Since I’ve begun writing about and training others in lean communication, I tend to see more and more around me through a lean lens, which is why Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a book that has gripped my attention so tightly. McKeown does not mention lean in his book, but it’s exactly the same philosophy: figure out what’s important and then cut out everything that does not directly contribute to that. That’s why Essentialism is not like most how-to books that tell you how to get more things done; it’s about how to get more important things done better.
One of its key tenets is the application of the design philosophy of Dieter Rams: less but better. It’s an apt term because pursuing essentialism is about living by design, not default. That word design is key, because, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow, everything we do in life we do for one of three reasons: we want to, we have to, or we have nothing better to do—and we spend about a third of our time in each. To put it in design terms, we design the first third, someone else designs the second for us, and the rest is simply default.
That last third is completely under our control, but it takes vigilance and discipline. The second third is also much more under our control than we might think, although it takes courage to tell others no. But we don’t have to go to every meeting, reply to every email, or agree to every task that’s handed to us. By saying no, you may disappoint others initially, but they will respect you more, and you will have more room to focus on what’s essential to yourself or your higher purpose.
It matters for two reasons. First, people feel best when they are doing the things they want to do, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that doing things because you have to, actually makes you feel better than doing things because you have nothing better to do. So, taking control of your actions will make you better off right now. Second, if you are disciplined in choosing important work that contributes to your own or others’ well-being, you—and they—will be better off in the future as well.
The best test of any book is not what you learn, but what you do differently as a result. You many not learn any deep secrets that you don’t already know in some form or another from reading Essentialism, but McKeown has a way of making you look at familiar ideas in a completely fresh way that stops you in your tracks and makes you think. I’m sure everyone who reads it will connect with something different, but for me it was a simple but powerful question: “What’s Important Now?”
For me, just asking that question every time I find myself drifting into the “nothing better to do” mode, or decide whether to agree to someone’s request, goes a long way to changing the proportions of activity—and the results that come from that.
So if you want to take lean thinking beyond lean communication and apply it to your life, it’s essential that you read this book.
Beyond the Sales Process, by Dave Stein and Steve Andersen, is my kind of book, because it takes a big picture view of B2B sales. Here’s the gist: many B2B sellers get in too late and leave too soon. If you engage with potential customers only during their active buying efforts, you’re like the drunk looking for his lost keys under the streetlight—just because the light’s better there.
Stein and Andersen make the point that even with complex B2B sales, buyers might actively buy from you only about 2% of their total time in a year. Most sales books focus their prescriptions, during that narrow 2% window called the sales process, when the buyer is actively seeking to fill an identified need. The problem with that is that while there is a need, there is also a lot of competition and very little trust.
If you want to achieve the status of trusted advisor, you have to pay attention before, during and after the sales process. They delineate 12 strategies, distributed equally across the entire life cycle, what they call Engage, Win and Grow.
This is the pre-opportunity phase in which you do in-depth research to understand your customer’s business and use the insights gained to earn the right to engage with your customers in elevated discussions about what they need to do to achieve their business objectives, how you will help them do it, and why it’s important. I’m vastly oversimplifying here, of course, but the general idea is to put yourself in a position where you can credibly be seen as a potential trusted advisor by the right people in the customer’s organization before a specific opportunity comes up. By doing so, you will be in a position to influence and shape their needs and hence their requirements.
This phase is the main focus of approaches that focus on the meat of the sales process: the pursuit of opportunities from identification through the sales funnel to closing. The four chapters in this section will be familiar to anyone who has experience and training in common sales methodologies: they cover the fundamentals of discovering the key drivers that relate to the specific sales opportunity, and how to use those to deliver “actionable awareness,” which is a key point that I personally believe many B2B salespeople miss. They know the importance of learning about their customer’s business, but most of them use their research to gain data points that they can use to sprinkle in their product pitches to give them a veneer of “customer focus” and business sophistication. Scratch beneath surface, though, and you find they don’t truly bring key insights that show how they can uniquely impact the customer’s business.
There are very few feelings as exhilarating as winning that big deal of the year, but you have to resist the temptation to take your eye off the ball at this point. If you keep your attention in the post-sale phase to realizing the value that was promised during the win phase and validate its impact on the customer, adapt to changes and issues as they arise, and expand the relationship, you will have a firm launching pad for all future opportunities that arise.
If you’re a sales professional who has already read many of the excellent books that guide you through the sales process, Beyond the Sales Process is an excellent complement that will illuminate the rest of the sales landscape and expand your view of what it takes to raise your game.
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, is a fascinating book, but I’m not sure if you should read it, for reasons that I explain at the end of this post.
There is a huge market for forecasting in our country, from political talking heads on TV, to investment advisors, to the approximately 20,000 intelligence analysts working in our intelligence establishment. But, while the stakes for getting it wrong can be huge (see Iraq’s WMD), there is no formal reliable way of measuring or analyzing the track records of those doing the predicting. Pick your favorite commentator or columnist, what’s their hit rate on their predictions? That’s impossible to answer, first because no one has compared what they said would happen to what did happen, and even if they did, so many of their predictions are so vaguely worded that most of them can easily claim they meant something else and wiggle off the hook.
Philip Tetlock is trying to change that. Beginning in the 1980s, he has been studying how good experts are at prediction (answer, just slightly better than a drunk monkey throwing darts). One of his findings was that pundits who were the most confident tended to be wrong more often, but they also got on TV more often. They are hired more for their ability to tell a compelling story with confidence than for their track record in forecasting.
This latest book details his findings from a four-year project funded by IARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, to test the forecasting performance of several different teams of experts. It was a large test which asked over 500 questions to more than 20,000 participants between 2011 and 2015. It was also rigorous, with questions designed to eliminate the wiggle room problem. For example, they asked, “Will any country withdraw from the Eurozone in the next three months? How many additional countries will report cases of the Ebola virus in the next eight months?”
The study found that about 2% of participants, which he calls superforecasters, are consistently more accurate in their predictions. By identifying the superforecasters, and then testing different combinations and variables, he was able to tease out what makes them successful, and the bulk of the book explains the traits, techniques and habits of thought that make for superior judgment.
The basic theme is that it’s not superior intellect that distinguishes the SFs, but how they think. Here are just a few of his recommendations:
- Break down tough problems into their components, and make estimates or judgments about those.
- Pay attention to base rates first, and then adjust. For example, I may think that my friend is very likely to strike it rich in a very difficult venture, because I start with knowing how smart he is. But if I begin by considering that the odds are 50 to 1 against success, I could double his chances and still think it’s very unlikely.
- Be actively open-minded, not only being open to new information but looking for it. Once you have formed a judgment, pay attention to new information, especially anything that would call your initial judgment into question.
- Write down your forecasts and your reasoning, because the mere fact of writing it will help distance you emotionally from your first prediction. If it’s important that you get it right, take the further step of writing down all the reasons you might be wrong, and then synthesize the two.
- Expand your range of alternatives. Most people have a three-position dial about predictions: yes, no, and even odds. You can force yourself to become more systematic about your own thinking by adopting a 7-point scale as recommended by the National Intelligence Council as you see here:
Remote Very unlikely Unlikely Even Probably, likely Very likely Almost Certain
Even better, use percentages. It won’t guarantee you’re right, but it will force you to examine your own thinking and help you adopt a more nuanced viewpoint.
There’s far more good advice than I can summarize, but frankly I’m struggling a little in deciding whether to recommend that you read Superforecasting. On the plus side, I predict that it is very likely that if you read and apply its lessons, you will become a better thinker. On the other hand, it’s an even chance that you will become a worse persuasive communicator. That’s because an effective salesperson radiates confidence about the future they recommend, while effective forecasters are far more cautious and humble about their predictions.
My personal choice would be to begin with better thinking. First, for the obvious point that you owe it to yourself and to others to give them your best thinking. Second, sustainable influence depends on credibility, which will in the long run correlate strongly with your predictions. It’s true that TV pundits who are the most confident in their predictions tend to be wrong most often, and they don’t suffer for it. But when people are putting their own reputations or money at stake based on what you predict, they tend to have longer memories.
 I use judgment in the sense that they are better predictors, not that they necessarily make better decisions.
 In fact, you may have noticed that the seven-point scale does not include certainty on either side.
I’ll get to my review of Mike Weinberg’s book, Sales Management. Simplified.: The Straight Truth About Getting Exceptional Results from Your Sales Team in just a second, but first, we have to take a quick detour.
Despite spending big in free agency during the offseason to acquire players like Ndamukong Suh, and spending lavishly on high tech tools such as GPS trackers and sensors to analyze practices, the Miami Dolphins have won only one game this season, so they fired their head coach earlier this week.
Enter a new interim head coach, Dan Campbell, who was promoted from his position as the tight ends coach and who looks like he could still suit up and play today. They held their first practice under the new coach yesterday, and it was definitely a different approach. Almost the entire practice consisted of one-on-one drills, where players went at each other in full pads. Campbell’s aim is to make each of his players “violently compete” during practice, and his description of practice afterwards was priceless:
“Everything else was all about being primates again. Every one of those guys. Just back to the days where, hey, you line up and you go.”
What does that have to do with Sales Management. Simplified.? Think of the Dolphins as a sales organization that needs to change its ways if it wants to get back to winning ways—Campbell and Weinberg appear to be “twin sons from different mothers”, as it relates to how to get the best out of people who work in a performance-oriented contact sport.
I’ll give you just two examples to illustrate the wisdom and practical advice contained in the book. The first is that sales managers have to get out from behind their desks and go right to the action to observe and coach their players.
The Dolphins have been operating like many sales organizations today, by over-relying on fancy measurement tools. They hired a director of sports performance and director of analytics, and equipped each player’s shoulder pads with GPS trackers and sensors that measured energy expenditure, distance traveled and speed during practice, temperature, etc. At the end of every practice, the numbers are analyzed, and presumably the coaches would use the data to make adjustments and refinements in a constant quest for improvement.
All that data, analysis and tweaking has not prevented a 1-3 record, a statistic which hides how embarrassing their play has been. They haven’t just lost three games out of four: it’s the way they have lost. They have been quite simply outplayed and outmuscled on a man-to-man basis at almost every position.
The key lesson for sales managers is that all the fancy strategy, tools, and measurements are great, but completely useless unless you get the basics right. Sales is just as much a contact sport as football, where success is a matter of what happens when a salesperson sits across the desk from a prospect. In sales, just as in football, “you line up and you go”. This may sound crude, but it’s still two primates facing each other, speaking, listening, and presumably influencing each other.
Too much focus on shiny new toys such as fancy sensors and measuring tools can take away from the best tracking technology a sales manager has: their eyes and ears. As Weinberg tells us, those basic tracking tools are best deployed in three ways: coaching salespeople one-on-one, conducting productive sales meetings, and riding with salespeople in the field to directly observe what’s going on. How often are you getting out into the field and actually observing what goes on in sales calls? What are your salespeople actually doing and saying when in front of customers? How are customers reacting?
The second lesson is that culture counts—a lot. Weinberg spends the first half of the book describing dysfunctional sales cultures, where there is little or no accountability, sales is seen as a poor stepchild to other corporate functions, and various other symptoms that you might recognize from sales cultures that you may be in.
The best sales cultures are competitive, blunt, accountable, focused on selling, and relentlessly self-improving. These “shared attitudes, values, goals and practices” are what turns a collection of individuals of diverse talents into an effective team. Coaches can’t be everywhere at once, and culture provides the guidance that drives performance.
There’s a lot more in Mike’s book than I can write about here, so whether you’re a beginning sales manager, an experienced sales manager trying to improve an underperforming team, or a successful sales manager who wants to sustain your success, this book is for you.
Now, if he could just do something for my poor pathetic Dolphins…