When the invite from Toyota came in, Ford’s senior executive team was skeptical.
We invite you to visit our newest manufacturing plant. Send your top engineers and bring all your questions. We’re anxious to share our methods.
When the engineers came back from their visit, they confirmed the skepticism. “It wasn’t a real auto manufacturing facility,” the plant engineers explained. “Sure they had chassis and tools, and people, but spare parts and components were virtually nonexistent. The warehouse was too small to support the level of schedule activity. It was staged, like a movie.”¹
With the benefit of history, we know that it was not staged. The “experts” from Ford saw the real thing before it displaced Detroit’s auto leadership position.
You’ve likely heard the story of Steve Jobs’ inspiration for what became the Mac. In exchange for a pre-IPO allocation for Apple stock, Xerox invited Job and some of his engineers to get an inside peek into their PARC facility. While there, the Xerox engineers shared some of the innovations they’d added to their Alto machine like the “what you see is what you get” graphic user interface, bitmapping and a mouse.
One part of the story that is often told wrong is that Xerox didn’t know what they had and as a result they let Jobs “steal” it. This isn’t true. They knew the Alto was powerful. They introduced the Alto in a 1972 commercial as the first desktop computer with a graphic user interface, showed how it could revolutionize your office life by using things like email, word processing and reminders “all controlled by a cursor.” Why have most people never heard of the Alto, and today Apple is the most valuable company in history? Because Xerox thought that the Alto would simply be too expensive to put on sale commercially. The reality is that the failure of Xerox to capitalize on their invention was a technology or vision failure, it was really a product marketing failure.
Think about this for a moment. If the expert engineers from Ford couldn’t see the value of the just-in-time, LEAN manufacturing process and the product marketing experts at Xerox couldn’t see a path to viability with something as powerful as the Alto, what’s the likelihood that a great demo, or presentation will be enough for the companies in your target market to change their course/speed to embrace your solution? These are two powerful examples of a barrier that faces all humans and has a profound impact on your ability to position your products and services to generate new opportunities by highlighting the amazing outcomes you create and the problems you solve. The barrier is called “problem blindness.”
What Is Problem Blindness
In his most recent book Upstream: The Quest To Solve Problems Before They Happen, Dan Heath shares this description: the belief that negative outcomes are natural, inevitable, or simply out of our control. When we’re blind to a problem, we treat it like the weather. We may know it’s bad, but ultimately, we just shrug our shoulders. “What am I supposed to do about it? It’s the weather.” Problem blindness creates passivity, even in the face of enormous harm. Problem blindness explains why extraordinarily smart people do extraordinarily dumb things or make bad decisions.
There’s a variation to problem blindness that I call solution blindness that has the same effect. Even when someone knows there’s a problem (they are not blind to it) if they don’t feel as though they have a handle on what would be involved in creating a solution, they act as though they don’t see the problem. The example I shared about the Alto is an example of solution blindness. Before you start patting yourself on the back because your company does such a great job explaining its solution, please note that in this context I’m using the objective definition of a solution, and a solution is product/vendor agnostic.
Problem and solution blindness are a subset of the What You See Is All There Is phenomenon in behavioral psychology. To break that pattern, you must break their framework.
No matter how good your product or service is or how big you think the problem you’re solving (or the opportunities you’re capturing) is, the people that you are selling to are highly likely to think they've done (and are likely doing) everything as well as possible. By the way, if they don’t feel that way, they are already in a consideration. If you’re relying on that for more than 50% of your new business it’s likely why you’re stuck in the commoditization trap, with your sales cycles getting longer and your customer acquisition and retention costs outpacing your profit.
Solving Problem Blindness
Before you can solve someone’s problem, you must be able to get them to see it. Here are three strategies to do that.
1. Deliver Insights
Frame-breaking insights (I call them point-of-view insights) change how the person you're communicating with thinks about their situation. That means they change their mindset and mental maps. Insights are designed to upend the status quo. Make no mistake - insights politely but explicitly teach the customer why they're wrong.
If you don't change how somebody thinks about their situation, then you're not really influencing. You'll see your sales process drag. This means more friction and more competitive pressure.
There are five ingredients to a strong commercial point-of-view (POV):
- It’s all about the customer, as well as the unknown or misunderstood problems/opportunities facing the customer.
- It’s relevant, important and specific. (Remember, relevance and importance are in the eyes of the beholder, or, in this case, the Initiator.)
- It challenges the Initiator’s existing viewpoint or mental model and reframes the conversation.
- It’s designed to initiate or deepen an investigative conversation or journey.
- It connects to both a strength and distinct advantage of your company. (This is the commercial part.)
You’ll notice that 80% of a strong point-of-view is focused on the customer and is supplier/vendor agnostic. In many ways, a strong POV represents an evolution of the age-old relationship dynamic: no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. In this case, Initiators aren’t so worried about how much you care as they are with your unique ability to help.
2. Highlight High Probability Indicators (HPI)
In Upstream, Heath shares the story of Dr. Marcus Elliot. When Elliot joined the New England Patriots, players were plagued with hamstring injuries. These injuries are a great example of problem blindness, as the belief was these injuries were “just part of the sport.” Elliot disagreed; he thought the injuries were the result of bad training. Elliot generated tests to assess which players would be at high risk of injury.
Elliot can sit with an athlete and narrate: See when you land after a jump, you’ve got 25% more force coming through one side of your body, and we’re noticing that your femur is rotating internally, and your tibia is rotating externally. That puts your relative rotation in the 96th percentile of the athlete’s we’ve examined, and every single athlete we’ve seen above the 95th percentile has suffered a knee injury within two years.
With that awareness the player understands the need for change, and what change means and a conversation about the solution becomes far more effortless.
By the way, the year before Elliot joined the Patriots, 22 players suffered hamstring issues. In the year after that number plunged to 3.
3. Be Clear About Your How
Most people in business, sales or marketing are afraid to share their “how”. After all, they claim, “If we tell prospects how we do what we do they’ll just steal it and try to do it themselves or take it to their current supplier (and our competitor). Or, our competitors will steal it and use it themselves.”
To those concerns I share 3 answers:
- If the Ford engineers didn’t steal Toyota’s methods, what’s the likelihood your competitor will actually steal yours?
- If the way you deliver your value proposition can be stolen as easily as providing a clear picture and explanation of how you do it, then, candidly, it deserves to be stolen. In that case, you likely shouldn’t be paid the premium you’re likely seeking. The reason you’re being commoditized is because you should be.
- If the first two points are enough to overcome your concern, then my third reason is simply - get over it! You’ve got a choice: keep what you do ambiguous and confusing and deal with more friction and less perceived value from your prospects & customers. (That means slower growth rates, higher costs, and less loyalty.) Either be confident that your approach is a secret (it’s not), or put it out there. And when you do put it out there, be big and bold in the effort. Here’s the funny thing -- it’s harder to steal your ideas, what you publish and promote them than it is if they are kept secret.
Now, I’m not suggesting you provide the technical specifications, detailed code or whatever “secret sauce” you may have. I’m suggesting you share a clear picture (and actually, I’m literally suggesting you create and share a clear picture) that highlights how you generate the results you promise.
Your “Why” is what attracts people to your business. Your “How” is what increases demand and the perceived value of what you do
It is the creation of a clear image in the mind of your key personas about how they can/should do things differently that “shines the light” and eliminates the problem and solution blindness that is preventing your value proposition from being understood, valued and acted upon.
1. The Reinventors: How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change By Jason Jennings