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What’s The ROI Of Stupidity?

by David Brock on June 1st, 2014

I wrote,  How Can We Deliver Insights Without Critical Thinking Skills?  Along with Mike Kunkle’s 22nd Century Selling Skills presentation, it’s stirred up some interesting discussions.

My friend, Gary Hart, stirred the pot a little by posing the question, “Is there an ROI in developing critical thinking skills?”  I think it’s an awesome question, I think unconsciously, that may be in the minds of many business and sales leaders as they look for solutions to help improve the performance of sales people.

I suppose the case can be made that we don’t need to invest in developing the critical thinking/problem solving skills in some product/solution categories.  In fact we see billions of dollars a year done though ecommerce, shopping cart sales, electronic trading networks.  Companies like Amazon have changed the face of B2C selling, innovating (Hmmm, sounds like critical thinking), and destroying whole categories of Bricks and Mortar sales outlets, not to mention eliminating 10’s of thousands of sales jobs.

Undoubtedly, there are fledgling companies innovating new business models that will throw Amazon.

That’s what innovation is about.  It’s constantly rethinking, and challenging the status quo.  It’s about developing new business models, looking at things in ways that have never been considered before, developing whole new approaches.  In every segment of society, in every business, in every job we see constant change, innovation, improvement.  Underlying the ability to do this is the ability to think critically, analyze, and solve problems.

In recent years, we’ve seen many thoughtful studies about the profession of sales and what separates top performers from others.  Research done by the CEB and published in Challenger, research done by the Rain Group and published in Insight Selling, thoughtful research done by CSO Insights, Forrester, Sirius Decisions, Gartner, and others.  We see thoughtful books like Jill Konrath’s Agile Selling offering similar observations.  While the results of each are a little different, there are some underlying commonalities.

  • Buying has changed, and buyers look for vendors to engage them very differently.
  • What top performers do has changed and they engage buyers very differently.  In this, lots of words are tossed around like Challenger, Insight, Provocation, Agile, Consultative, and so forth.  But underlying each of these are some commonalities–top performers engage buyers differently, they get buyers to think differently, they think and act differently.  And the results they produce, both for their customers and for their own organizations are profoundly different than the rest of sales organizations.
  • General sales performance is down, win rates, reps making quota, and so forth.  But there are profound differences in performance between the leaders and everyone else.

All the data identifies similar dynamics.  Underlying these performance differences are several constants:  Constant innovation, constant change, constant improvement, constant learning—and what drives this is critical thinking, analysis, problem solving, and a dose of collaboration.

So while all the data and learned opinions point to the need for raising the skills and capabilities of our sales people, so much of the actual implementation seems to be going the opposite direction.  “Let’s dumb things down, so even the sales guys can do it.”  We do this through leveraging technology inappropriately, over reliance on scripting, over-engineering the sales process, micromanagement, focus on compliance, formula driven sales enablement, and other things designed to remove thinking from the process.

We, also, see sales executives struggling with challenging decisions:  How do we continue to drive growth, performance, productivity, efficiency?  How do we manage change?  How do we manage the cost of selling?  How do we do more with less?  The answers to these questions are tough and varied.  While addressing these issues for the short term, they have to be balanced with a long term view–so the decisions managers make today have to support long term growth and sustainability.

People, talent management, talent development is critical in all aspects of business.  We have to seek to attract and retain the best people we can.  We have to train, coach, develop them to maximize their performance and long term contribution to our organizations.  We have to help them achieve their full potential.  We have to provide the tools, resources, to help them perform, as effectively and efficiently as possible.We have to do all these things, not just because it’s the right thing to do with our people, but it’s critical to our business success.

Complex B2B sales is all about people (well all business is about people).  It’s through smart, motivated people that we innovate, create, improve, change, and learn.  It’s through thoughtful conversations that we have with customers that help them do this–constructing great value in the process.  If we are to offer leadership to our customers, if we are to outperform competitors, if we are to grow our own capabilities–leading our segments, responding to new threats–both to our customers and ourselves, we must excel at critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving.

The alternatives are going out of business–being lost because we became irrelevant to our customers and markets.

So Gary raises as very provocative and thoughtful question, “Is there an ROI on critical thinking?”

But to me the more important question is, “Is there an ROI on stupidity—or even mediocrity?”

  1. Spot on, Dave. Hope we can keep the discussion going.

    This whole thing reminds me of the quote about the discussion between the CFO and CEO.

    CFO: “What if we spend money to train these sales reps and they leave us?”
    CEO: “What if we don’t, and they stay?”

    I still contend that anyone who says we need to reduce the need for sales people to think, lives in la-la land or is just hawking some enablement solution they think does that.

    In my time spent researching top sales producers in a variety of industries and sales nuances, over many years, I have met some incredibly bright people. And many of the top 4% were top-notch critical thinkers (although I can’t say that broadly).

    To be clear, I never met one top 4 percenter who said, “You should hear what my client said when I showed her the Force Field Analysis method” or “When I used the Cause and Effects technique and helped a client get to a root cause, they were sold,” because most have never been exposed to or trained in the methods. Granted. But when you talk with them about how they approach and solve client problems and observe them at work, they often did similar things, intuitively, on their own.

    In the current business climate and where things are headed, companies that don’t invest in the building the Four Pillars of Sales Value Creation and analysis and problem-solving skills, will be left behind, in my opinion.

    See the post I published yesterday for more on the Four Pillars:

    By the way, I am a huge fan of Mind Tools. are you familiar with their site? If not, check it out sometime. Here’s a piece on RCA (root cause analysis) that doesn’t require a login:

    Stay the course, brother. Time to bring back “THINK” (the high impact of neurons and knowledge), lol.

    • Mike, thanks both for the comment and for being such an articulate advocate on what it takes to be a top performer. There are lots of advanced tools–even lots of simple one’s that people can use to help with their critical thinking ( is a great resource for those). However, as you state, even without those, top performers engage their customers differently, more deeply, and more rigorously than those who struggle to memorize a pitch.

      Thanks for driving this discussion!

  2. Yes, I believe there is an ROI on mediocrity. The return is that things are easier. Change does not have to be endured or navigated; the status quo is preserved. One is not, in fact, required to think, which is often the desired result.

    Mediocrity is the “easy button,” and many people prefer “easy” over thinking and challenging the norm. Dumbing things down, over-engineering the sales process, and micro-managing people – in my opinion – is a methodology for avoiding challenges and difficulties and critical thinking.

    Critical thinking and new skills require people to engage, and change, and adapt, and that mindset is – in my experience – definitely the exception. The good news is that, since there seems to be a natural resistance to traveling that road, there will always be ample opportunity for someone to capitalize on the void.

    • Kelly, I’m so happy to see you joining this discussion. There will always be outstanding opportunities for the top performers. It’s a shame, too many seem to accept mediocrity–but it’s expensive, in lost productivity/higher expense, lost opportunities, and badly served customers. Leaders that accept this as OK performance and don’t try to do something about this aren’t serving their teams or companies as they should.

      Thanks so much for the comment.

  3. Dave, your article impeccably addresses the value of investing critical thinking and problem solving skills for salespeople. When I posed that question, I wondered why sales training programs focus more on the explicit knowledge; sales, tactics, tools, process, etc. and less on the explicit skills like problem solving and critical thinking.

    My first thought was cost and return. With tighter budgets, sales executives dole out their money where they can see the impact. If a sales leader can maintain a 10% increase and stay slightly ahead of projections with programs that provide direct, measurable results, why would they gamble on a larger gain with training that does not easily provide measurable results?

    You posed the better question of how much does it cost to not train and coach the tacit skills.

    The most valuable things a salesperson should know are:

    – Why did I lose a sale and why did I win a sale? If a salesperson cannot answer these questions, they will continue losing sales they could or should win and will not be able to duplicate winning behaviors.

    – Why am I not getting full price? Why am I trapped in discounting? These are questions the entire team from the front line to the C-suite need answers to create better strategies from marketing to the post sales.

    – Why am I not getting a larger share of wallet? How well does the salesperson understand each customer’s internal needs, their customers’ customers’ needs and wants, corporate goals and objectives, individual stakeholders’ needs and expectations, to name a few (this list can be applied to all of the above).

    The answers to out two questions “How do I measure the ROI of training problem solving and critical thinking skills” and “What’s the ROI of stupidity” are not as intangible as they sound. Test your sales team for these skills and compare your top performers to your bottom 80%. If the top performers excel at these skills, then the impact is clear. Correlate revenue generation to these skills and measure the difference. I’m sure you or Mike Kunkle could make this measurable!

    The next question a sales executive wants answered is, how do I know this will work? Send one middle performer for training and measure the new results.

    Two questions about why this isn’t being done, is this too abstract and or too much work for the busy executive buried in reports?

    • Gary, thanks for provoking and continuing to drive the discussion. The issues are very complex. Training is a huge component of it–I don’t find any of the large training companies focusing on critical thinking, analysis, problem solving (not to mention change management, project management, collaboration). Those are critical skills–yet most tend to focus on this year’s version of what they have been doing for decades. Those skills are important, but we need to add the others.

      But as I mention, it’s not just a training problem. It’s a leadership issue—what are our expectations of our people? How do we recruit the very best? How do we coach, develop them? How do we get serious about changing the way we engage our customers, rather than just do lip service providing them with training on a pitch the contains the words Insight and Challenge.

      To be honest, I don’t think we need any more justification and studies. There’s too much stuff out there that points out the differences in performance between people who can engage their customers thoughtfully and be relevant. The issue is, trying to do the things top performers do.

      Thanks so much for the comment and help on this important discussion.

    • Brett Williamson permalink


      Critical thinking is fundamental area of sales that I strongly advocate for, it is a key skill to look for in any sales recruiting effort. When it is lacking as one of the tools it is skill usually the root of mediocre or poor sales results.

      You mentioned one area in your comments that clearly demonstrate this effect. Price discounting. With even rudimentary critical thinking it is easy to see through, and put aside, a buyer’s demand for a price discount. When discounting is a sales person’s main response to buyer’s resistance it is usually symptomatic of a poor overall effort that has limited critical thinking as a base.

      Dave, great topic as always!

      • Thanks so much Brett!

        • Correction (People like me who are prone to mistakes need an edit button)

          “I wondered why sales training programs focus more on the explicit knowledge; sales, tactics, tools, process, etc. and less on the tacit skills like problem solving and critical thinking.”

  4. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave, yes there is an ROI on stupdity! Put in the equation lost sales, employee turnover, internal conflict, bloated egos, micro managers and a whole list of negative consequences. If only we knew.
    For a possible solution to mediocrity do our veterans know anything about critical thinking, decision making under uncertainty, effective training, the consequences on mediorocity of decision making or competition? Do our veterans know about courage, commitment, honor, teamwork or other postive character traits?
    I wonder if our friends in the military have the same view of mediocrity? Not likely. Col. John Church USMC, 2 master degrees, 30 year US Marine Career will finish his PhD in Communication this summer. Dr. Joseph Thomas, USNA,USMC – 2 Master Degrees & PhD Leadership. Major Todd Parker, Retired Army Ranger – 2 Master Degrees. Major General Clifford Stanley, MS-John Hopkins, Ed – UPenn.
    Ask Marc Benioff, CEO of why General Colin Powell is one of his mentors.
    Our veterans have many of the skills mentioned in the above blog post and are ready and willing to assist our efforts. All we have to do is ask.

  5. What do you guys mean by: critical thinking skills?

    • Great question Michael, we probably toss the concept around without really defining it. To my mind, it includes the ability to analyze, assess, evaluate, reflect. break-down, re-assemble ideas and concepts. It includes the ability to understand underlying assumptions (perhaps questioning/challenging them), to develop a position based on the analysis, to articulate it, and defend it with data and facts. It includes the ability to look at an issue from a number of points of view, understanding the differences. Also, the ability to listen critically to other views on the same subject, changing their own point of view where it makes sense. Someone who has strong critical thinking skills can assess the credulity of data from disparate sources, integrate them in a meaningful, structured manner, and present their own ideas to others.

      I’ll stop here. What’s your view?

      • David,

        I used to teach “Critical Thinking” in University, also known as informal logic.

        We never could get people to think critically after a 12 week course.

        Of course, we were comparing undergraduates to experienced faculty -who it might be said could also fail to think critically.

        Here is a comprehensive discussion about informal logic.

        You might find parts of it helpful for further discussion.

        • Mike, thanks for the reference, I actually found that a few weeks ago, as I was searching for resources for people to use on critical thinking. It’s very good–though a little tough to wade through.

          I’m actually trying to put together some ideas and resources to help develop people’s capabilities in this area, so I’d love any others you could point me to. I tend to think learning how to think critically (informal logic) is one of those continuous journeys.

          Actually, I think there are some lessons that can be learned/copied from K-12 Education. I sit on the boards of a couple of Not For Profits in this segment. Turns out, critical thinking is one of the biggest concerns, hottest areas of discussion in K-12. There’s actually some interesting stuff going on there.

          Thanks, as always, for your contributions. Regards, Dave

          • Dave, point me at the K-12 stuff and I will take a look.

            If I were giving a course, I would start with two concepts.

            a) Confirmation Bias in individual judgments.

            b) Cognitive Dissonance for choices that really matter to an individual.

            If I were giving a lecture, I would drop a) in favor of b)

            Most of our selective reasoning can be traced to three things.

            a) Historically having no or minimal control over the external environment, yet making complicated decisions nonetheless. So, stories are favored over evidence.

            b) The tools of the mind that allow reasoned conclusions also allow rationalization. A great mathematical mind like John Nash can also hear voices because his schizophrenia, but not be able to distinguish between the voice of reason and the voices of madness.

            c) Living in a social world in which what happened in the past is just one of many things that could have equally happened. Over determination is favoured over living with some uncertainty.

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