Are You Playing the Wrong Game?

Businessman taking a decision

Are You Playing the Wrong Game?

January 31, 2022

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One of the hardest things to gauge in a new organization is what is expected. At the grandest level, we call this culture. But the broadness of the term “culture” can obscure the insidious ways it messes with us.

Here’s a different cut at the culture question –and one that intersects with strategy. What game are they playing and how are they playing it?  Are they playing to win? To revolutionize an industry? To increase last year’s revenue?  You would think these would be basic questions. Or, at least, questions whose answers are explicitly stated somewhere. But, often, they are opaque. The answers are invisible until you inadvertently stumble over them. Sometimes, the answers even contradict those things that are explicit.

You think you know what game the organization is playing. It seems obvious. But maybe it isn’t.

A New Job!

One of my clients, let’s call him Allen, just started a new job. It’s an exciting role in a much bigger organization. Previously he was at a large government agency and was responsible for purchasing and contracts. He has tons of experience in buying exactly what his new company sells. But, he had never been on the selling side of the equation.

He is now on a team that sells to the types of entities for which he used to work. A perfect role and one to which he brings enormous wisdom.

Within the first few weeks on the job, he was tasked with creating a sales demo for the team. They needed him to brief them about the prospective customer and show the demo that would dazzle them (or so he thought). In the virtual team meeting he led them through the demo and watched their expressions on his screen. The signs of excitement on their faces slowly turned into befuddlement. His presentation had missed the mark.

They thanked him and went on with the call. He was left feeling a bit like a failure.

He knew his demo would have made a significant impression on the prospect. Since he had been in a role exactly like that of the prospect only months earlier, he knew what worked to grab interest and improve the likelihood of getting a contract.

So why were they so underwhelmed? Had they been disappointed in his delivery? Had they believed it wouldn’t work? Or was it something else?

Come In, The Water’s Lovely!

How can you learn the culture of your new organization? Not just its jargon (that will come), but the unspoken context. What does selling mean here? Is it what you thought it would be? Are you over-reaching or under-working? What are the standards?

For those in the organization, all of that is transparent. It’s like the old joke:

Two goldfish meet, and one says to the other “Water’s fine today isn’t it?”, to which the other fish replies, “What’s water?”

Within an organization the culture is invisible. Once you’re in it, that doesn’t matter because you, like the fish, are swimming along fine. But, when you’re new, it’s a whole other ball game.

I Need Feedback

Allen decided to chase down the explanation for the poor reception his demo received. What he learned was odd. The team had been overwhelmed and didn’t understand why the demo was so extensive and detailed. They had never developed anything that robust. They felt like he was trying to hit a fly with a torpedo.

He was flabbergasted. Given his experience, he knew they were missing the mark in this sale because he had direct experience within the agency that they were trying to sell. Maybe they were losing other prospective deals too. How could they possibly close deals without showing their products and providing comprehensive demos and specs?

After shaking off his feelings of embarrassment about the flat reception his demo got, he began to feel indignant. He had been hired for the insight he had and to help the team better succeed in the marketplace. But the very thing that would accomplish that seemed to be anathema. This could be a big challenge. Or it could be a blind alley.

An Improvement Plan

Over the next few months, Allen crafted conversations and strategies that might help to persuade his team of doing things differently. He shared his own experience of vetting proposals and demos. He tried to gently educate the team about how much more aggressive their competitors were and why those competitors were beating them out on business. He was intent on bringing the value that he was hired to provide.

He wanted to help them sell more and generate more revenue!

Throughout this process, he expected one of two things. Either they would push-back against his attempts to change the process; or they’d be delighted about the potential new deal-flow that his suggestions might generate. Maybe they would show him information about their past successes that would justify their way of doing things. Or maybe they didn’t realize they were leaving money on the table, and they would embrace the improvements he suggested. Which reaction would he get?

Ho Hum

He got neither. The team seemed indifferent.

Then it hit him. It wasn’t that their sale process was off the mark. They just weren’t concerned about whether it worked or not!

He wanted to help sell more. They didn’t care if they sold more. WTH? No one seemed upset about the rate of sales.

Sales were flat. Wasn’t that a problem? Apparently not.

At the same time, they had solved a different problem. One he knew well. Work life balance. They finished work at 5:30. They rarely raced to make deadlines. There was very little stress.

You Can’t Win at The Wrong Game

This changed everything. And left Allen with a different choice. This new job paid extremely well. And he liked the team. But…. But what?! Stress-free work could be fun! Still, he had wanted a new challenge and to grow his capacity; to make a difference. Making a difference seemed unlikely. And as for the new challenge…. It was hard to tell what that would be.

Would he have taken this job knowing how little determination and passion the team felt about producing results? It’s not clear how he could have known. Apparently, even the executive he reported to thought they were doing fine.  In the game he thought he was hired to play, the scoreboard tracked sales. But they weren’t playing that game –or if they were, they weren’t playing to win.

When Allen set out to learn why his demo fell flat he was looking for feedback on creating sales pitches. What he learned didn’t help with that. But it did teach him something more valuable.  He and the team were playing completely different games. Now he had to decide whether to stay with this different context.  Allen still thought he could contribute real value –to their sales. Was there a different way to add value, if closing deals wasn’t the primary objective? Should he play their game? Try to change the game? Or leave?


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