Believe it or not

Posted by Robert Beauchemin on Apr 15, 2008

We all know the power of the brain. No one would argue that humans can achieve the seemingly impossible when they apply their collective brain to a problem. Since the beginning of human kind, countless proofs of the power of the human "belief engine" can be found in everything that surrounds us, from harnessing the power of fire, to the invention of the wheel, to landing a spaceship on a moving planet traveling at 87,000 km/h, 36 millions miles away.

Beliefs shape how we act in our everyday life. Albert Einstein had beliefs, despite his Cartesian approach to science, based on logical analysis and mechanistic interpretation of physical phenomenon. He had postulates [hypothesis assumed without proof] on which all of his work is based. He believed, for example, that the speed of light [c] was constant which is a fundamental premise for his famous E=mc2. He even believed in God, as he repeatedly said "God does not play dice", referring to the predictability of outcomes.

It has been said that faith can move mountains. I grant you that faith is necessary to move mountains, yet we all know faith alone is not sufficient. You do need to believe but you also need the right equipment. Furthermore, we can also agree that having the best equipment is insufficient, and that without belief one is likely to fail.

This belief power, works both ways. If one believes that something cannot be done, that person will be absolutely correct. If you believe you cannot do something, you will be right all the time. Beliefs set our individual frontiers for the possible, and it is very rare that one can go beyond these imaginary frontiers. Now, why is that? Because we won't try. Because of the fear of failing.

Let me tell you a real story.

In 1993, I had hired a sales rep from a competitor. His largest transaction with his former employer was in the neighborhood of $250K, which was considered an extremely good transaction size for his company. His surrounding was not encouraging him to belief in something bigger. In our company, the average transaction size of the time was $750K, which was very annoying to me [as it was way too low for the value I believed we brought to organizations.] One day, he came to me for help. He had secured a meeting with the CIO of a larger electric utility company in Eastern Canada, and was very anxious about this opportunity which was coincidently neighboring $750K [by far the largest contract he ever had to secure]. So we did a review of everything we knew about the account and everything that had been done with them. The prospective customer wanted to replace their legacy accounting system and the proposed transaction reflected the expressed requirements.

I accompanied him to his half-day meeting with the CIO. Not only did we end-up spending the whole day there, we uncovered different types of needs. We spent hours with the COO as he spelled out his aspirations for the organization; the replacement of accounting system was their perception on how to get there. By probing, by listening, by imaging, by daring, we allowed them to paint a much larger picture of what was possible; they sold themselves on a much broader project. At that moment, they realized that they were not looking for a software vendor, but for a partner; the very partner that had taken their blinders off. We walked away with a $5M order covering all of their needs for the next few years. But this is not the end of the story, it is the beginning. Not only did the customer's blinders come off, so did the sale rep's.

From that moment on, that sales rep had different beliefs about what was possible in a sales process. He went on to sign a $10M order and then a $17.5M order. We had removed his blinders. We had created a difference frame of reference, a different belief. Other sales rep took notice, shattered their own blinders and before long, the largest single transaction had become $30M.

Beliefs apply to organizations as well. An organization's fundamental belief is linked to its mission. Why do we wake up in the morning? Why do customers buy from you? Why do investors invest in you? Because they share beliefs.

At SAP Canada of the mid-1990s, we had the collective belief that legacy enterprise systems used by Canadian organizations were an old collection of patched, broken, inflexible un-integrated systems beyond the point of repair. Furthermore, we believed that this state of affair would hamper their ability to adapt to a globalizing world, and as Canadian we cared passionately about that. So we set our mission, our raison d'être, to "make Canadian organizations better". This was our sense of purpose. This was why people came to work for us. This is why employees came to work every morning. This is why customers bought from us. This is way our customer satisfaction rating was second highest n the world (second to the Mexican subsidiary, which was an order of magnitude smaller). This was, in part, why SAP Canada, then, significantly outperformed other much larger SAP subsidiaries.

Corporate beliefs drive passion in the organization's sense of purpose or mission. So the message to CEO's is this: make you beliefs clear.

Believe is or not, it is your call. In either case, you're likely to be right.