Gladwell's Culture Matters

On Monday night I went to one of Malcolm Gladwell’s two back-to-back London talks as part of his new book promotion.  His challenge to get you thinking in different ways is one I admire.  And deservingly lucrative.  He’s sure to have his third successive best-seller, as a broadsheet reviewer concurs, and it did inspire me to think over what could I preach on that could similarly fill 4,000 theatre seats at £25 a pop.  I’m sure his cut of the £100k revenue from this single night’s work would keep food on his table for a while.  Perhaps the only criticism is, that at a smidgen over an hour, it didn’t perhaps represent the best value for money I’ve ever had at a live gig.


Nevertheless, he chose to delve into one key chapter in his book that talks about why aeroplanes fall out of the sky.  A word first though, on his delivery.  His self-effacing manner is a winner with an English audience.  Softly spoken, using his hands demonstrably but without aggression, and a rhythm to his quiet tones that ensured you remained focussed.  He also used the great tactic of starting each ‘section’ by outlining a ‘problem’.  He set the framework for the puzzle he was then set to solve over the next ten minutes or so.  A great way of maintaining attention.

Small Steps To Disaster

For us solution sellers, the key lessons are in why disasters occur in what are judged to be complex situations.  Think about any big, complex deal you’re working on.  The good news is that a single destructive, catastrophic event is not going to happen.  The reasons why planes crash are because an average of 7 small things go worng.  Each in isolation is inconsequential, but combine them, and Boom.  That feels eerily similar to what happens when a deal goes South.

Environmental Factors

Is the weather the chief contributor to a crash?  Well, not really.  Bad weather is only present in roughly half of all crash situations.  What about being behind schedule?  Again, 52% of all crashes we’re told take place when the plane’s running late.  And how about the relationship between pilot and co-pilot?  44% of the time, disaster strikes when the pair are flying together for the first time.  So, on their own, inconclusive.  But.  When these three states all hit in one go?  Goodnight.  And we were treated to an in depth account of just such a time for a Columbian jet ditching 16 miles short of JFK in 1990.  Combine these factors and enough doubt, headache, fatigue, uncertainty and mistakes crop up to fatally damage the entire enterprise.  A telling message for anyone managing a complex sale.

Avoid Mitigation

A wonderful explanation of the different ways people can suggest something was perhaps the biggest sales takeaway.  He ran through six ways of asking for action.  At the top was the direct command.  (my example: “Sign here”).  All the way down to the (weak) hint.  (“We’ve got really simple order papers”).  The hierarchy goes something like:

  1. Command
  2. Crew Obligation
  3. Crew Statement
  4. Queries
  5. Preferences
  6. Hint

Pages 7 and 8 of this pdf describes these in this context further (and two more useful ones; Self-Directives & Permission-Seeking Questions).  I daresay you can read the book to have a fuller explanation of these.  Yet the findings are obvious.  You risk not get things done as you want, the farther down the list you drop.  You can work out fairly easily sales situations for any of these.  For starters, here’s a few simple ‘closes’ as my initial stab:

Communication Style Sales Close Example
Command “sign here, here, and here”
Crew Obligation “I think we need to get this in writing”
Crew Suggestion “let’s go through the paperwork now
Query “you planning to sign?”
Preference “I think going ahead now would be good”
Hint “getting this process moving before month-end works well”
Self-Directive “I’m going to put you down for some now”
Permission-Seeking “you want me to kick this off for you?”

Of course, a sale isn’t quite the same thing as life-and-death decisions in a frenzied cockpit, but even so, it’s a neat reminder of how you can remove all ambiguity from the final procedure.

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