Paralysis by analysis

Russ Kathrein - Selling our industry

In the American Civil War, one of the first generals to lead the Union was George B. McClellan. By all accounts he had a knack for organization and structure, and he is given credit for raising and training the initial Union Army of the Potomac after the disastrous first Battle of Bull Run. He was so successful at increasing the morale and strength of the Union army, he was made the General-in-Chief. He seemed to do everything right in getting the North ready for battle except for one thing. He could not pull the trigger and commit his troops to battle.

He was not a coward. He instead was a person who was always collecting more and more information, often conflicting, that kept him from taking any decisive action about where and when the Union army should engage the Confederates. It got so bad that President Lincoln met with McClellan’s generals and told them, “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.” McClellan was eventually relieved of his command, and after several other ineffective choices to lead the Union Army, Lincoln settled on Ulysses S. Grant, who was far more decisive and aggressive. And the rest is history.

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McClellan’s affliction is not limited to military leaders. Many leaders today delay making decisions until they can get more information or data. This is only compounded as more and more data becomes available from the use of more computers and the internet. Some people are convinced that if they can just get enough data and good information, it will tell them exactly what they should do without any risk of failure. These people rarely rise into leadership positions because they do not have the risk tolerance necessary to lead effectively. They are good contributors and can be invaluable to an effective leader who makes the hard choices.

There is another dependence on data that can also be destructive to leadership, and that is using the collection of an ever-increasing amount of data as a way to avoid making a decision or even going on record as being against something. I worked with a peer who heard our pitch for a new business model we wanted to roll out in his area. After what I thought was a convincing presentation by the people leading the effort, I could see he was still hesitant. He told us he appreciated our work, but he then went on to request a lot of additional detailed information to support what we had just presented. Sensing there was something more behind his request, I point blank asked him, “Are you curious and need more information, or are you uncomfortable with the business model and likely to decline?” He relaxed his posture, either in relief or resignation, and admitted that he wasn’t that interested in the business model. I thanked him for his honesty and told him by telling us no upfront, he saved us a tremendous amount of additional work. We moved on and rolled out our plan in other areas.

Most of us have worked for people who, no matter how much we prepare, either want more time or more information. This can be just how they process things. It can also be helpful if their analysis is complementary to ours, and they bring new or different insights into the equation. It can also be that they are uncomfortable with the idea or with going on record supporting the idea. Save yourself some time and get them to tell you early on what they think about the proposal, and ask them if by getting them more information you will be closing the sale, or will you still be trying to convince them to be a buyer.

As for ourselves, how often have you used the pretext of needing more information as a way to buy time to get caught up or just to get around to being able to truly study the proposal. I have seen buyers request more and more information from salespeople, and then after it is provided, not use it or even look at it before they say no. Better to be honest and just tell your subordinate or salesperson, “I need some additional time,” than to send them on a wild goose chase for information you will never use. And if you don’t like the idea, just say so and tell them why. They will appreciate that you respected their time and that you were honest and straightforward.

Russ Kathrein is with the LBM Division of Do it Best Corp. based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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