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Learn Selling, not Fads

Why fads are best ignored.

As a hands-on, no-nonsense practitioner of innovation, I feel it’s “on brand” to warn my audience, if one exists, of the bullshit that pretends to be business theory. There’s always a management fad, like “Disruption”, “Business Canvas”, “Design Thinking” and, more recently, “Jobs to be Done” (JTBD). 

They are mostly bullshit and best ignored. There’s a far better approach to rote-learning of faddish methodologies. (And the clue is in the term “rote-learning” vs. critical thinking.)

In my experience, fads take root in corporations not because of the merits of their proposals, but due to a much simpler explanation: many corporate folks are illiterate, in the broader sense, and relatively poor at thinking critically. They are often very good process automatons who cannot even spot an orthodoxy that might be worth challenging. Ironically, that is often the claimed marketing spin that many best-seller business books take: orthodoxy busters! (This is, of course, fantasy, as I hope to convey in a follow-up post.)

Often, some manager proposes a book to be read by staff loyalists, who duly obey. The exuberance for the best-seller is not due to its stunning content, as they basically all say the same thing, even the ones trying to project a “we-all-thought-this-but-it’s-that” kind of magical insight. The exuberance is because what the book is saying is novel to its blinkered reader.

Firstly, let me tell you how to write one of those we-all-thought-this-but-it’s-that kind of business book, as they all follow the same lazy formula. Go read a bunch of books or papers on some kind of social science, say behavioral psychology, behavioral economics or heuristics theory, and then recast their mostly academic findings within a business context. Sprinkle on a few anecdotes (or “case studies”) and, voila!

That’s how they’re typically written, as any cursory examination reveals. One might be better advised to read the original paper, as it’s a lot quicker (as it avoids the 200 pages of filler material). 

However, the problem is that vast swathes of social science experiments cannot be replicated, so as a source of base material we ought to be skeptical.

Let’s explore the nonsense that is JTBD theory.

Following the formula for “convincing” arguments (used by fad authors), here’s my own anecdote.

In 1987, I had the good fortune to attend a business class at the University of Reading where I was studying Elec. Eng. Luckily, I was taking the newly formulated Bachelor of Engineering that had been vetted by the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE). The idea of the B. Eng. was to create more “rounded engineers” who understood the wider context of engineering. This involved replacing more esoteric maths/physics elements with business and law classes, along with a greater degree of practical pursuits. For example, I learned how to manufacture a part using a CAD machine, design for EMC compatibility, and so on. 

In one business class, the professor told the story of Parker Pens. It was an early example of management consulting. The short version is that the consultant hired by Parker Pens asked the management board what business they were in, to which they replied with a variety of answers along the lines of “we’re in the stationery/pen/ink/office-supplies business” etc, to which the consultant consistently replied: “oh no you’re not”. (When I hear those words in my head, I think of pantomime, which is probably an apt metaphor.)

With some indignation, the part of the management board finally gave in and begged the consultant to reveal the “correct” answer.

He replied: “You are in the gift business.”

He had, via the simple process of observation (allowing himself to be puzzled by simple things) noticed that many customers were buying the pens as gifts.

In the JTDB parlance, the job the customer is hiring the product to do is to be a gift, not a pen. The pen part is kind of incidental. (Well, we can argue another time how true that is in the broad sense.) 

In other words, back in the 80s, the idea of figuring out the buyer’s needs was not novel. Indeed, any rudimentary sales book would point out the same thing. It is perhaps not surprising that my father, who was a salesperson for a medical ultrasound company, came up with many great product ideas for the manufacturer. That’s because he spent thousands of hours demonstrating equipment to actual doctors in actual medical scenarios, unfiltered by the imagination of the engineers who made the product.

As an aside, we made basic selling techniques a must-have part of my children’s custom education. It was not an exercise in how to make money or run a business, but in the psychology and experience of “hill topping” — i.e. seeing the problem from the other person’s point of view and, more importantly in selling, realizing that their view is the only one that matters (to them). Put simply, I regarded the basic technique as part of being literate (in the broader sense of knowing via experience versus reading in a book).

It should come as no surprise that for me, basic sales training should be part of any company’s staff development program. I was lucky to learn the basics by osmosis from my father and then later in university where, as part of the B. Eng program we were forced to present our project ideas with as much commercial realism as possible. Indeed, in my case I was lucky to develop a product (fiber-optic multiplexor) for a real company, earning me the Von Nostrand Rheinhold prize for innovation.

Later in life, I had the good fortune to spend a week in Dubai learning the legendary SPIN-selling technique.

Selling is a practical skill that can be learned. Reading a faddish book is not, especially within the typical corporate context of slavishly following the “obligatory reads” list, whether dictated by a manager or not.

That management consultant who worked for Parker Pens was clearly an intelligent person. He understood to use observation unfettered by orthodoxy. He did not feel obliged by orthodoxy to read from the “we are in the stationery business” script.

It should come as no surprise that whenever I encounter a potentially new client for some initial project scoping, I always begin with the question: “What business are you in?”

The answer that I am looking for is not a rote response — i.e. to recite the business category. Yet this is often the response.

What, here, is the ultimate malady?

It is an inability to think critically and curiously.

Yet there is almost always no such program or pursuit in corporate life. Best-seller books are read pretty much in the same dumb way they’re written: as a kind of source of magic (snake oil). Yet we know there are no magic formulas or “secrets” to success. The irony is that the very same psychology that leads us to search for magic is part of the source material used by these best-seller authors to peddle their fake solutions to very real problems.