How Problem Solvers Can Learn To Sell

April 28, 2020

In 1984, Americans believed that video games were over. This was a problem for the Nintendo executives trying to sell their new NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The videogame boom over the last decade had worn out consumers with an oversupply of poorly made games. The team reported their failure and lack of interest to Nintendo executives and they tried redesigning the system, but the following year it failed to sell again. However, Nintendo’s President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was convinced that the Americans were wrong. Children weren’t bored with videogames, he thought, they were just bored with bad videogames. He then had an idea of how to solve this problem. He instructed his workers to take the NES to one American city and launch it there. With a 50-million-dollar budget the Nintendo team took the NES to New York City, and bombarded them with advertising, mall demonstrations, and even money back guarantees. The sales after Christmas showed consumers bought over 50,000 units, which was enough to convince retailers across America to start stocking the system. By the end of 1986, Nintendo had sold a million NES consoles in the United States.

Have you ever heard someone say, “A good idea will sell itself?” Leaders who can generate good ideas are, in essence, good problem solvers. Yamauchi knew his product was good, he had seen how it had sold in Japan. Children wanted better games with better graphics, but American retailers didn’t want to be stuck with a product that wouldn’t sell. A great idea can get people excited and grab their attention, but often it takes more than a good idea to get people to change. Leaders who are skilled at selling and marketing the benefits of a change believe that every idea, no matter how good, needs to be sold. Yamauchi knew what Nintendo had to do solve this problem: they had to demonstrate, sell, and market this new console. Their efforts paid off for many years to come.

This is a great example of two skills that great leaders possess. They can’t just solve the problem, they have to know how to effectively sell the solution. Most people recognize when someone is trying hard to sell or market a change to them. We tend to resist being sold to, especially if what they are selling does not seem like something we want.

I decided to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of problem solvers versus marketers using a dataset of over 100,000 leaders.

I identified problem solvers as leaders who:

  • Had skills and knowledge to make a significant contribution.
  • Trusted by others to use good judgment.
  • Spotted new trends, potential problems, and opportunities early.
  • Had a perspective beyond the day to day, taking a broad, long-term view.

Marketers were leaders who:

  • Did an excellent job of marketing projects, programs, or products.
  • Became champions for new projects or programs.
  • Helped others understand the organization’s vision and objectives.

I identified groups that were above average on one skill and below average on the other. There were 9,172 (or 8.9% of leaders) who were problem solvers.  On the other side, there were 9,139 (or 8.8% of leaders) who were marketers. When I looked at the impact of each approach, I found a variety of statistically significant strengths and weaknesses.

Problem Solvers had the following strengths:

  • Being trusted for their ideas and opinions.
  • Others seek their opinions.
  • Other members of the workgroup trust them.
  • Had the ability to anticipate problems.
  • Walking their talk and being good role models.
  • Careful to honor commitments and keep promises.
  • Maintain a clear perspective between the big picture and the details.
  • Skilled at communicating and understanding problems.

Marketers had a different set of strengths:

  • Have a high level of energy and enthusiasm.
  • Being energized to take on challenging goals.
  • Energizing others to achieve difficult goals.
  • Being open to feedback on how they could improve.
  • Having the courage to make changes.
  • Understanding customer needs.
  • Open to considering new ideas and approaches.
  • Inspiring others to high levels of effort.

The analysis showed that a strength for one approach turned into a weakness for leaders using the other approach. It was fascinating to see how each skill had a significantly positive impact on a different set of leadership capabilities. Clearly, there are benefits and liabilities in focusing on one approach or the other. The obvious conclusion was that good ideas don’t sell themselves, and good marketers need good ideas. Leaders who were skilled in both approaches were significantly more effective.

To demonstrate the impact of the different approaches, I had all the direct reports of each leader indicate the confidence they had that the organization would achieve its strategic goals. Using the evaluations from the direct reports, I found that when a leader was below average on both skills, confidence ratings were at the 36th percentile. Being above average at one or the other skill had a positive impact, but being above average at both problem solving and marketing created a significant increase in confidence. Being in the top quartile on both skills increased confidence ratings to the 74th percentile.

As I observe change efforts in organizations, it seems to us that many leaders assume that a good idea is all that is necessary to create organizational change. A good idea could be a new technology, a new approach to customers, or a new strategy. These shiny objects get people’s attention, but when it comes to getting people to change, it takes more. Marketing efforts involve communication and inspiration. They require follow-up and attention to details that help people to embrace and execute a change.  If you believe that you have the answer to your problem, then figure out how to effectively sell your solution.

—Dr. Joe Folkman

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