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The Ability To “Figure It Out”

by David Brock on April 25th, 2013

There’s a great article in the Harvard Business Review, “Figure It Out.”    Be sure to get a copy of it.

The ability to “Figure Things Out,” is critical for sales and business success.  But it seems we overlook it, or try to “engineer” all our support systems around providing all the answers and direction.  We create sales automatons that can follow a process, that can learn a pitch, that can leverage the tools.

As I read articles about critical characteristics for sales people, I never see “the ability to figure things out” as a recruiting characteristic or something we train people on (though, critical problem solving may cover this–but how often do we train people in critical problem solving.)  We used to call it, “street smarts.”

So much of what I see in sales enablement, sales/marketing program development, sales tools, sales process, “playbooks,” content development, sales training, and other things is founded on the principle of trying to anticipate everything the sales person might encounter, giving them the tools, processes, scripts to handle each situation we’ve anticipated. I see very complex roadmaps, flow charts that try to walk step by step through everything the sales person might do.  In other cases, much of the focus seems to be, “let’s teach the sales person where to go to find the answers.”  While that’s important, we can never anticipate every situation the sales person will encounter, we can never provide all of the answers.

To some degree, it seems like all this good work has the unintended consequence of “dumbing down the sales person.”  Too often, we seek to give the sales person all the answers—just follow the directions, use this formula, you will be successful.  Well things don’t work that way.

But too often we create a “culture” of sales people who want the answers and formulas.  We create populations of people eager to move forward, but we have to point them in the right direction and give them the detailed road map of everything they have to do.  They’re busy, there is a lot of activity, but then something happens.  Something that is unanticipated, a difficulty, something that doesn’t match the formula for success.  They don’t have the ability to figure things out, they come running back with, “tell me what to do next.”

Just some little examples–sales people totally dependent on marketing for leads.  If they don’t get enough great leads, they don’t have enough opportunities to make their numbers.  Too many sales people have lost the ability to figure out what to do if they don’t have enough leads.  The answer is easy, prospect, go out and find leads yourself, go figure it out!  Or sales people don’t know how to talk to a customer, “give me a playbook, give me content.”  Ideally we can provide them this, but we can’t provide everything.  Go figure it out–research the customer, find out what they are interested in, figure out what to talk to them about.

Or as managers we do the wrong thing, rather than coaching sales people on how to figure it out, we tell them what to do.  We go through status reviews, get updated, then fail to ask, “What do you think we should do, how should we proceed, what are our exposures, what’s next?”  Instead, we say, “Go do this, this, and this, them come back and tell me the results.”

In addition to creating a group of people that only know how to follow directions, we remove the personal accountability.  “I did everything you told me to do, but still lost–it’s not my fault.”

We can’t drive performance, we can’t excel, we can’t differentiate ourselves, we can’t maximize our value unless we have the ability to “figure it out.”We won’t drive performance, we won’t drive value unless the sales person has the ability to “figure it out.”  Sales is a thinking person’s profession.  Great sales people have the ability to analyze, assess, to think critically, and figure it out.  They’ll leverage whatever resources are available.  They’ll always ask for more.  But their success is not dependent on those things.  If they have none of them, they’ll always figure it out.

We need to provide sales people as much support as possible.  It can help them become more efficient.  At the same time, we need to look for critical thinking, for the ability to figure it out, for the street smarts  that enable the person to move forward regardless of the tools, materials processes.

We need to identify and recruit people who can figure it out.  We need to train and nurture skills of critical thinking, problem solving, independent action and figuring it out.  If we don’t, there is always someone who can figure it out–they’re more likely to win.

There’s another aspect of creating an organization of people who can figure it out.  Very often, they have much better ideas and approaches than we do.

About a year ago, I was asked to help a team.  They were talented marketing and sales programs people.  They were trying to figure out how to increase success in selling a particular product line.  They wanted to grow much faster, but had been struggling.  They had spent a lot of time analyzing the markets, the competition, looking at the data.  They thought about marketing programs, collateral, training, tools.  Nothing they did seemed to give them the traction they needed.  They were struggling.

I asked them, “Who in the sales organization has had some success?”  They looked at me, they had never thought of this.  We identified 5 sales people who had actually had some great success in selling the product.  We invited them to a meeting and asked them, “What do you do?”  They had figured out what they needed to do to be successful.  They had created their own materials and presentations, they had determined the characteristics of the best prospects (turned out the key personas were different than marketing thought).  They figured out how to be successful.

We took their ideas, reshaped all the programs to mirror their success.  The product line took off within six months and they beat their annual target.

Sometimes the best way of looking at driving performance, effectiveness, and results is to find the people who have figured it out, learning from them.

We can’t possibly give our people all the answers.  Frankly, I don’t think we want to.  We need to focus on creating organization of people who have the drive, skills, knowledge and aptitude to figure it out.  Then we have to empower them to do just that.

Perhaps the next time a sales person comes to you, seeking an answer, the proper response is, “I don’t know, why don’t you go figure it out?”

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12 Comments
  1. I call it “Mirroring the Masters,” Dave. Been writing about it and telling people to do it for years. Great post!

    • Your article is brilliant Bob! Do you have a link so others can read? Thanks for sharing. Regards, Dave

  2. Dave,
    I like this post. I concur with you. We train people too much on being able to come up with the right answer to a situation. This goes to the detriment of being able the right questions. Figuring it out starts though with asking the right questions. Managers must learn to trust in the smarts of their people and enable them to acquire the situational knowledge so they can figure out by themselves what to do.

    • Thanks for the comment Christian. I love the concept of “trusting in the smarts of their people.”

  3. I agree in principal that ideally you want salespeople who can “figure it out” on their own. But the challenge in selling has to do with time. Given enough time “most blind squirrels will eventually find a nut”. But if you want a salesperson to make their sales targets in a given time frame then you need them to focus on value add activities. If they are spending time creating their own materials and presentations then this does not scale very well. This is time that they could be using to prospect new accounts. The funnel starts to get real thin at the top and the sales person starts to hope and pray that this one opportunity pans out because they have invested so much time and energy into this one prospect.

    • Bryan: Thanks for the great comment. It’s an important balance–we want to provide the tools, processes, and systems that enable sales people to be as productive and efficient as possible. It’s when we become to prescriptive, or sales people fail to think for themselves, that cause the problem. Crossing that fine line is where we become systemically unproductive and inefficient.

      As we start seeing sales people make excuses, pointing fingers, and blaming others, that helps us see that we are at that point.

      We also need to inject into our training and coaching methods for stimulating that ability. Rather than giving people the answers helping them figure out how to get the answers.

      Thanks for the great comment.

  4. Dave,

    I hate to admit it, but some of the fault lies in the way we sales trainers work. There’s a huge difference in:

    a. presenting the material vs. them actually learning it
    b. retention vs. transfer

    The first is not completely within our control, as the purchasers of training try to cram in as much as possible into as little time out of the field for their salespeople. But I also think professional and personally responsible trainers take responsibility for ensuring that people get it.

    The second point is that it’s one thing for people to remember what is taught and quite another to apply it in novel situations. Some processes (even some sales situations) are simple enough that retention is enough. But complex sales definitely require the ability to transfer what was learned, and there are many teaching techniques that trainers can use to develop this ability. (But as you well know, this requires that the trainer have a huge amount of experience and confidence.)

    • Jack, thanks for your openness. I think the issue is embedded in what/how we train but is also an issue of leadership, coaching, and ongoing development.

      Too often, it seems easier to tell people the answers rather than help them find the answers. We try to be too prescriptive, we provide a rich abundance of materials, even in our coaching sessions we are in tell mode rather than helping them learn and think mode.

      Much of what you outline in your second point is an area where I think trainers and training companies must take a stronger position. For example, in all our training, we always embed a 30-60-90 day follow up plan, primarily focused on managers, to help assure retention and practice. We want people to sustain the skills they have started to develop in the workshop. Sometimes, budget conscious executives want us to eliminate this to reduce the price. Our response is, “Don’t waste you money in the first place. Training as an event never produces sustainable change, so if you want sustainable change, you need to engage your managers in follow up, coaching, development.”

      Thanks for the great and thoughtful comment.

  5. John Sterrett permalink

    Great post, and too true. Too many field sales reps should be Inside Sales, because they see themselves as “Account Managers” (and maybe that is their actual unfortunate title), and they only have the ability to react.

    Our company recently received the resignation of one such, though his title was “Territory Sales Manager”, he only excelled at maintaining current relationships, and was not great at interpreting changes in the market, in his customers, and was lacking the skills necessary to analyze potential prospects and frame a plan of attack to increase sales.

    When hiring, I want someone who has competed and won, or lost at a high level and is really bothered by losing. Whether it be a sport, a dance competition or on the chess team. I want someone who made adjustments, honed their skills, developed a unique technique or skill that the competition didn’t have, that yields results.

    Think of Dirk Nowitzki’s one leg up, un-blockable fade away shot. Unorthodox? Maybe. Effectively solves a problem and yields desired results? Absolutely.

    • Great comment John! We need to look for people who are adaptable, creative, competitive. People who are independent–leveraging everything we can provide, but not limited by that—driven to figure it out.

  6. Perusing older posts tonight, I came across this one, Dave. Great post in totality, as always. But of all your pearls of wisdom in here, I have to admit that my favorite line was: “I asked them, ‘Who in the sales organization has had some success?’ They looked at me, they had never thought of this.”

    Yeah. Therein lies the problem. 😉

    It’s the little things that amuse me.

    • Mike, I’m constantly amazed at how little it takes to amuse you 😉 Thanks for giving me a little chuckle.

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