From time to time, I come across managers who battle valiantly and unflinchingly to accomplish what appears to be downright impossible. To their credit, these noble individuals manage to notch up occasional successes! I even see entire businesses that owe their existence to the belief that, with enough passion, determination and brute force, miracles can be accomplished daily.

On some occasions, this dogged pursuit of the improbable is understandable, even admirable. But, more often than not, this conduct amounts to a highly unproductive evasion of reality. occasions when you feel as if you’re attempting to push string uphill, you stop and consider whether your current endeavour is, in fact, an appropriate investment of your (or your team’s) scarce resources. To assist in your evaluation of such situations, I’ve compiled a list of danger signs, some guidance on the diagnostic process and some alternate approaches.

It’s important to note that this list is in no way intended to be exhaustive. I’ve simply attempted to prioritise those problems we come across most frequently in the field. I hasten to add that, as a frequent offender, my advice should be regarded more as counsel from the brink than as a sermon from the mount!

Danger signs:

The universe is conspiring against you For whatever reason, Ballistix is frequently approached by inventors seeking assistance with the commercialisation of their inventions. Because we are not the obvious route to market, more often than not these inventors have approached us as a last resort or a wildcard. In these situations, we’re dealing with people who’ve received knock-backs all over town. In such cases, it’s common to be confronted by a person exhibiting an air of desperation and defiance. This person has reversed the law of cause and effect and become convinced that the universe is conspiring against him! He will often cite other successful inventors’ frequent failures as evidence of his impending triumph. (Edison’s thousands of failed attempts to find a suitable material for his light bulb’s filament would have to be the most oft-quoted example).

Diminishing returns Diminishing returns are a sure sign of danger. Unfortunately, because the onset of problems is initially very gradual, this danger sign is often missed. Diminishing returns occur because every system or process has a constraint. (Without a constraint, a system’s output would be infinite.) The constraint might be the capacity of your manufacturing plant, it might be the size of your market or it might be a policy (internal or external). As the volume of your system approaches the constraint, your return on resources deployed tends to drop away exponentially. If we assume that you were manufacturing a product for a very limited market, you would be likely to discover that the promotional cost of sale would increase with each new sale. By the time that you had just a handful of potential customers remaining, you would discover that it would cost more to make each subsequent sale than the value of the transaction.

Your system is unstable Years ago, I worked as a sales manager in the insurance industry. My three co-managers and I each managed teams of 25 salespeople. We believed our responsibility was to motivate our salespeople. Accordingly, over a few years, we introduced a number of sales initiatives, including:

  • Weekly sales meetings in a riverside restaurant, where each team sang its team song and challenged other teams to sales duels (loosing typically meant being lined up and tossed ceremoniously into the Brisbane River!)
  • Daily (afternoon) sales meetings, where each team member logged her activity from the night before (appointments, presentations and ¡­ sales) to thunderous applause. Of course, these meetings featured more team songs, on-the-spot prizes and hysterical chanting — all designed to send salespeople off to their evening appointments on an emotional high.
  • A stepped incentive scheme (on top of standard commissions), where prizes were awarded for different levels of performance. These prizes ranged from clothing vouchers, to mobile phones (you had to pay for them 15 years ago), and weekends away. It even featured a chocolate wheel to ensure that everybody had an opportunity to win a prize!
  • Special major sales promotions (on a couple of occasions, we sent entire winning teams on overseas holidays!) Looking back, I can comfortably say that we pushed traditional sales management practices to their ultimate limit. If we’d tried to infuse our salespeople with any more positive mental attitude, we almost certainly would have all been arrested!

The bad news is that the environment we created didn’t actually result in a significant increase in sales! What it did produce was periodic record months. If you were to inspect a graph of our sales revenues over that period, what you would notice is that, as the highs got higher, they became less frequent. Furthermore, you would notice that the lows got progressively deeper and longer. All we were accomplishing with our management antics was to time-shift the emergence of sales to create occasional record months. These record months then provided us with the justification we needed to push our management initiatives to the next level of lunacy! Of course, this lumpy sales curve was particularly damaging to the rest of the organisation. The infrastructure that was required to cope with record months sat around idle for much of the time.

If your system output resembles a triangle wave, with massive highs and bone-crushing lows, you too may be attempting to push string up hill!

The diagnosis

The following questions should help you to evaluate your situation and determine whether or not you are currently pursuing an appropriate goal.

Does the end justify the means? I’ve heard a number of managers justify their crusade by reassuring those around them that the only cost is their time. They figure that the cost of their time is equivalent to their annual salary divided by the time invested. What they forget is that their time is a scarce resource, with alternate uses. The real cost of their time is the highest return that could be earned if it were invested elsewhere. Of course, this applies to all scarce resources.

What are the odds? Inventors assure me that their inventions could net millions. What they fail to grasp is that the usage of the word could infers probability. Statistically, the value of the bucket of gold should be multiplied by the probability of finding the end of the rainbow. Now, if an inventor has dedicated years of his life to a single invention, probability theory will not offer him much useful counsel. However, if he were to approach his craft as a serious profession, he would maintain at all times a portfolio of inventions, each with a different risk/reward profile (as, of course, did Edison).

Will it scale? If it takes you three years and a team of ten salespeople to consummate your first sale, you would have to question how scalable this enterprise is likely to be. If we assume that you are not selling the world’s first fax machine (or some other product where network effect is likely to be a major factor), a slow start may be a leading indicator of an even slower future. My advice to entrepreneurs is that, if your steed doesn’t come out of the gate fast, seriously consider changing horses.

The remedy

Based on your evaluation of your current situation, I think you have four obvious choices.

Invest your resources elsewhere This option should need little explanation. If, after factoring in probability, you determine that you can earn a better return on your scarce resources elsewhere, that’s exactly what you should do!

Re-evaluate your goal I’m sure you can recall situations where you failed to achieve something that you desperately wanted, only to later realise that this was a blessing in disguise. Now, obviously, I’m not suggesting that there’s any cosmic interference at work here. My point is that sometimes it’s easy to get so caught-up in the chase that you forget to confirm periodically whether or not you still want what your’e pursuing. Speaking from personal experience, at Ballistix, we struggled with our previous business model for too long, before re-inventing ourselves as a management consultancy. I wish we had stopped to re-evaluate our goal years earlier. On that note: remember that the goal of your organisation is to make money, full stop. There’s no law that says your current business model (or that the industry standard business model) is the optimal one.

Re-design your process If your goal’s good, you might want to re-design your process. If you are suffering from diminishing returns or if your process is unstable, these are two sure signs that your process needs a re-design. The key here is to remember that these are both symptoms of a process problem. Process problems are management’s responsibility, not team members’. You should focus on reengineering your process — not on exhorting your team members to work harder (or, worse still, smarter). Of course, you’ll find plenty of articles on process design and management listed under our Sales Process Design index.

Muster more resources If your goal’s good and your process is showing no signs of stress fractures then maybe you just need to push a little harder! Throwing more resources at the realisation of your goal should bring forward its achievement — that’s obvious. But putting all the wood behind the one arrow will also speed the arrival of the positive reinforcement that your team needs to stay enthused — and demonstrate management’s unwavering commitment to the attainment of this goal.