Change The Music. Change The Dance.

The 1992 Baz Luhrmann classic Strictly Ballroom tells the story of Sam Hastings (Paul Mercurio) an up and coming ballroom dancer with the pedigree and talent to go all the way to the top. Despite his outstanding abilities the all powerful Ballroom Confederation, headed by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) views Sam as a maverick and a threat to their authority.

The key issue between Hastings and Fife is how to dance. Sam is very much an innovator who feels stifled by tradition and he desperately wants to express himself by dancing his own steps. Fife however is firmly committed to the belief there are no new steps and that Sam should dance the way they want him to – or else!

Reflecting on the film it struck me that the battle between Fife, who represents ‘The Establishment’ and Hastings, who represents ‘Change’ is being played out in workplaces across the corporate world today, especially so when it comes to sales. I highlight sales because just like Barry Fife’s resistance to Sam, the corporate establishment has been just as stubbornly resistant to change how it thinks about sales.

I read some interesting statistics from the guys and girls at Harvard Business Review recently that I think add some intrigue to this little story. They shared that only 1 in 250 salespeople exceed their target and that only 9.1% of meetings actually result in a sale. They also discovered eight distinct sales archetypes and that only three of them were effective!!

I’m sure you’ve all seen equally startling statistics, there are certainly plenty floating around, and they all beg the question “Really, is that the best we can do?” After so much ‘investment’ in sales training, CRM systems, tools and processes over many decades why does sales remain shrouded in so much fog and complexity. Why is that sellers and buyers remain adversaries rather than allies? You have to wonder why there is such reluctance to change something that performs so poorly!

I stumbled upon a possible explanation recently while watching a great talk by Robert E. Quinn, Author, Speaker and Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Robert is also a co-founder of the Center for Positive Organisations and the author of eighteen books including “The Positive Organisation”. In his talk he used the “Principle - Agent” theory of microeconomics to illustrate the problem with the traditional “Boss - Employee” paradigm. He explains the Principle - Agent theory works like this - the Principle pays the Agent and the Agent does whatever he or she is paid to do. This model works when the Principle is around the watch, measure and manage the Agent but as soon as the Principle stops doing that the Agent’s performance tends to drop off.

He goes on to explain that when they introduced the notion of higher purpose to this model everything changed. The Agent became the Principle or the Employee became an Owner - shifting the entire motivational system of an organisation. Robert had a wonderful way of describing this discovery, he said:

Purpose is the music that changes the dancing
— Robert E. Quinn

But here’s the problem, when it comes to sales there are too many people believing as Barry Fife did that (despite all the evidence to the contrary) there are no new steps. It seems the Principle - Agent (nee Command and Control) model is deeply rooted, like a rotten aching tooth that’s causing a chronic case of halitosis. Everyone is politely trying to ignore the stench but it penetrates every fibre of the selling and business environment, contaminating the air.

The word “purpose” causes the Barry Fife's of the sales world to shudder at the prospect of all this soft squishy stuff - "Sure purpose is great as long as it doesn't get in the way of making more sales". The problem isn’t that they can’t dance or learn new steps; the problem is they can’t hear the music!

It is so much easier to get what you want when you change the music as apposed to you trying to tell people how to dance
— Robert E. Quinn

If purpose is the music of business, sales is its rhythm; and how sweet the sound. Can you hear it?

Ian J Lowe is the Founder & CEO of eccoh, a sales transformation, coaching and consulting organisation pioneering a movement to change the way the world thinks about sales.

Image Credit: Strictly Ballroom movie 1992