Over the past week, I’ve been involved in several conversations that have the same underlying theme.Â It’s basically around the concept of Productive Conflict.
I believe this is a critical concept–both in how we engage our customers and in driving change internally.Â At the same time, I believe it is misunderstood, avoided, and executed very poorly with horrible results.
As sales people and/or as business leaders, we are responsible for driving change.Â Whether it is with/for our customers our within our organizations.
Change always creates conflicts, though we may not recognize them as such.Â Why change, change to what, change for what purpose, which change/direction, what are the risks, how to change, and so on.
Change is about choice and inherent in the process of making choices is conflict.Â This conflict can be small or it can be enormous.
But to be successful, we can’t avoid the conflict.Â We must identify it, understand it, manage it, where possible, reconcile conflict, but, sometimes agree to disagree.Â Too often, we fail because we have either avoided conflict, or we’ve failed to manage it effectively.
Conflict can be a very powerful tool, we can leverage conflict to crystallize issues, to drive alignment, and to drive action.Â This is productive conflict.
But productive conflict is a very tricky thing.Â The power of productive conflict is basically driven by motivation.
Leveraging conflict for purely self-centered, selfish purposes is likely to be destructive, in the very least manipulative.Â It always fails, either it is immediately recognized for what it is and rejected by everyone else; or because it has failed to get alignment/buy-in and will ultimately fail under it’s own inertia.
But Productive Conflict motivated by wanting to help others or the collective value to the team/organization can be very powerful.Â It’s powerful because the underlying motivation is very transparent and aligned with the interests of the others you are working with.Â It may not be comfortable, but it creates the “moments of truth,”Â and powerful methods of aligning and taking action.Â Stated differently, productive conflict can be a very powerful “forcing function.”
This concept is very difficult for people to grasp.Â The word “conflict,” is tinged with negative connotations.Â We associate fights, violent disagreement, wars, social/economic polarization with the concept of conflict.Â We tend to think of conflict in win/lose terms.Â We see people exploiting it in manipulative, bullying ways.Â We associate it with “disagreeableness,” “impoliteness.”
In our upbringing, we are probably trained to avoid conflict.Â We bring that into our business lives and reinforce it with ideas like “the customer is always right,” or misguided notions of being “team players.”Â Notions like “being nice,” or “getting along,” inadvertently drive avoidance behaviors.Â This avoidance and inability to harness conflict productively leads to huge wasted time/effort with “hidden agendas,” “politics,” lack of focus on identifying and resolving problems.
Conflict, exploited selfishly, can be all these things, and more.
But it can also be so powerful.Â Leveraged well, it can help drive great clarity.Â It can help us understand our fears, our differences, our disagreements.Â It can move us to resolve them, align ourselves, and move forward together.
The implementation of productive conflict has nothing to do with creating fights, being disagreeable, impolite, or whatever negative connotations we have about conflict.Â It is usually lively discussion, healthy sharing of ideas, and an openness/respect for different ideas.
Productive conflict is all about your motivation.Â It is all about being open to changing your own point of view.Â It is all about learning.Â It is all about respect and trust for the people you are working with to drive change.Â It is all about caring.
And these may be the most telling issues about how we fail to leverage productive conflict, and why we fail to achieve.
One of the biggest mistakes sales managers and sales people make is spending too much time focusing on the health of the pipeline.
Managers are constantly holding pipeline reviews.Â They are constantly asking, “What’s changed since we reviewed the pipeline yesterday?” (You can see how tedious these constant reviews are, particularly if you have a long sales cycle (anything over 3 months).)Â Inevitably, there are problems with the pipeline.Â There’s the universal managerial answer to these issues, “You need to get more in the pipeline!”
“Well yeah, but…….”
Turns out the advice to get more into the pipeline isn’t really helpful.Â Why more?Â How much?Â What else could I do?
The pipeline is a terrific analytic tool and can help the manager and sales person identify potential problems.Â For example, not enough in the pipeline—we need to focus on adding more opportunities by prospecting.Â Alternatively, we have enough in the pipeline, but deals are stalled or we aren’t winning enough.Â Or maybe the quality of the opportunities isn’t great.
The pipeline is a terrific tool for the sales person and manager to identify problem areas.Â But you don’t fix those problems in the pipeline.Â We fix those problems by focusing on other areas.
Not enough in the pipeline?Â We need to do more prospecting!Â Our territory and account planning processes are basically structured approaches to prospecting.Â They help us identify where we find new opportunities.Â Coaching in prospecting helps us understand how to to this most effectively.
Deals stalled, win rates too low?Â We need to build stronger deal/opportunity strategies!Â Leveraging our sales process and any sales methodology helps us look at each deal maximizing our ability to win these in the shortest time possible, at the greatest value possible.
Quality of the deals in the pipeline bad?Â We need to focus on our ICP and more effective qualifying.Â If the deals are falling out after they’ve been qualified, we need to build stronger deal strategies.
We solve problems in the pipeline by building/executing stronger deal strategies, leveraging our sales process more effectively, doing better qualifying, and executing higher impact sales calls.Â We fill the pipeline by building and executing strong territory and account plans.
Ironically, too many managers are obsessed with the pipeline, spending virtually no time coaching deals, account, territory, prospecting, or call plans.Â They think they can fix the pipeline by obsessing on it, not realizing the pipeline only tells you where the problems are likely to be.
If managers spent less time on the pipeline and more time coaching sales people in the problem areas identified by the pipeline, they would have to spend less time on the pipeline.Â (Hmmm, that circular logic actually makes sense.)