Paying for Bad News #1: Closed Minds
by Mark Chussil
This series of four posts was published as a single article by SCIP in the April-June 2012 issue of Competitive Intelligence Magazine. (SCIP is Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals.) You can read or download that version of the article.
With his heartfelt goodbye-cruel-world article “Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber” in The Atlantic, Eric Garland sparked an electronic blaze on LinkedIn. His article fired up many people (see Acknowledgements), including me, in the fields of competitive strategy and competitive intelligence over a few days in April 2012.
The article and commentary hovered around three themes, which I’ll call Closed Minds, Distorted Markets, and Stormy World. Those themes are perennially old and current-events fresh.
I’m not saying the themes are wrong. I am saying I don’t think the evidence establishes they’re right. They might be right, but they aren’t right yet. Until they are right I believe it’s worth considering other perspectives.
This essay, Closed Minds, is the first of four. It is my commentary on Mr. Garland’s article, and my commentary on the commentary on his article. See the others: Distorted Markets, Stormy World, and Beyond The Themes.
The Closed Minds Theme
Situation: I gave my client bad news.
Observation: My client didn’t like the bad news.
Outcomes: My client didn’t act on the bad news and didn’t ask for more bad news.
Conclusions: Clients don’t want to pay for bad news. Clients are closed-minded.
A Familiar Anecdote
The Closed Minds theme does not tally successful and unsuccessful consulting engagements. It is not a formal analysis. It is an anecdote, or maybe a collage of several.
It is an anecdote to which pretty much all human consultants can relate. Who among us has not experienced rejection or pushback? “They” just don’t get it. We all know the words to the lamentation and we all join the chorus on cue, and because we all sing along we think the song is good and true.
My own anecdotal experience contradicts the Closed Minds anecdotes. The executives who hire me to conduct business war games rarely (about 2%) have a particular outcome in mind. My clients often say explicitly that they want to prevent or dislodge complacency; they want to be more open to news, good and bad.
It is possible I am interpreting my anecdotal evidence correctly and the Closed Minds proponents are interpreting their anecdotal evidence correctly. Both can be true if our anecdotes are drawn from different groups of people. It’s like getting different results from election-year focus groups because I talk to Democrats and you talk to Republicans. Perhaps people who buy news are more prone to Closed Minds resistance than are people who buy strategies. Not to mention that there’s simply more bad news during times of recession, burst bubbles, unemployment, and gridlock.
I’m Not Closed-Minded, I’m Principled and Busy
The Closed Minds theme is built on anecdotes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its proponents are misinterpreting the anecdotes. Closed-minded people do walk the earth, and some of them become clients. The difficulty is in generalizing from the anecdotes. Not all bad-news deliveries lead to Closed Minds outcomes; open-minded people also walk the earth, and some of them become clients too.
Are closed-minded clients more plentiful than open-minded clients? If anything, I’d expect the reverse. Why would a closed-minded person pay for any news at all?
Think of it this way. When the question arose “who wants to pay for bad news?,” my response was “smart people.” It’s smart to want bad news early. Later on it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s why I think that at least some clients are not closed-minded, and that’s why I think the Closed Minds theme may be true occasionally but not usually.
No one thinks of him- or herself as closed-minded. Principled perhaps, or the proud possessor of superior evidence or expertise, or even too busy to fuss with small stuff, but not closed-minded. Closed-minded is a label bestowed by the other person.
Even though no one thinks of him- or herself as closed-minded, I doubt that anyone is open-minded all the time on every subject. Still, before we stamp a person “closed-minded” we might well consider whether another label fits better.
In other words, don’t assume that a client who rejects bad news must be closed-minded. Ask why an intelligent, open-minded client might reject the news. You can always decide they’re closed-minded later, after you’ve been open-minded about it.
Reasons to Reject Bad News
Here are some reasons why an intelligent client might reject your bad news:
- They know something you don’t know.
- They need time to process what you said.
- They’ve heard contrary opinions or evidence, and they disagree with you.
- They have a strong vested interest in the status quo or in sunnier forecasts.
- They’re under terrible pressure to perform or they’ve made huge, irrevocable commitments. They’re not going to be thrilled when you tell them they’re going to fail.
- They misunderstood you or you were unclear.
- The bad economy or cost-cutting has sapped their company of resources, so they don’t have the means to do anything about bad news other than be frustrated.
- The audience is, shall we say, awkward. Imagine customers, suppliers, or top management are in the room. Some attendees, such as investor relations, might even be legally required to disclose bad news.
- They don’t see a way to deal with the bad news and/or you haven’t provided (or been asked for) a way out of the mess.
- They’re not paying for bad news, they’re paying for solutions.
I’m not saying a client receiving bad news is right or wrong to feel those things. I’m only saying it’s understandable for a human to feel those things. They’re rational from the client’s perspective, and, despite appearances, they don’t necessarily close the client’s mind permanently. Those possibilities also suggest ways we can deal more delicately with clients and even assist them further.
Finally, there is a very human side to the Closed Minds theme. If the client rejects what I have to say and is closed-minded, it’s sad but it’s not my fault. If the client rejects what I have to say but is not closed-minded, perhaps I am wrong. That’s not a happy prospect to contemplate, especially if I have a big reputation or my words affect many jobs and big bucks. In other words, it’s bad news for me, and it’s my turn to resist it. I’m not saying we’re right or wrong to blame the client instead of ourselves. I’m just saying we humans have a built-in deflector shield. I’m suggesting that the insight we gain by temporarily lowering the shield can make the pain worthwhile.
Next, Read Part Two: Distorted Markets
Click here to read part two in this series of four essays. That part is about the Distorted Markets theme.
The LinkedIn e-conversation, in the Corporate Planning, Strategy & Strategic Market Segmentation group, contained wisdom from James Andrus, Babette Bensoussan, Ben Gilad, August Jackson, Alan Michaels, Seena Sharp, and many others. People cited Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Kahneman, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Michael Porter. We covered blind spots, business war games, the curse of success, honing the craft, industry databases, News Radars, oligopolies, political influence, and strategy simulations. I have done my best to reflect that commentary in my essay. Blame mistakes on me, and credit wisdom to them. My thanks to Sean Campbell for sage advice.
 That doesn’t mean there’d be zero closed-minded clients. I’m suggesting only that there’s a reason for there to be fewer closed- than open-minded clients.
 I mentioned earlier that I’ve conducted business war games for executives who had a particular outcome in mind. In one case, the war game showed a major commitment would fail. The executive kept the commitment, and went down with it. In another, the executive reversed course, wrote off a few million in development costs, and continues to climb the corporate ladder.
 For further reading on this subject, called cognitive dissonance, we need barely go beyond the title of a book written by psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me).