On Average, Still Dead

“We must keep in mind the story of the statistician who drowned while trying to wade across a river with an average depth of four feet. That is to say, in a culture that reveres statistics, we can never be sure what sort of nonsense will lodge in people’s heads.”

     –  Neil Postman (1931 – 2003), American writer, critic, and philosopher

Yesterday on over-reliance on data, today on an equally dangerous pursuit…basing strategies on averages.

The use of averages denies context.  Not just the failure to acknowledge the human element — any context at all.  Averages are numbers used by procurement teams — probably seein’s how the procurement function seeks to strip all the differentiated value out of a buying decision.

Especially in the profession of selling, we have to be very careful with averages.  Perhaps Pat closes 25% of the deals in which Pat engages.  What if they’re the smallest deals?  What if the problem isn’t the number of deals Pat closes, but the number in which Pat engages?

Postman’s perspective sums it up well.  We can use averages (numbers, stories, lots of things) to rationalize what we want to believe, or we can dig until we find out what really matters.





Death by Data vs Deciding

“The inherent flaw in analytics is that data don’t take into account the human element.”

–  Brian Ferentz, Offensive Coordinator for The University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team, in a superb long-form HawkCentral podcast with Chad Liestekow

Data is a tool — and used correctly it’s a dandy tool.

It’s not an end-all, be-all — and with the exception of God, I’ve not found an end-all, be-all in my life or career.

Ferentz has been a polarizing figure of late, magnified by the fact that he is the son of the head coach at Iowa.  He’s a really smart dude, like many major college coaches, however, and he approaches his job in many of the ways we should approach ours.  Remembering, of course, that we’re human, too, and subject to a mistake here and there.

This quote / part of the conversation occurs at the 83:85 point of the podcast and the context is set around a decision made in a game by a legendary NFL coach, under whom Ferentz (dad and son) have mentored.  The data said, “Do this!”  The human element contradicted the data.

You know what, for those of you not interested in listening to a three-hour podcast with a coach — here’s the deal.  A few years back, in a game between New England and Indianapolis in the NFL, the Patriots were faced with a 4th down — and the play card, the analytics, the data — they all said, “PUNT!”  In fact, I think it might have been in the “Punt, you idiot!” column on the play sheet.  The other team’s quarterback though, was one Peyton Manning, who had already engineered a 20+ point comeback in the second half of the game.

“If we give the ball back to Peyton Manning,” head coach Bill Belichick said afterwards, “we lose.”

So, flying in the face of the data, New England went for it.  They failed.  Manning got the ball back.  They lost.  It was worth the risk to have a shot to avoid the inevitable.

The fact of the matter is sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.  The data will always be with us, but we also have to read the deal, the momentum, the market and the intangibles – and especially the people.  Remember, too, as leaders, we have to accept that armchair quarterbacks will second guess us, whether we win or lose.

Ferentz says, “You can put too much on the math, and also on the human element.  That’s a cop out for coaches, either way.”  His point?  Leaders get paid to decide — and we have to have the courage to decide based on all the inputs available to us – and then to own the outcomes.




Snippet Society

“I must be a mermaid.  I have no fear of depth and a great fear of shallow living.”

–  Anais Nin (1903 – 1977), American – French – Cuban writer

Then here’s to the mermaids!

Listening to sports radio on a short drive, a couple of the regular hosts were talking about how little depth there was in sports fans today — and then, they readily admitted they were part of the problem.  Difference Makers ought to ask, “Are we part of the problem?”

We live in a snippet society.  It leads us to think we know when we almost never really do.  We can Tweet or Post our way into the conversation, using confrontational or confronting language and hyperbole and feed the stupidity.  If we’re not careful, we become part of the vitriol and divisiveness that makes it more and more difficult to be productive and approachable.

The snippet society has created headlines without stories behind them.  The snippet society has made us sacrifice depth of understanding for the “rush” of evoking a response.

Why is that batter in a slump?  Millions of people who’ve never played the game pontificate on what he ought to do.  Why did that amazing gymnast shut it down during the sports’ greatest ten-days?  Millions of people who can barely walk on a sidewalk, let alone do a flip on a 4-inch wide slab of wood raised more than four feet off the floor.

Why did that Client cancel their deal?  Why did that prospect buy from our competitor?  Why did that customer stay with us even when we botched her order? Why is Pat always late on our assignments?  They must be dumb, uninformed, lazy or slow.  That’s what the snippet society tells us.

Here’s the truth…




Unless we’re willing to ask.  To go deep.  And, scary though it may be, even when we ask, even when we go deep, we still might not really know.

But we will have gone deep.  We will have exhibited enough caring and effort to try to know and we will be better for the effort.  We will stop fearing the depth and come to loathe the shallows.

Shallow people criticize the slump, critique the mental toughness and assume to know the reasons for someone else’s actions.  Shallow people are boldly, brashly over-confident without bothering to seek the truth.  Shallow people miss one fundamental truth that Difference Makers keep near the surface; Everyone has a story.

Difference Makers go deep enough to know — or at least have insight into — the stories around them.



Evolution in Negotiation

“Something is better than nothing to a purely logical mind. Give the problem to a human, and you must deal with three million years of evolution.”

–  David McRaney, in his book, “You Are Not So Smart…”

The “problem” in question is the old “Ultimatum Game.”  You win a million dollars in the lottery, but there’s a catch.  You have to offer a complete stranger a share of the money, and if they say no to your offer, you both get nothing.

How much do you offer?

It’s Chapter 20 in the book, and it’s base learning for negotiators.  We might make a completely rational offer from our perspective and get nothing in return — because we’re negotiating with humans.  The fallacy in the all-or-nothing approach to negotiation is behind why so many companies are trying to procurement-ize* everything. “If we can get to a completely objective analysis of the product or service, we’ll just choose the best deal.”

Unless whatever we’re buying is a complete commodity — most of which are ruled by standards, by the way — there is no completely objective analysis.

Otherwise, no one would buy Mercedes Benzes, Tiffany jewelry, or Rolex watches.  My accountant must be better than your accountant, because he charges double the hourly rate, right?  Or, maybe my accountant is better than your accountant because I got the same deductions you did for 30% less in fees.  Maybe we just like the way our car gets us to work, our jewelry sparkles or our watch makes us feel.  Maybe we like it that our accountant gets us a better table at the charity function or plays at a golf course we like better.

What matters is knowing what matters to the other party — and trying to get them as much of that thing as we can, without sacrificing too much of what we want or need from the transaction.

The person on the other side of the negotiation is human, just like we are, and they’re probably not a lot more or a lot less evolved than we are.  So, let’s ask one another questions.  Let’s connect.  Let’s collaborate.  Let’s keep logic in its place and seek deals that make us both better.


*If you’re selling a value-add service or product — and you’re dealing with procurement on the buyer’s side.  Run.  Don’t walk.  Run.  Get out.  Focus on someone who wants to buy value, not minimize it.


The Efficiency Trap

“The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important is that you definitely never will.”

–  Oliver Burkeman (b. 1975), in an excerpt (published in the Aug 7-8 Wall Street Journal) from his new book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals” 

If only I could get more done!  Talk about a trap!

More, it seems, doesn’t always equal better.  Sometimes, it’s the opposite.  Sometimes, we have to look at the thing and simply call it “the thing.”

The excerpt from the book closes with this:  “I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.”

Long-time subscribers see this coming a mile away…  Cue Dr. Tom Graff — “most things in life are neither good nor bad, right nor wrong.  Most things just are.”

When we stop labeling and stop striving for more at the expense of better, we start maximizing the gifts God gave us, and the time He allows for us to use them.

Difference-making stuff.

Dirty Hands, and Keeping The Clay In The Middle

“Every pot that is crafted requires hands to be spoilt.”

–  Unattributed

I saw a speaker Sunday who used a potter’s wheel analogy to make her point about authenticity.  It got me thinkin’ — which, I’m pretty sure is the whole point of going to see this kind of speaker on a Sunday morning…but I digress.

If we’re going to shape something meaningful, we’re going to need to get our hands dirty.  Even as leaders.  Especially as leaders!  Here’s the deal, though, it’ll take more than rolled-up-sleeves and dirty hands.  It’s also really important to keep the clay in the middle of the potter’s wheel — analogous to keeping our focus and priorities clearly built on the things that move us forward.

It’s one thing to get our hands dirty just staying busy.  It’s another thing to get our hands dirty doing some of the dirty work for someone in the team — at least that’s meaningful dirt under our nails.

But’s it’s a whole nuther thing for sure to get our hands dirty doing the things that we know are important but that don’t seem urgent right now.  Recruiting.  Correcting behavior of a team member.  Planning.  Doing a loss review.  Adding a “why” column to our to-do list, and only to-doing the things that make the most difference when we get them to-done.

Keeping the clay in the middle of the wheel, the pace of the pedals consistent and getting our hands dirty building that thing that occupies the center — the thing that is our “Why.”


Connecting Connections

“Call ________! He’s either got a guy, or he’s got a guy that’s got a guy!”

–  A member of my network, one of very few whose name everyone would recognize

In their book “Insight Selling,” RAIN Group positions “connecting” as one leg of the stool in today’s professional services selling model.  Connect, Convince, Collaborate.

That collaboration piece is sometimes simply connecting connections.

A Client was recently in capital raise mode.  “Steve, we’d really like to raise another $_______ million in capital, but we don’t want to bring in another 50 small investors…”  They needed a guy, or a gal, who had fairly quick ties into someone who could write a 7-digit check.  It wasn’t me.  It wasn’t anyone on my first circle.  But, I knew someone who knew someone — and the connection was made.

As we build networks, it’s important to know who the people we know, know.  (I was 100% certain that Grammarly would hate that sentence, and it does!)  At the same time, it’s important to know how readily they want to connect their connections.

Connecting and collaborating can go a long way toward convincing our Clients that we’re the ones to turn to in order to solve problems — even if they’re not problems that we can solve on our own.

It’s called relationship equity — and building it will make as big of a difference as anything else we can do.



“Serendipity always rewards the prepared.”

–  Katori Hall (b. 1981), Memphis-born and Tony-nominated actress, author and playwright  

“But Heston,” you might be thinking, “serendipity is defined as ‘good fortune, discovered by luck.’  How can you be prepared for that?”

We gotta look around.  No matter how cynical we think we’ve become, or we want to become, or feel — it will serve us well to imagine that something really good is right around the corner.

Because if we’re looking for it, we’re much more likely to find it.

I got a blind outreach from a young man on LinkedIn last week.  His profile picture makes him look about our daughter’s age.  Our youngest daughter! In transition, he was looking to connect on a couple different levels.  Now, of the 3,800 or so LinkedIn connections in my network, I’ve actually been in conversation with about 90% of them, and I don’t, as a rule, accept “blind” invitations.  In fact, I don’t even look into them all that often.

Something about this young man, though, pulled me into the invitation, and then to his profile. Turns out he’s had a pretty impressive first five years of his career.  Turns out he used to work with someone I mentored, and who, it turns out, speaks very highly of him.  Turns out, we had a cup of coffee.

He was prepared – so his “good fortune, discovered by luck,” was hand-built and custom designed.

I, for some reason, was prepared — open to an outreach, and my “good fortune, discovered by luck” is that I’m either going to have an amazing guy on my team, or I’m going to get to help an amazing guy connect with someone in the 3,800 who needs an amazing guy.

Take the call.  Look at least one layer deep into that thing that might look uninteresting at first.

Then be prepared for good fortune, discovered by your preparedness.

Hired A Guy Today…

“There’s no such thing as a sure thing.  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what you think.”

–  Jennifer Garner’s character in the 2014 movie “Draft Day”

Thursday night last week, two Hawkeyes got taken in the NBA draft.  It was sweet.  It got me thinking about how drafts are sort of like hiring.

Yesterday, I used my first of two picks on a guy that I know is not a sure thing, but I think he’s a damn fine choice. He knows who he is.  He knows who he isn’t.  He’s hungry and hell-bent on being the best.

Draft day strategy:

Pick the person who knows who they are.

Pick the person who knows who they ain’t.

Pick the person who’s hungry.

Pick the person who’s driven to be the best.

Hit those markers, and then get out of the way…

One Less Item On The List

“May the winds welcome you with softness.  May the sun bless you with its warm hands.  May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter, and sets you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”

–  Our captain, John, offering up the balloon captain’s blessing, on our gentle settling back into Mother Earth’s loving arms

In my head, I keep a list of things I will “never do.”  On Wednesday late afternoon into early evening, accompanied by my wife and daughters, I did one of those things.

We rode in a hot air balloon.

It was spectacular!

Prior to Wednesday, I was skeptical.  Not a fan of activities where one possible outcome is “plummeting to earth in a basket also occupied by 30 gallons of liquid propane,” I am now a fan of this one.  Not the plummeting part.  The peaceful, almost serene feeling of floating above the trees and fields part.

John, our captain, was simply excellent.  The sky was clear and the winds, borderline too stiff to a few minutes before lift off to allow us to take to the skies, welcomed us with softness.  She, The Eldest, The Youngest and Dad all had a wonderful time.  We saw deer, who appeared fascinated by the humans in the basket under the fancy balloon above them.  We landed in a pasture next to a farmhouse, occupied by people who had no idea that three hot air balloons, three captains and 20 or so of their new closest friends were about to arrive.  We learned that our balloon, the smallest of the three flying along together, would hold 166,000 fully inflated basketballs.  John assured us that doing so would adversely affect the flight quality, however, so we didn’t ask him to prove it.

It got me thinking.  “I will never…” might not be the best way to start any list.