Jason Crawford's article about "Navigating the high seas," provides compelling descriptions of new tools and techniques (such as sextants and chronometers) used by explorers from "seafaring nations in the 1700s and 1800s ... to complete the discovery of the world that had begun in the 1400s." 

In the early 1800's another profound lesson about causes of progress was learned. to the progress of seafaring that had a profound, if unseen, effect on the world: William Whewell (English scientist and theologian) led the first systematic application of scientific induction by organizing thousands of volunteers around the world to collect data enabling ocean tides to be predicted. It is considered one of the first "citizen science" projects in history, and earned him the Royal Metal in 1837. 

Whewell's work reduced the rate of shipwrecks, reducing the risks and costs of shipping people and cargo around the world. The story is admirably recounted (along with the stories of his three best scientific friends) in Laura Snyder's book, "The Philosophical Breakfast Club." 

The lesson from this particular accomplishment in progress studies is not just a validation of the process of induction. It is a proof that when groups of people are motivated to take actions and collect information in an accurate and consistent manner (e.g., following a specific process for measuring tides) their work can reveal important (even life-saving) patterns that cannot be seen in any other way. 

The leaders of organizations who recognize this principle have a secret weapon: They can enable their organizations to discover new and valuable information others in their market cannot see. 

A deceptively powerful example of this in B2B sales and marketing is sales "qualification criteria." Most company leaders view this as merely a procedural issue for salespeople, not a means of discovering cause and effect operating in their markets. As a result, salespeople are taught "rules of thumb" to decide which prospects to prioritize their time on. For example, sales people are instructed to decide if a given prospect has the proper "Budget, Authority, Need, and Timing" (BANT).  This is supposed to enable salespeople to reduce time spent with low quality prospects and improve forecast accuracy. 

Unfortunately, this amounts to something similar to Isaac Newton's discovery universal gravitation, which proved that the moon's gravity is responsible for the tides. It is great to know in principle, but it does not help captains of ships even one bit as they attempt to bring heavily laden ships into shallow ports at high tide. 

The reason Newton's discover didn't help seafaring is instructive. Although it proved the general cause of the tides movements over time, the specific factors affecting the flow of water at every seaport vary immensely. For example, the shape of the sea bed near a given port can have a dramatic effect. Tides will obviously behave differently in a North-South facing deep water port that opens immediately to the deep ocean than in a shallow water East-West facing port that opens into a wide and deep channel. The moon's pull to the east and west will cause more dramatic changes in shallow water levels. 

Likewise, the structure of a market, such as the building trades for example, varies wildly in the U.S., versus Northern Europe, South America, or China. The meaning of "Budget, Need, Authority, and Timing" is vastly different in different cultures, with different regulations and business practices. These are not "scientific observations"; they are judgement calls. And unfortunately, salespeople make them differently, depending on their age, experience, maturity, personality, etc. As a result, when these subjective judgements are used in place of "data" in the company's Customer Relationship Software (CRM) system, neither sales productivity nor forecast accuracy can be improved. 

This condition within the corporation is parallel to seafaring knowledge prior to Whewell's project to study the ocean's tides. And the solution to the problem is also parallel. Salespeople can be taught to develop respectful agreement around operational definitions of prospective customers. This is done by identifying the observable characteristics that make prospective customers higher or lower quality. 

For example, every professional B2B salesperson is taught that their "coach" (aka "sponsor") network (those individuals within a customer who want them to win, and can help them win) is extremely important in being able to predict the outcome of a sales project. Now the strength of this network can be articulated in terms of observations by salespeople about their accounts. These observations vary dramatically depending on industry, culture, market conditions, etc. That is why salespeople must work together to identify what they observe, and what they think is important in predicting outcomes. A typical (albeit generic) list of potential observations is below:

  • I don't know anyone in the account
  • I know one person (e.g., a receptionist), but I don't know oi their opinion matters
  • I know someone who wants me to win, and I know why
  • I know several individuals who want me to win, as well as why they do, and at least one is influential with the decision maker
  • I know several individuals with a reason to want me to win this business, across the most important departments, and at the a range of levels in the hierarchy. 
  • Not only do I know several coaches across the organization, I also know the decision maker and there are strong reasons they want me to win. 

Obviously, the sequence of these observations is important. The idea is to number these potential observations from zero to five, with five being the highest quality or likelihood of winning. Salespeople are then asked to select which of the observations most closely resembles their sales opportunity. 

This method can be applied to all the factors salespeople think apply to their situations. Doing so is a powerful way to bring the subjective, emotional world of sales and sales forecasting into a more scientific realm. This is how sales organizations can operationally define their forecasting, and the results are usually immediate and impressive. 

The forecast accuracy of many sales teams is typically well below 40%. By contrast, those organizations who use this approach often see forecast accuracies higher than 80%. This is tantamount to doubling sales productivity, because it tells salespeople which accounts need more work, and even which ones they should walk away from. 

Further, when sales opportunities are ranked by quality score, salespeople are invariably surprised that their favorite accounts are not more highly ranked. By comparing the quality scores, they begin to realize some reasons for this. Naturally, they want to bring the scores up, which causes them to ask different questions of prospects than they had previously.   Without realizing it, their behaviors begin to align, further reducing waste and variability experienced by the customer. 

Most importantly, this approach opens up a new channel of evidence and data. This data can be mined to identify crucial "underwater patterns" previously unrealized. One manufacturer of medical equipment using this approach to identify a crucial fact about their market segmentation. Well-funded teaching hospitals in the suburbs bought for entirely different reasons than the overburdened welfare hospitals in the inner cities. This enabled big improvements to their sales process.

Whewell's validation of the process of induction, implemented across thousands of individuals should be a lesson to corporate executives seeking to make progress toward their goals. Rather than simply exhorting sales people to make more calls, do more proposals, and "just work harder" is the norm today, it provides a valuable alternative. That properly motivated and trained individuals following a scientific method can create competitive advantages that cannot be discovered in any other way. 


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