When I need to pull myself out of a thinking rut, or am otherwise in search of a “mental sorbet,” Tom Asacker is one of the people I turn to who can reliably spin my thinking around. I loved his latest release, The Business of Belief, so much, that I invited Tom to answer a few questions about this short, provocative book so I could share some of his thoughts with you.
We hear plenty these days about influence, but The Business of Belief deals with something more primal, and more useful: persuasion. You cannot hope to persuade a customer unless you can connect with their beliefs–and you cannot connect with their beliefs unless you are crystal clear about your beliefs. And if that sounds a little seditious for a marketing book, it is. Hence, my first question:
Tom W: The book starts out as a branding and marketing book, but becomes something…very different. Who is this book for, and what do you hope they do with it?
Tom A: It’s for people who are interested in the modern art of influence and behavior change. Those who want to understand and move others, so that they can make their good intentions a reality. And I believe that it’s needed now more than ever, because growth has stalled and frustration levels are at an all time high and climbing.
We’re living in fast-paced world overwhelmed by complexity and choice. I hope the book causes people to slow down and think, to use it as a springboard to reexamine their beliefs and decisions. And that their questioning brings them renewed passion for possibility, change and growth.
Tom W: I love the metaphor you employ of “crossing a bridge” for behavior change. Which is harder to create–a desire for the outcome on the other side, or the feeling of “safety and comfort” to cross the bridge?
Tom A: It really depends on the strength of the desire, the number of competing options, and the perceived level of risk and uncertainty. For example, I may have a strong desire for a novel experience. If it’s for a new wine, the challenge will be to bring a particular brand to life in my mind, to stimulate my desire. Safety and comfort are pretty much non-issues. However, if the novel experience I desire is an expensive vacation in a foreign country, then creating a feeling of safety and comfort may be the greater challenge.
When it comes to behavior change within organizations, both are equally difficult. Leaders must communicate frequently and passionately to stimulate desire as well as to create an environment that feels safe and comfortable. More importantly, they must work really hard to reduce the number of competing options on people’s time, attention and motivations.
Tom W: You quote Daniel Kahneman, who is near and dear to my heart, about our bias to pick the simpler choice; the easier answer. Under what circumstances might we pick the more complex choice?
Tom A: When a particular choice really matters to us. “Matter” comes from the Sanskrit “maatra” which means “to measure.” If, for example, you’re an engineer developing a breakthrough product, complexity is irrelevant because it is in your DNA to be “measured” in your approach. The same is true of all enthusiasts. Their choices may appear more complex, especially to novices, but it’s not really. Enthusiasts simply derive value in a more exacting process of choosing.
Tom W: In Part Three you talk about breaking the happy trance of our present beliefs and creating new thinking patterns, which reminds me of “This is Water,” by David Foster Wallace. Isn’t this a little cognitive behavioral therapy, disguised as marketing?
Tom A: The essence of marketing, the terminal goal, is to influence someone’s decision. So it’s all about understanding thinking patterns and behavior change. However, unlike CBT, choices in the marketplace are not influenced by changing someone’s thinking, which then leads to a change in their feelings and behavior. Instead, you must appeal to their feelings first. Our thoughts and behavior follow our perceptions and feelings. That’s the happy trance. Look, we may impulsively choose a particular brand, because we like the design of the packaging. And that’s okay. But that trance also guides more significant decisions, like the actions we take at work or with our health, career and community.
I’m aware that it’s impossible to exist in today’s modern marketplace and become completely enlightened, to wake up and be fully conscious of all of our choices and decisions. What I am imploring people to do is to become more conscious, especially regarding decisions that will have consequences on their future well-being, and the well-being of others.
Tom W: I love the Buckminster Fuller quote: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” So–what message should HR departments take from this?
Tom A: That they should stop trying to fix people, and instead work on fixing the design of the business. Because the design, the model, is what produces the results. The people, all of whom desire to do a good job, are simply working within its, and their, constraints.
The great statistician and quality consultant Dr. W. Edwards Deming wrote, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” I’m finding far too many executives trying to manage the results of the operation by managing their people, especially their activities and reporting. It will never work. Instead, they need to better understand and manage the process, and let the process drive the results.
Tom W: Your final anecdote describes someone named Jake who grows content, and thus stops growing. Are we doomed (confined?) to a choice between contentment and growth?
Tom A: Yes.
What I love about Tom’s writing is that he doesn’t tell you how to do things. He gets you to examine why you do them. Get the right answer to that, and the how works itself out pretty directly. If you’d like to read more of Tom’s provocative thinking, I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Business of Belief (not an affiliate link) follow Tom on Twitter, and start yourself down that challenging, but ultimately rewarding path.