Challenging Assumptions: An unconventional way of getting to yes

Joe WillkeIn 1983, Joe Willke was still an analyst with Nielsen-BASES—a consumer research firm that specializes in predicting the sales of new products before they’re launched. Their technique starts by exposing a few hundred people to the concept behind the new product—just a few words to describe what it is and how it works. Then they fill out a survey to find out how much they like the concept. Then the participants actually get to use the product for a week or two and then fill out another survey to find out what they think of the product itself.

The research

On one of Joe’s first projects, the test results coming back were not what he expected. Consumers thought the concept was average at best. But once they actually used the product, they loved it! It was one of the largest differences between concept results and product results they had ever seen. Conventional wisdom for a situation like this would be to recommend a heavy sampling program. Since the concept wasn’t that appealing, consumers weren’t likely to try the product on their own. But if they got a free sample of this amazing stuff in the mail, they’d start buying.

In this case, however, Joe and his team had a better idea. But in order to get their client to go along with it, they’d have to get the client to admit they weren’t delivering on the promises one of its other brands had been making for years. That’s not an easy task. So when it came time for the big presentation, one of Joe’s teammates used an unconventional method to kick off the meeting. After thanking everyone for showing up, he pulled out a piece of paper and held it up. Everyone recognized it as a nicely framed concept statement like those used in the consumer tests. He read it aloud, then said, “Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, that’s the concept you wanted us to test for this new brand, right?” Everyone agreed.

Slide1That’s when Joe’s teammate dropped the bomb.

Actually, it’s not.

A hush fell over the room. He continued, “That’s the concept we tested for you three years ago when you launched your last brand in this category. But you could be forgiven for being confused, because it’s almost exactly the same as the concept you asked us to test for this new brand.”

The recommendation

Having everyone’s full attention, Joe’s colleague went on to describe the mediocre concept results and the great product results. He explained their hypothesis for why that happened: “You’ve been promising consumers this product for the last three years in your advertising for your current product. The only problem is, when they use your brand, they don’t think it measures up to the promise. Consumers loved this concept when we tested it three years ago. The reason it tested so poorly now is that you—and several of your competitors—have been promising these benefits but coming up short in delivering it. They don’t believe you anymore.”

Joe and his team thought the right thing to do was to not launch a new brand at all. Instead, they wanted their client to take this amazing new technology and put it in the brand it had been selling for three years, finally delivering on the original promise. After this unexpected and unconventional presentation, the client came to the same conclusion. And that’s exactly what it did.

The lesson

Today, Joe is president of one of Nielsen’s other companies. He shares this story as an example of a bold and creative way to make a recommendation you know your audience doesn’t want to hear. Here’s why I think it worked so well. It didn’t directly challenge the conclusion they knew everyone would come to about launching the brand with a heavy sampling program. Instead, it challenged a fundamental assumption that everyone in the room had made to begin with— that this new brand had a new concept that was, well . . . new.

They could have simply shared the new and old test results in the traditional way, drawn the comparison, and made their recommendation. But that would frame the recommendation as a new and probably unpopular conclusion from the same set of assumptions. But challenging the newness of the concept by reading the old concept at the beginning of the presentation framed the conclusion as a violation of a fundamental assumption. That’s much more compelling to an audience. Consultants present results of their analysis to clients all the time, quickly followed by the conclusion they drew. Sometimes the clients agree with the conclusion and recommendation, and sometimes they don’t. They don’t often, however, disagree with the facts collected in the analysis.

Assumptions are like those facts. Nobody expects them to be violated. But when they are violated, it’s much easier—mentally and emotionally—for clients to accept an uncomfortable recommendation. After all, they’ve been operating under false assumptions. Surely their current course of action needs to change. Said another way, it allows the client to save face. Instead of having to admit that their personal strategic ideas are wrong, they just have to admit they’d been operating under a false assumption.

When possible, frame your big conclusion as a violation of some major assumption your audience holds. It’s guaranteed to get their attention. And as Joe found out, they’re much more likely to follow your recommendation.

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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