101308 The $300,000 Sure Thing

In which we're reminded to check and double check things we hear from clients during a complex sale.


I came to call it the “$300,000 Sure Thing” at a time when $300,000 was a significant sum.


During a project with a large bank, thanks to my client’s relationship with her CEO, I began a conversation with the CEO about his strategy and organizational changes that were needed.

Over the course of three months, the conversations led to a proposal of services and a price. That would be the “$300,000.” He then turned to his Regional President direct reports and said, “I want to do this, get this done.” That would be the “sure thing.”


I announced the deal to my boss… and his boss. They were thrilled. The revenue would mean a lot to our company.


The CEO’s direct reports, the Regional Presidents, sprang into action, almost all of which happened just out of my sight and earshot. In short order, I felt completely out of control. I heard and saw only bits of information. Almost frantic for closure, I grasped at these clues, seeking insight, trying to make sense, seeking some control over the process. Back and forth went the action, just out of view, and back and forth, again.


We started work.


Two weeks later, as I was sitting with my team mate in a conference room on the 34th floor of their corporate headquarters, a squat, ill-tempered, crew-cut, olive-green suited, scuffed-shoed, squinty eyed, nose-rubbing functionary reporting to one of the Regional Presidents stepped in, closed the door and said, “It’s over, boys. Pack up your stuff and get out by 4:00. The project is cancelled.”


I was stunned. Sucker punched. The Regional Presidents , who had (it turns out) never supported the CEO’s vision, had pulled out their batons and rammed them, hard, into my gut.


There were many lessons to be learned about selling and managing complex engagements. Among the first: When we’re feeling out-of-control, we can trick themselves into seeing patterns or drawing connections that don’t exist.


Academic experiments reported in the September issue of Science, bear this out. Jennifer Whitson from University of Texas-Austin commented, “People [in the experiments] found false patterns in all sorts of data, imagining trends in stock markets… and detecting conspiracies that weren’t there… This suggests that lacking control creates a visceral need for order – even imaginary order.” [Boston Globe, October 6, page A-12].


Turns out I did the reverse. I imposed an imaginary order and missed a conspiracy that WAS there!


You could say, as the economy writhes, as the stock market plunges 800 points then rises 1100 points and falls another 500 points in a single day, that things are out of control.


Beware your version of imaginary order. Beware your version of the $300,000 Sure Thing.

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