Stepping Stones: a meditation on the nature of creativity

Today's post is very short. That's because I want you to spend less time reading and more time reflecting on what you've read. For the reading allow about 60 seconds. A good rule of thumb is to spend ten times that long, ten minutes in this case, reflecting.

Last week I shared some thoughts on the danger of Maslow's Hammer; the tendency for the tools we use to narrow our perspective and leave us blinkered, rigid, and predictable.

This brings us to the single hardest problem for creativity:

  • We use tools to help us express creativity
  • Over time we get better at using the tools
  • The better we get the more we rely on the tools
  • The more we rely on the tools the worse we get at expressing creativity

In my view it's wrong to think of creativity as a set of skills or tools. I see creativity as a relationship, a way of existing in the world. People who have a strong relationship with creativity are somewhat like children, driven by curiosity, open to change; keeping a beginners mind, ready to receive. Tools can help us to achieve this relationship but they aren't a substitute for it.

Where last week I shared the intellectual basis for this argument, this week I want to share with you a meditation that I find helps me both to understand this idea more deeply and to communicate it more clearly; I call it 'Stepping Stones'.

Stepping Stones

If we want to get to the other side of a deep, fast flowing river, it would be very risky to try to swim unaided! Instead we look for stepping stones leading to the other side.

With each stone we come closer to where we're going. The stones feel solid and safe but the river is rushing past and, with each moment, a stone might slip and we might fall in!

It's wise to use the stones but it's foolish to stand on them for too long. Remember our confidence will only grow until the moment we fall.

Keep them guessing

This morning I attended Jabber, a local networking group in St Albans. And I came away with a completely unexpected insight about communication.

I worry constantly that when I tell people that I’m a creativity coach they immediately put me into a bunch of boxes, many or most of which aren’t quite right. The issue is, you see, both creativity and coaching are frequently misunderstood concepts.

Many people think that coaching means giving advice or guidance, being the expert in a given field. The truth is that traditional coaching is more about helping the client think and solve his or her own problems.

Creativity… well, I suppose it’s a good thing for me that so many people believe so many wrongheaded things about creativity otherwise I wouldn’t have a job. Here’s three:

  1. There are too many rules and regulations in my industry for me to be creative
  2. Creativity? You either have it or you don’t
  3. Creativity is art and stuff, right?

So when I call myself a creativity coach I fear that many people assume they know what that means but get it entirely wrong.

My response to this has been to attempt to make what I do more and more clear and, in fact, my coach of the term “creativity coach” was the end result of trying to find two words that were easy to understand. But what if I’ve been going about this all wrong?

Speaking to a couple of chaps at Jabber we got on to the problem of pigeonholing and how people are quick to try to stick you in a box and then, once they’ve done that, stop thinking about you. This is, as it happens, exactly the problem we face often when trying to express creativity; we have a desire to solve problems quickly and save mental energy. This kind of thinking is effortful and so we have a strong drive to want to simplify and categorise.

Perhaps, in using these plain English words, what I’m actually doing is reducing the cognitive load of my listeners at the expense of them failing to understand what I really do.

We know that when something is too simple, too easy to parse, people have a habit of not thinking about it at all and delegating it to their automatic systems. To stimulate recall, therefore, it actually helps to make something ever so slightly harder to parse. Simply printing something in a smaller font can increase recall in the reader.

All this is to say that perhaps I should be using a description, a title that is less apparently clear, that people will not assume they understand even if they don’t.

Maybe I should call myself a conceptual relationship manager or a solutionisation bridge builder. Or possibly an unseen value materialiser…

This may take a little more thought. But the point remains: perhaps in struggling to reduce the complexity of what we do into words that others will believe they understand we run the risk of miscommunication. It comes down to this question:

Is it better for someone to wrongly believe they understand or to correctly believe they don’t?

The Powerful Play is Improvised

Errors, mistakes, unexpected problems for which we not only are unprepared but could not possibly prepare come up time and time again in my work as I help people to build stronger relationships with creativity. Today I want to share one of the techniques I've used to explore this challenge.

Several weeks ago I lead a workshop for a group of young people at Trestle Arts Base, in partnership with my good friend Shayla Maddox. The concept was simple – we asked the children to draw a circle in a single stroke, similar to the Japanese enso in that you must complete the circle without removing your pen from the paper and without going back and cleaning up any imperfections. It's worth noting that even this unchallenging request was met with some anxiety, so deeply ingrained is our need for perfection.

The next step was to ask the children to draw inside and around the circle any image they wanted to draw, importantly, to use the flat bits, the wobbly bits, the "mistakes" in the circle as the basis for what they chose to draw. The desired insight was that the children would come to see errors as opportunities for creativity rather than value destroying limitations.

I had three experiences on the day that stuck out to me and I want to recount them here.

A little boy in the group looked despondent when he was finished with his circle. In his words it was "rubbish". A young girl, similarly, was very upset with how flat her circle was at the bottom, how lopsided it was. Finally another girl was irritated by the way her circle spiralled in on itself. At this point all three of these children felt very unhappy with their artistic skills.

This is when I got to feel like a hero (yeah, that is why I do this). To the little boy who's circle was full of irregularities and lumpy bits I said that all those imperfections made his circle, as far as I was concerned, the best one in the room. He was taken aback by this but I told him that I knew he would be able to see something great to draw in that shape. By the end of the workshop he had drawn a giant rhino, the nobly bits serving as his horns and ears.

The girl with the squashed and lopsided circle needed something a little more analytical so I asked her why her circle might be flat at the bottom and leaning to one side. Immediately she brightened and said that it must be sitting on something and, she added, leaning because it's falling off of the edge. By the end of the workshop her circle was indeed sitting on a table and being pushed off the edge by a small figure.

The girl with the spiral circle actually didn't need my help at all. By the time I spoke to her she had already decided that spirals were beautiful and had chosen to draw an intricate pattern growing from that one, inadvertent spiral with which she had begun.

All of these children and the rest who took part, it is my hope, took one lesson away with them; that mistakes can lead to something beautiful. And I have some evidence that at least some of them did internalise the concept.

We were carrying out this workshop specifically because the next weekend these children would be performing at the Fun Palace, a weekend activity for school children. Four of the girls, Erin, Elyse, Elizabeth and Fola, would be performing a show about the early days of midwifery. I was fortunate enough to watch their hilarious rehearsal and I was sure they'd be fine on the day… but disaster struck! Fola was sick and unable to attend (ironic since she was playing a doctor). So the group had to improvise a new show on the spot.

Improvising a show is hard. And they found it hard. But they used the unexpected challenge and, by the end of the day having performed this new show three times, what they had created was possibly better than the original show. This creative challenge might have stopped a group with less robust relationships with creativity.

I'd like to think that, in a small way, being able to think about their circles and how imperfections lead to beauty might have played a part in helping them roll with the changes and make something great out of the unexpected.

Creativity means solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. That's a very nice definition of life, too – solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. In this sense, being strong with creativity is about being powerful in life. I feel very confident that these children, if they maintain their present relationships with creativity, will have no trouble dealing with whatever life brings their way.

The Flynn Effect and the Social Multiplier

I'm not so keen on over reliance on simple metrics for quantifying people – call me a romantic but I think you lose something when you try too hard to plot a human on a graph. But when used carefully metrics for various human traits can be enlightening. One such metric is IQ.

IQ is one of the most controversial of metrics and we won't here delve into why that is. Suffice it to say that IQ tests appear to be decent predictor of certain kinds of ability. What's more interesting is that, especially when it comes to abstract reasoning tests, human IQs appear to be increasing rapidly.

This is known as the Flynn Effect – the rapid and sustained increase in IQ since the 1930s – and there are no doubt many reasons for it. We could probably put some of it down to better healthcare and diet – healthy body, healthy mind and so on – and perhaps to a decrease in things like lead in the water (yeah – that stuff's not good for the noggin) but a significant contributor, at least according to Flynn himself, is likely to be what is known as the Social Multiplier Effect.

One of the core principals of the Hard Not Complicated method is that creativity belongs to everyone. I love this principal because it's actually a two-for-one deal; it means that creativity is something that everyone can and should take part in and that the results of creativity are most powerful when we don't try to monopolise them. But when we add in the Social Multiplier Effect, we might start to think of this principal as a three-for-one big value pack; getting more people involved not only gives you more creative heads it also increases the capability of the collective; the creative company becomes more than the sum of its creative parts.

The Social Multiplier Effect is described neatly by the name – the effect of any given thing can be multiplied when it takes place within a group. For example, have you ever noticed how you work harder at the gym when the place is busy and full of dedicated gym-bunnies? Or how you learn more when you're in a class full of enthusiastic boffins? I certainly have. I also eat more when I'm around my more gluttonous friends and complain more when I'm with a bunch of Moaning Myrtles – it's a double edged sword in this regard!

Flynn argues that since the 1930s our work and educational circumstances have evolved such that we have more intensely focused, more concentrated groups of people working on abstract reasoning challenges. This focus on abstract reasoning, not alone but connected in groups, creates a rising tide that floats all ships higher. Put another way, when less capable abstract reasoners spend time around more capable ones, it rubs off. And, furthermore, the increased abstract reasoning skills of the formerly less capable person rub off, in turn, on those around him.

Bringing this back to the principal that creativity belongs to everyone, I can't help but think about my clients and how they work in their organisations – about how creativity can either become something for the elite or something for everyone. It seems obvious to me that abstract reasoning skills, if they can be improved by the Social Multiplier, would massively boost creative output and it therefore behoves all of us to get as many people involved in the creative process and thinking about abstract problems as humanly possibly within the constraints of our working lives.

Normalising creativity is my North Star and it seems that normalising anything begins with language. That's why I try to avoid words like "talent" or "gifted" as well as placing greater emphasis on ideas like grit, attitude, and embracing imperfections as a strength. I also advise my clients to be careful about the signals they send through the choices they make in how they name teams or hand out awards.

Pop back on Wednesday for my quick tips on normalising creativity. Until then, remember, creativity is Hard Not Complicated!

Convergent Innovation

Last week I posted the first episode of my podcast in a very long time. It's a big moment for me because, when I began the show I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it. Now I do and with my new co-hosts I even have a format of sorts.

I realised that a moment like this called for some new podcast artwork and for some time I've been searching for a way to visualise what Hard Not Complicated means. For a while I had this rather fun loop-de-loop graphic but it just didn't work. Then, last week, I found out about enso.

Actually, I should say less that I found out about enso, I already knew about them to a degree. It's just that it became clear to me how neatly this symbol, ancient and culturally powerful, aligned with what Hard Not Complicated is all about.

An enso is a symbol associated with Zen Buddhism which is drawn in a single stroke with ink and a brush. It connects with the ideas of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness, especially in the broken form where the ends do not meet.

When I began Sabre Tooth Panda, it wasn't a coaching company. I developed my approach and philosophy and then I realised that what I was doing was coaching! Similarly, I didn't intend to design a company that is so deeply connected with eastern philosophies. But, the more I develop Hard Not Complicated and the more I think about how Sabre Tooth Panda is different, the more I notice these ideas seeping through.

Just as an enso can never be perfect, the Hard Not Complicated approach is based on the idea that building a strong relationship with creativity is an ongoing process, not something you begin and end with a three day workshop or by completing a set of coursework.

Similarly I try to stay clear of the idea that there is one correct way to have that strong relationship with creativity. While many approaches to boosting creativity in the workplace seem to want to teach standards and processes, the Hard Not Complicated method focuses on enabling teams and individuals to develop their own, organic relationship, seeking out the tools and techniques that support their own preferences after the fact, rather than teaching tools and techniques and requiring the person to adapt to the tool.

I could list endlessly the ways in which my approach to helping people get creative seems to conform to all manner of ideas steeped in ancient and modern learning, but that's not my point here. What I am more interested in is what I'm calling Convergent Innovation.

You may have heard of convergent evolution. This is the process by which two animals with no recent evolutionary connection end up with very similar appearances. The most commonly noticed one is the shark and the dolphin.

There are huge differences between sharks and dolphins but considering that one is a mammal and one is a fish it's interesting to note how similar they are in some of their more visible features. This is despite the fact that they share no common ancestor for billions of years.

The explanation is simple: when you have the same problems to solve you are likely to end up with similar solutions. Which brings me back to Convergent Innovation.

The creative process is as much a journey of discovery as it is of invention, despite the popular out-of-nowhere myth of creativity. When I realised that my challenge was less to do with creativity itself but more to do with how people learn, our habits and how they form, our emotional responses to various things such as failure or difference, our attitudes towards ourselves and the outside world, it became clear to me that I my creative journey could be greatly enhanced by following in the footsteps of others who have faced this same challenge.

The Not Invented Here Syndrome is one of those horrible and entirely avoidable problems in creativity. But the concept of Convergent Innovation should put our minds at ease. After all, if the most creative force in nature, evolution, can share ideas, then why can't we?

Hard Not Complicated Tips – sale away sale away sale away

In this week's Hard Not Complicated blog I wrote about sales from the perspective of creativity and especially two main points. I argued that if you're not a stereotypical salesperson you'll need to do two things:

  1. Reframe what it means to sell
  2. Reinvent sales in a way that makes sense for you

Today I want to offer a couple of quick tips on how to do that.

Reframing

It's easy to think of sales as an attempt to get something.

I want:

  • Customers
  • Contracts
  • Commissions

I like to flip this around. I begin my sales work by asking myself how I can help people. For me, a sales call is about answering one question:

  • How can I make you happy?

I have a set of products and services that can be put to use in a range of ways. If one of these ways solves a problem for the person I'm speaking to then I can make that person happy by doing that.

When you think about times when you've successfully persuaded someone to adopt your product or service, give you a job, assign you a task, have you noticed how they are happy when they do it? How they feel that a problem for them has been solved?

Happiness, in the sense of increased pleasure and reduced pain, is what it's all about. If I can make someone happy by selling them what I have to sell, that makes me happy too.

If you have a team who are reluctant to be salespeople, try out the below approaches.

Make the Meaning Real: maybe your team have forgotten that what they do is meaningful, that it matters to people. Consider running a weekly meeting devoted to talking about customers who you have helped that week. Share feedback and have that team talk about how it makes them feel to have helped people live, work or play more easily, with less pain and more pleasure.

Take No for an Answer: many people feel like sales is a pushy business and they don't want to be pushy people. When I worked as an on-street fundraiser (the guys with the clipboards and tabards who everyone hates) I was told that it was vital that people felt that it was OK to say no. By making this clear to people at the outset I was able to feel good about talking to them, knowing that there would be no hard feelings or awkwardness if they said no.

Not Selling, Searching: you might find it useful to reframe the idea of sales in your context with the knowledge that what you're really doing is less selling and more searching for people who need your help. A sales call then becomes less a battle, a struggle to convince the potential customer that you are the solution, and more a collaborative process; your job as a salesperson is to answer the question "can I help you?" and be sure, at the end, if the answer is yes or no.

Reinvention

Reinvention is just a fancy word for starting over from first principals. It asks you to assume nothing about what you're about to do, let go of all of your preconceptions and ask simply: what is it we want to accomplish?

If you're struggling with sales then it may be that you're trying to sell the way you think you're supposed to sell, rather than selling the way that makes sense for you.

The challenge with reinvention, of course, is to get yourself free from what you already know. These approaches might help.

Don't Put the Answer in the Question: in an interview given to Blue Peter, of all places, world renowned product designer Jonny Ive talked about how, at Apple, they try to avoid using words that would presuppose or bias the output of a design process. The example he gave was that if they were designing a lunchbox they wouldn't call it "The Lunchbox Project" because the word "box" immediately pushes the mind towards a specific shape, assumes things like lids and hinges and handles. In sales you could do the same thing – instead of asking "how do we sell?" try asking "how do we find customers?" or "how do we build relationships?".

Flip it: getting away from what you know can be hard, so why not take what you know and simply flip it 180? My favourite example of this is something called the disloyalty card. This was an idea from a bunch of independent coffee shops who being unable to take advantage of a loyalty card, as they only had a single store each, decided to band together and give people awards for trying out all the different independent coffee shops in the city. They took an idea, flipped it around, and found a new way to do things. This sort of work requires a degree of conceptual flexibility which can be hard to do, but be playful, have fun with it, and you might surprise yourself.

Ask Your Customers: in the end helping your customers benefits you and them. So why not get them involved in helping you to figure out the best way to work with them? And I don't mean a survey, I mean actually involving them in the creative process. Find ways to interact with your customers that work beautifully for them as well as for you. You might find there is a whole new way of selling the would never have occurred to either of the groups separately.

Believe

The solutions you come up with, the way that sales works for you, will be unique to you. The Hard Not Complicated system is built on the belief that the solutions to your problems will always come from you. So above all else, you have to believe.

Learn to believe in yourself, your product, your methods and your ability to rewrite what you thought was possible, and you can find ways to do anything.

If you'd like to find out more about how I help clients the hard, not complicated way, drop me an email at aran@sabretoothpanda.com.

The Secret of Success is Showing Up

Today’s post is one of my personal favourites types of post – it’s a post where I get to demonstrate what I mean in how I write it. Specifically, you can look down below and see over three hundred words which I wrote and then abandoned for one very good reason: awareness.

You see, I’ve come to believe that the opposite of productivity is distractedness. To understand what I mean by that I should clarify what both of those things mean to me.

Productivity is, as far as I am concerned, simply doing the right thing at the right time in the right way.

Distractedness is defined in my world as conflict between what you are doing and what you are not doing.

It’s easy to see how being distracted, in conflict, immediately negates being productive. How can you do the right thing at the right time in the right way while conflicted about what you’re doing?

But we can take this even further when we define what it means to be undistracted.

Woody Allen once said that the secret to success is showing up. Being there, in other words, is what matters. In the initial context he meant that physically but we have all seen and, indeed, been people who are physically there but mentally and emotionally on another planet.

Being undistracted, for me, means being present. Many would call this mindful or aware. And through awareness you can achieve the optimal state of productivity. Only awareness can enable you to do the right thing, at the right time in the right way.

As a coach I know that awareness and self correction are the best path to improvement. I see it all the time. Enhance awareness, decrease distractedness, and we begin to see an immediate but gradual change, slowly and surely towards doing the right thing at the right time and in the right way.

What has all this got to to do with the abortive blog below?

When I began to write this piece today I went off in a particular direction. I was moving quickly and feeling good. But then I slowed. Then I stopped. Before I knew it I was fiddling with my phone and looking at Twitter. I had become distracted.

Distraction is, as above, simply conflict. My clarity and certainty about what I was doing had ebbed away and my mind had become distracted. Twitter is, in this sense, not what distracted me. It’s just what I did when in a state of distraction. I could just as easily have rearranged my book shelf, paired up my socks or doodled on my notepad.

I become unhappy – I could see that I wasn’t being productive. And then awareness kicked in. I was distracted because I was doing the wrong thing! I needed to let go of my work and start again because my direction was wrong.

I then sat down and wrote out this new post in the space of ten minutes. I could certainly have tried to push through, applied will power to the problem and held my own feet to the fire of my poor choices earlier today. But not this man of mindfulness. Oh no.

You rarely get to see how the sausage is made. This is good for your love of sausages but if you’re thinking of becoming a butcher it’s a major impediment. I hope this by showing you the below abandoned post and by letting you in on my process, showing you the relationship between awareness and productivity, you’ll understand that the Hard Not Complicated philosophy goes far beyond what we normally call creativity.

BELOW YOU CAN SEE THE BLOG POST I DIDN’T WRITE

Productivity is a big idea in business. It’s the holy grail, I’ve been told, of all business decisions making. If we could somehow define and clarify what it means to be productive, make it simple, then we could rule the world!

While I have no immediate plans for world domination, I’d like to share my personal Hard Not Complicated perspective on productivity.

We can define being productive in the following terms:

Doing the right thing in the right way at the right time.

A good way to think about this is to do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you run a factory making shoes. At one end you feed in raw materials like leather and rubber, and at the other you spit out shoes. You have various components and parts always in motion, different people doing different things.

Now imagine that in this factory you have a new, magical device that makes everyone telepathic!

All your workers are constantly aware of what everyone else is doing and even aware of how the machines are performing. You have a perfect flow of information around the factory.

Given this state of affairs, what would you need to do to ensure optimal productivity?

As far as I can see, all you would need would be a single binary piece of information:

  • Customer Satisfaction up
  • Customer Satisfaction down

With this simple binary input a system with a perfect flow of information would be able to self correct automatically, changes propagating through the group seamlessly and as each active agent responds to the needs and wants of each other active agent, driven directly by the needs of the consumer.

Over time such a system would reach an optimal state with independent, intelligent actors working with perfect, real time information. They would do the right thing – according to the needs of the consumer, in the right way – as arrived at through continual optimisation, at the right time – based on real time input.

NOTE: I’m not here saying that this system would be perfect. I don’t believe that any system can ever be perfect. Perfect is impossible. But I believe it would achieve the best possible state – hence optimal.

We can derive from this thought experiment, crude though it is, that optimal productivity is the result of optimal awareness.

Maybe being a mum really would make you a better prime minister

Those following the turbulent political goings on in the UK over the last few weeks may be forgiven for not catching every little controversy, conspiracy or cockup. There have been rather a lot. One particular faceplant got the chattering classes chattering extra chattily and that was one the then candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Andrea Leadsom, made a rather silly comment.

In an interview with The Times Leadsom suggested that, being a mother, she would make a better PM than her rival, Theresa May, who is childless. She felt that motherhood gave her a greater and more direct stake in the future of the nation.

This assertion was, to put it mildly, frowned upon by pretty much everyone. Feminists, mothers, unmarried and childless men and women, Tories, liberals, socialists. It didn't go down well.

But I'm starting to believe she may have had a point. Not the point she thought she had (which was utterly stupid) but a different one. I'm thinking that maybe, being a parent, could make you a better leader not for any silly reasons like "a stake in the future" but simply by dint of making you more creative.

Just over a week ago my wife and I hosted three of our niblings; Rya, 15, and Max and Amy, 12. We took them to an event called Hyper Japan, a celebration of Japanese and Asian culture. I'm rather proud that Rya has grown into such a little geek and helped bring her younger siblings along for the ride. I feel it's my influence at work. I showed her her first anime, you see. But I digress.

During the visit I learned a lot about Japan, the broad differences between J-Pop and K-Pop and how, despite my best efforts, I have definitely grown up (or at least some version of it). But I also noticed how being around young people and new helped reawaken my playfulness. This manifested in something entirely trivial which I will illustrate below.

This is a small wooden kitten that lives in our conservatory.

This pose is supposed to look playful and cute but I've always hated it because, to me, this looks like the kitten has just been shot in the chest and is currently bleeding out while calling for help.

I had never realised that it was possible for this kitten to look any way other than this. But for some reason, on Sunday morning, the day after Hyper Japan and having had my head filled with playful, strange and interestingly youthful behaviour for more than a full 24 hours, I had a breakthrough.

I did this.

I realised that I could make the kitten breakdance.

I told you this was trivial but stay with me here.

I often talk about the easy relationship children seem to have with creativity. In children this is manifest in playfulness most often. Playfulness lightens things, loosens them, broadens them. And it rubs off. Just spending a weekend with my nieces and nephew helped me to feel playful. Just a moment of playfulness helped me to see something differently. Something trivial but then that's what I was focused on. I've no doubt that, had I been trying to solve a big, crunchy problem at the time, I would have found this playful feeling helpful there too.

Which brings me back to my initial thought – perhaps parents really do have an advantage when it comes to leadership?

We know that leadership is a creative activity. Remember our working definition of creativity: problem solving under conditions of uncertainty. Well, you can't get much clearer an example of that than leading people. People are, above all else, complex and unpredictable, that's some uncertain conditions for you.

Since playfulness is a key component of creativity, and if spending time with children makes you more playful at heart, it would follow that being a parent might indeed make you a better leader and, potentially a better prime minister.

Of course, if there's even a smidgen of truth in this whole thing then that sets up an interesting imperative; not only do we need to do more to get more parents into the workplace, we also need to do more to get more leaders to spend more time with children – their own or otherwise.

That means valuing and celebrating family time and lots and lots of mentoring and educational outreach work in schools, including with younger children. It's not just good for the kids to get exposure to accomplished professionals. In fact, the adults might be getting the better end of the deal.

Hard Not Complicated Tips – sale away sale away sale away

In this week’s Hard Not Complicated blog I wrote about sales from the perspective of creativity and especially two main points. I argued that if you’re not a stereotypical salesperson you’ll need to do two things:

  1. Reframe what it means to sell
  2. Reinvent sales in a way that makes sense for you

Today I want to offer a couple of quick tips on how to do that.

Reframing

It’s easy to think of sales as an attempt to get something.

I want:

  • Customers
  • Contracts
  • Commissions

I like to flip this around. I begin my sales work by asking myself how I can help people. For me, a sales call is about answering one question:

  • How can I make you happy?

I have a set of products and services that can be put to use in a range of ways. If one of these ways solves a problem for the person I’m speaking to then I can make that person happy by doing that.

When you think about times when you’ve successfully persuaded someone to adopt your product or service, give you a job, assign you a task, have you noticed how they are happy when they do it? How they feel that a problem for them has been solved?

Happiness, in the sense of increased pleasure and reduced pain, is what it’s all about. If I can make someone happy by selling them what I have to sell, that makes me happy too.

If you have a team who are reluctant to be salespeople, try out the below approaches.

Make the Meaning Real: maybe your team have forgotten that what they do is meaningful, that it matters to people. Consider running a weekly meeting devoted to talking about customers who you have helped that week. Share feedback and have that team talk about how it makes them feel to have helped people live, work or play more easily, with less pain and more pleasure.

Take No for an Answer: many people feel like sales is a pushy business and they don’t want to be pushy people. When I worked as an on-street fundraiser (the guys with the clipboards and tabards who everyone hates) I was told that it was vital that people felt that it was OK to say no. By making this clear to people at the outset I was able to feel good about talking to them, knowing that there would be no hard feelings or awkwardness if they said no.

Not Selling, Searching: you might find it useful to reframe the idea of sales in your context with the knowledge that what you’re really doing is less selling and more searching for people who need your help. A sales call then becomes less a battle, a struggle to convince the potential customer that you are the solution, and more a collaborative process; your job as a salesperson is to answer the question “can I help you?” and be sure, at the end, if the answer is yes or no.

Reinvention

Reinvention is just a fancy word for starting over from first principals. It asks you to assume nothing about what you’re about to do, let go of all of your preconceptions and ask simply: what is it we want to accomplish?

If you’re struggling with sales then it may be that you’re trying to sell the way you think you’re supposed to sell, rather than selling the way that makes sense for you.

The challenge with reinvention, of course, is to get yourself free from what you already know. These approaches might help.

Don’t Put the Answer in the Question: in an interview given to Blue Peter, of all places, world renowned product designer Jonny Ive talked about how, at Apple, they try to avoid using words that would presuppose or bias the output of a design process. The example he gave was that if they were designing a lunchbox they wouldn’t call it “The Lunchbox Project” because the word “box” immediately pushes the mind towards a specific shape, assumes things like lids and hinges and handles. In sales you could do the same thing – instead of asking “how do we sell?” try asking “how do we find customers?” or “how do we build relationships?”.

Flip it: getting away from what you know can be hard, so why not take what you know and simply flip it 180? My favourite example of this is something called the disloyalty card. This was an idea from a bunch of independent coffee shops who being unable to take advantage of a loyalty card, as they only had a single store each, decided to band together and give people awards for trying out all the different independent coffee shops in the city. They took an idea, flipped it around, and found a new way to do things. This sort of work requires a degree of conceptual flexibility which can be hard to do, but be playful, have fun with it, and you might surprise yourself.

Ask Your Customers: in the end helping your customers benefits you and them. So why not get them involved in helping you to figure out the best way to work with them? And I don’t mean a survey, I mean actually involving them in the creative process. Find ways to interact with your customers that work beautifully for them as well as for you. You might find there is a whole new way of selling the would never have occurred to either of the groups separately.

Believe

The solutions you come up with, the way that sales works for you, will be unique to you. The Hard Not Complicated system is built on the belief that the solutions to your problems will always come from you. So above all else, you have to believe.

Learn to believe in yourself, your product, your methods and your ability to rewrite what you thought was possible, and you can find ways to do anything.

If you’d like to find out more about how I help clients the hard, not complicated way, drop me an email at aran@sabretoothpanda.com.

Selling Yourself on Sales

I’d like you to imagine that you’re walking down a road and, from inside a house, you hear sounds of distress. Someone is hurt and they’re calling out in pain. What would you do?

We’ll revisit this idea later. For now, place it at the back of your mind and let it settle in.

On Saturday I had the immense privilege of addressing a group of entrepreneurs and business people from the Latin American community in London at the ExpoOportunidades 2016 where I delivered the Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Being Different – an exploration and celebration of what it means to be you. I’d like to thank the organisers for involving me as I had a genuinely great time.

At the end of the workshop I was approached by a group of participants from the same company with a question about sales. They told me that their employers had recently asked the senior consultants in their business to take on more of a sales centric role, feeling that the salesforce they had previously used wasn’t serving the best needs of the clients.

From the brief conversation we had it seemed that the consultants were finding this change difficult and were unhappy about this new requirement. While I can’t and wouldn’t share specific details about this case and what my proposed solution might be, I would like to share some generalised thoughts about sales and how to both sell yourself on selling and find out how you sell instead of trying to sell how you feel you are supposed to.

Selling yourself on selling

I used to be a salesperson. I was a good salesperson. In some cases I was the best salesperson in my team or branch. Today I am the head of sales for Sabre Tooth Panda by virtue of being the only person who works here! But I am not and never was a typical salesperson. Or, at least, I wasn’t a stereotypical one.

When you think about salespeople, if you don’t happen to be one yourself, you probably imagine brash, extroverted types who think in simple zero sum ways. They only care about their bonus cheque and probably don’t really understand the products they’re selling. They’re pushy, annoying, try to guilt/con/pressure others into paying money for things they don’t need and you avoid them like the plague.

No wonder you don’t want to be one! To act in this way would bring about feelings of shame and guilt, go against your values and undermine your self image. It would be a denial of who you are.

Like all stereotypes this one begins with a little bit of truth. Their are salespeople like that. Maybe even the majority of them. But that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to be a salesperson.

When I worked in sales I had some roles which pretty much required me to be this person. I did not like these roles. And, it is worth noting, when I was in these roles I was a very mediocre salesperson. Being good with words and confident with people I could force myself to adopt these behaviours for a little while but relatively soon the pain of having to be someone I didn’t like would undermine my performance.

Then there were other roles where I got to sell the way I like to sell and what typified these roles was that I genuinely loved what I was selling.

For instance, when I was a waiter at a steakhouse, a role that is absolutely a sales job, I genuinely believed that we had a great product and that it was my job to make sure that the customers got the best meal that they could have. I wasn’t there to pressure them into buying something that they didn’t want. My job was to guide them to the food and drinks that would make their experience wonderful.

There was another time when I worked in a mobile phone shop. As a geeky guy who loves his gadgets I enthused my way to a sale, my excitement at helping people choose and use a really cool phone was what made people buy from me and I felt great about it because I believed I was helping the customer.

These days I sell what I love because if I don’t love it I don’t do it. And again, I don’t see myself as going out there looking to get something; to get a sale, to get money, to get more for me. I see myself as going out there to find people who I can help; people who have a problem that I can help them to solve.

Yes, this does require me to be a little more forward than might come naturally but I don’t feel guilty, I don’t feel shame or any sense of personal tension because I am not working against my values.

I believe in what I have to offer. I believe that I can help people. I believe that I am doing good, meaningful work. And if that requires me to be a little bit forward, maybe even a little bit pushy, then so be it.

Recall the question I asked at the start of this piece? The person inside a house, calling out in distress; would you feel guilty about knocking the door down to get to them? Of course not. But you’d hardly do that most of the time! If you believe that someone genuinely needs your help and that you genuinely can help them, then you can and will act in ways that may not come naturally to you.

If you believe that what you’re selling can help someone in a meaningful way, you should be willing to knock down that door, metaphorically speaking.

How do you like to knock down doors?

But there’s another layer to this challenge. Even if you’ve accepted that there’s nothing shameful or wrong in trying to help people by providing them with a product or service you believe they’ll love, perhaps you find that there’s a challenge when it comes to methods.

If sales is not something you feel personally connected to as a profession you probably have some relatively narrow ideas how exactly how one goes about selling things. You’ve been told how it’s done and that’s that.

You have to call people over and over again. You have to “always be closing”. You have to be pushy. You have to be that guy. But do you? And, could you even if you did?

This is where the second part of the challenge comes in. If you’ve now accepted that it’s OK to sell what you have to sell, that selling isn’t the same as conning people but is, in fact, a way of helping them, you then have to begin to look for authentic ways to do that, ways that work for you.

I was a super geek salesman. I sold things I loved by geeking out about them with others. But that was me. That’s not necessarily you. Nobody, certainly not I, can tell you how you sell because we don’t know you. Perhaps it would help, though, to begin by identifying the problems you have to solve. I can make a broad guess to you need to:

  1. Find people to help
  2. Connect with those people
  3. Understand them and help them understand you
  4. Build trust and belief
  5. Reach agreement about exactly how you will help them
  6. Agree how they will compensate you

How would you do these things? How could you do these things?

To put this in my context – this here, these very words, are part of my sales process. I’m connecting with you. I’m helping you to understand me and, by a passive process of filtering, if you respond to these ideas, I am gaining an understanding of you and your needs. When I run my No Wrong Answers Quizzes that is part of my sales process. When I blog and run workshops, provide guidance and advice to people in person or online, these are all ways in which I work on items 1-4.

If I do those things right I find that steps 5 and 6 are very natural, very easy. They are a conversation between people who are, by now, on the same team. We have a shared goal and all that remains is to figure out how best to work together.

This is how I do things because this works for me. You, if you’ve taken ownership of the idea of being a person who sells, must figure out what works for you, what is authentically your way to do sales.

You don’t have to be anyone other than who you are. You don’t have to become a salesperson. You have to figure out how you already are one.

If you want to talk about this some more, get in touch with me at aran@sabretoothpanda.com. I promise, I won’t try the hard sell on you. 😉