolation or in group with enthusiasm and missionary zeal. That will trigger rejection before you have even got started with an explanation.
  • Its a lot better to sidle up to said leader and say something along the lines of You know that issue we’ve been trying to get resolved for some time. I think I may have found something that could make a difference. It might not work, but its worth a punt.
  • The above point illustrates a key threat and opportunity. New and novel ideas are only likely to be adopted when the leader is facing an intractable problem or problems for which his/her current knowledge/methods/consultants are proving inadequate.
  • Even then, no leader worth his/her salt is going to bet everything on a novel approach, an each way bet at low cost with potential high return is by far and away the best policy.
  • It’s often better to approach one of the leader’s advisors (unless you are already one) or trusted confidants. Most leaders do not have the time to get into the practical, or for that matter the conceptual, detail of a new approach. One way that this is handled is to distribute their cognitive needs into a circle of individuals (or sometimes institutions) which are trusted to do that processing for him or her.
  • Few leaders will experiment unless there is an acceptable exit route in the event of failure. This is not a lack of ethics, its just that leaders tend (to use a wonderful scottish word) to be canny. This means you either set someone else up for the blame (malicious, not recommended but sometimes necessary) or better make it an experiment, or a series of experiments where an expectation of failure is built in.

I could add more but that is I think the essence. There are two other things I would recommend to any innovator:

  1. Book yourself on a two day sales course designed for double glazing salespeople. You need to know how to get an appointment, how to close a sale and a whole bunch of other basics (such as how not to take no for an answer and the delights of the assumptive close). A lot of sales skills can be taught, its not all natural talent and too few consultants and internal change agents bother to learn the basics.
  2. Go and read Geoffry Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, twice. Then think about where your pet idea sits on the life cycle curve and where your buyer is naturally located. The only place to sell new ideas is on the other side of the chasm. You don’t to sell to the wild guys at the front, or suffer the pain of crossing the chasm. I have spent most of my business life learning how to sell on the other side of the chasm. If you don’t get this, then you have not read the book, in which case hard luck, go read it.

Many other things could be said on this most interesting of subjects so my thanks to Les for raising it. Other contributions and ideas welcome and I am sure it is a subject to which I will return.

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