Some of the books that line my shelves are a mystery—I have no idea where or when I acquired them, or perhaps how they found me. But for others, I recall every detail. I was at the Upper Arlington Barnes & Noble in 1995 when I chanced upon Howard Bloom's first book, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Journey into the Forces of History. I was thirteen when my dad gave me a book called Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, a book Liddy published after being released from a Federal Prison. Prison was his punishment for remaining silent, refusing to be a rat, an animal he cooked and ate to overcome his fear.
Today’s book was recommended to me by Tom Peters, who used to share his recommendations on his blog and quote many lines in his massive slide decks. The book is by Robert Coram and it’s called Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Coram introduced me to Boyd and his OODA Loop, a way to think about gaining a strategic advantage, that I’ve found immensely valuable in competing for and winning sales.
Selling and Boyd's OODA Loop
OODA is an acronym meaning Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. According to Boyd, accomplishing these four steps faster than those around you gives you a competitive advantage. Similarly, if you can prevent your competitors from observing or orienting themselves—getting inside their OODA loop, so to speak—then you can cause a sort of paralysis that leaves them vulnerable.
The easiest, fastest, and perhaps the best way to understand the OODA loop is to see one in action, in the form of a trick football play
You may not know that football teams clear these trick plays with the referees before the game, so they don't call a foul on something that is not precluded by any rules of the game. It is legal to hide a player on the ground in the end zone. But because the opposing team had never anyone hide a player on the kickoff, they were missing an observation and the orientation it might have provided. Instead, they did what they always did, something that often ends badly when you’re missing key information.
Selling Effectively and OODA Loops
The OODA loop provides us with two powerful tactics to improve our sales effectiveness. Both tactics are enabled by recognizing the OODA loop and understanding how to get inside your client's decision-making cycle. The first tactic is to differentiate yourself and your approach. The second tactic allows you to improve your results by informing your client’s decision-making. None of what follows is more difficult than understanding the trick football play.
OODA and Differentiating Yourself
Let's imagine that your prospective client has suffered through dozens or hundreds of meetings with salespeople over many years, each one effectively indistinguishable from the next. Because they’ve seen the same patterns so often they know what to expect, including the order of the conversation. That commodified experience encourages them to treat you like a commodity, just another salesperson who’ll make the same claims and the same arguments. Let's agree that your prospective client has observed this pattern and is completely oriented, making it easy to decide and act.
To differentiate yourself and your approach, you need to start a conversation that provides novelty, disrupting your prospective client’s sense of orientation. That moment of confusion changes the nature of the conversation. In 2007, for example, Steve Jobs walked onto a stage and showed us a phone with a screen that allowed typing without a keyboard, along with dozens of apps we could install. Starting the conversation with something unexpected changes the conversation by getting inside the client's decision-making cycle.
OODA Loops and Enabling Decisions
One mistake we make in sales is assuming the client already knows how to make the best decisions for their company and their results, something that isn't often true. Most of the time, decision-makers lack information that might improve their results. Rather than just slotting your solution into their decision-making process, the modern sales approach calls for something like a facilitated buyer's journey, one where you guide your client to the better results they need. To improve your prospective client's decisions, you first need to correct their information disparity.
The OODA loop starts with Observe. Because you help many companies and leaders improve their results, your observations are greater than your client’s, as they have, typically, helped only one company make one decision. Because decision-makers and the other stakeholders you meet with are busy executing for their clients, they rarely have the time to orient themselves to what's going on in their environment. You orient your contacts when you provide them a briefing that allows them to understand their world, taking account of what's changed and how they should respond. By improving your client's OODA loop, you provide the strategic advantage of making good decisions.
Those who struggle to sell do so not because of what they sell but because of how they sell. One way to gauge your effectiveness in sales is whether your client would be better off letting you decide for them than deciding on their own. After all, when your client takes your advice and your recommendations, you have effectively made the decision for them.