Picking A Fight In The Dark

Picking A Fight In The Dark: Or, Oh When Will They Ever Learn, by Mark Chussil

Those who are exquisitely aware of the value they bring to decision-making wonder why they struggle to get decision-makers to listen. I have suffered from this. So have you. Pretty much all humans above the age of one know that frustration. Oh when will those decision-makers ever learn?

We will delicately pass over the question of why we don’t ever learn that they’re not going to learn.

A long-running thread in the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) group on LinkedIn asks “Why is it so difficult to sell competitive intelligence?” It’s a reasonable question, especially because, from a CI perspective, competing without CI is like picking a fight in the dark.

(This essay isn’t about CI per se. You can substitute anything else of exquisite value to decision-making. I’ll use “CI” for brevity but I’ll mean any such decision support.)

The question itself — “why is it so difficult to sell” — presumes that the customer, the decision-maker, should buy. Perhaps we should challenge that presumption and ask a different question: what has to happen for a rational decision-maker to decide to buy CI?

Here’s a flowchart that outlines what has to happen, from the decision-maker’s perspective. It is a flowchart, not the flowchart, and your version might be different. Mine might not be exactly right but it’s close enough for now.  

  Picking a Fight in the Dark flowchart


 We notice these things about the flowchart.

  • Five paths lead to “stop” and only one to “go.”
  • The steps that take us toward “go,” expressed from the customer’s perspective, may sound strange to a person already convinced of CI’s value.
  • The steps that take us toward “stop” do not necessarily mean the decision-maker disapproves of CI.

So, why might a rational decision-maker not buy what the CI professional wants to sell? Thinking through which reasons might apply can help the CI pro figure out whether and how to move forward.

  • Lack of information. The decision-maker may not know the threats or opportunities faced by the business. She or he may not know the ability of CI to identify and clarify those threats or opportunities.
  • A belief that the right action is already being taken. If the decision-maker believes that nothing can be done, or that she or he has already set the right action in motion, then there’s no use in getting more data.
  • Overconfidence, groupthink, etc. We humans suffer a variety of biases that affect our decisions. An overconfident person — are you sure it’s not you? — would think it irresponsible to spend time and money to find an answer when he or she already has the answer.
  • Low value of information. For CI to have economic value, it must cost less than the benefit it will provide. The cost of CI is fairly clear. The benefit may not be: it depends on the odds that you’ll learn something new, the odds that the new knowledge will affect action, and the difference that action can make in the bottom line. Using his or her mental calculator, the decision-maker may sincerely come to a different conclusion than you. (See also All About Models.)
  • Not enough. The decision-maker may be out of bandwidth, the company treasure chest might be dry. Asking for something that doesn’t exist, especially if it could lead to further demands for that same nonexistent something, might not fly.

Notice that perceptions, not “reality,” pervade the reasons why a decision-maker may not want to buy what you want to sell. I’m not saying their perceptions are right or wrong. I am saying 1) that they are perceptions and 2) that customers use their perceptions, not yours, to make their purchase decisions.

If you’re finding it difficult to sell CI, then your perceptions, which also are not “reality,” differ from those of the decision-maker. You must change her or his mind to make the sale, or you must change your mind to get past “difficult.” Here I will draw from a chapter called “How to Change Someone’s Mind” in my book Nice Start:

“When I play a game, I assume that I may win or lose. Why would I play if I don’t have an opportunity to win, and why would you play if you don’t? Changing minds is the same thing: I have to be open to the possibility that my mind may change if I want you to be open to the possibility that yours may change.”

The point isn’t to pick a fight with the decision-maker. The point is to dispel the dark. Add light to the conversation, and receive it too. Whoever wins, you both win.

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