The Key Mistake Undermining Your Pitch
December 1, 2012 Editor 0
Over 90 minutes into the meeting, the frustration boiled over into anger. The product manager, who had come up with what he thought was an airtight, iron-clad, compelling and irrefutable business case for launching a fairly clever innovation, completely failed to persuade the impassive CMO.
The CMO, who didn’t “own” the product line but was responsible for brand and strategic positioning, said that he understood the value proposition but felt it blurred the “premium” positioning he wanted that product to have. He wouldn’t approve any further development.
In a room filled with marketers and developers, the product manager exploded: “What could I say or show you that would get you to change your mind?”
I was sitting quietly in the corner of the room and I knew exactly how the CMO would respond.
“Nothing,” the CMO said, looking right at the furious product manager, “There is nothing you could say or show to convince me.”
I’ve sat through variants of this scene no fewer than a dozen times (and heard dozens of comparable tales) and it no longer surprises. The pitch can be before venture capitalists, brand managers, product review committees and/or the CEO. Apparently, it doesn’t matter. I can count on the fingers of a single hand the times the powerbroker asked that question gave a real and actionable answer. (In one case, the aspiring entrepreneur would have to get the blessing of the firm’s general counsel; in another, approval wouldn’t be forthcoming unless the innovator got written approval from a key supplier that their component could be used in that undeniably novel configuration.)
Sometimes, of course, the rejection is simply personal: the “wrong” person is making the case and their humiliation is essential. More frequently, the presenters simply have not done their homework. They’ve over-relied on organizational processes and punch-lists in preparing to make their case. They’ve ticked all the right boxes (otherwise the meeting would never have taken place) but they’ve utterly failed to do the due diligence around what gets the key decision-maker to say “yes.”
No one should go into an innovation pitch without real information and insight into “What would it take to change your mind?”. Yes, the right numbers have to be there but I’m stunned by how often a new product team or skunkworks group appear blissfully unaware of the brand vocabulary, strategic blindspots or business hotbuttons of the power players they’re selling. By the way, don’t think for a moment that the highest-ranking people in the room can’t tell when someone seeking their approval hasn’t done their homework. Decision-makers with biases and prejudices take an element of pride — even if it’s perverse — when their concerns are tacitly or explicitly acknowledged.
At one medical devices firm, a product team came up with an offer so compelling that I asked why it hadn’t been developed earlier. There was no good answer. So my advice was that they needed to find out. Less than three days later, the team leader emailed me that the CMO associated that kind of product with the firm’s most successful competitor. He didn’t want to be seen as funding “me too” and derivative products.
That sparked a helpful conversation around the CMO’s philosophy of competitive differentiation. He only wanted “me too” products if they added some feature or functionality aligned with the company’s core positioning. Fortunately, this turned out to be do-able.
Should the product team have better understood the CMO’s design imperatives? Should the CMO have done a better job communicating his priorities? Of course. But these design expectations mismatches occur all the time.
Innovators and intrapreneurs believe that their job is to build the best possible innovations within time and budget constraints. This is demonstrably false and counterproductively naive. Their job is to build the best possible innovations that their managements will enthusiastically, not reluctantly, support. The answer(s) to “What would it take to change your mind?” had better be known before the meeting’s first PowerPoint/Keynote slide appears.
There is a powerful and singular exception to this. The CMO may loathe the idea, the new product council may hate your designer’s guts, a rival business unit may fear you as an internal threat — but the surest way to “change their minds” is to have a real, powerful and desirable customer or client for your proposed innovation. Nothing is more persuasive and compelling than a customer who’s expressed passion, enthusiasm and a willingness to pay for an innovation.
If a top-tier customer doesn’t have what it takes to change the mind of your internal resistance, you’ve got bigger innovation issues than I can solve.
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