Catalyzing Sales Innovation and Do or Die


Is it possible to catalyze explosive sales growth when the fundamentals are disastrous? During COVID-19, for example?


A business owner is struggling for sales, 2 years after starting up.  Identifying a whale, which would lead to exponential growth, he encounters the “I’m good” objection - “I have dealt with your competitor for 5 years and am very satisfied.”  The business owner is losing money every month, and now faces exquisite torture. He desperately needs to close the whale to avoid bankruptcy and yet, he doesn’t seem to have a chance. What would you do? (See full story here)


This question is particularly important during the COVID-19 market disruption. Can you develop new clients, trusted adviser relationships - right now?  


For some companies, this isn’t a “nice to have” - it’s a “must have” necessity for survival, as in the opening story.


Developing the ability to grow sales now is a powerful anti “black swan” strategy – to protect your organization and build future profitable sales, in good times and bad.


We often look to strategy (vs. selling) to build sales – better/newer products and services, acquisitions, new technology, new market niches and marketing.


What about the selling function itself? Could there be a major untapped opportunity to evolve our selling function, to be a reliable source of profitable new sales growth and an important part of our anti-black swan strategy?


One way to do this is combining sales innovation with “do or die” implementation. Consider how the business owner described above solved his crisis. First, he needed two selling innovations:

  1. A bold vision, which could become an inescapable idea - already rejected by the “whale”

  2. A selling method innovation - going around the whale to the whale’s customer(s).

What? Wouldn’t that ruin the relationship with the whale? Not really, as there was no relationship with the whale.


Then, he had to pursue this innovation on a “do or die” basis. Total commitment of mind, body and soul - expending the needed effort, energy and creativity to get the result.  Not sure who were the whale’s customer, he reached out exhaustively to all potential customers.


And made a breakthrough, experiencing exponential sales growth.


The prevailing business standard was selling to the direct user of the product. This was a self-limiting assumption.


A classic self-limiting assumption until the 1950’s was: no one could run a 4-minute mile. The year after Roger Bannister exploded that self-limiting assumption, someone beat his time.


Could there be any self-limiting sales assumptions in your business? The search for self-limiting assumptions is one way to catalyze innovation. Here are some common self-limiting selling assumptions which can cripple your selling efforts:

  1. If you challenge the prospect’s thinking, you will offend the prospect and they won’t do business with you.

  2. You can’t get testimonials, particularly from large companies.

  3. It’s great when big fans refer you organically, but you can’t ask a customer for introductions.

  4. You can’t ask a prospect or customer about your competition.

If you want to catalyze change in your organization, a great way is to begin with “low hanging fruit” like testimonials. I worked with an engineering firm; whose engineers insisted you couldn’t get testimonials. After receiving about 30 testimonials, including from publicly traded companies, it became obvious you can get testimonials.


This set up the following discussion: you didn’t think you could get testimonials and look what you have accomplished. Doesn’t it make you wonder what else you can do, that you think is impossible?


Successful innovation begets further innovation, once thought impossible.


The way “do or die” enters the equation is through sales metrics and accountability. Let’s say we set a standard of 1 introduction per week. If we don’t get an introduction the first week, we need two the second week, 3 the third week, etc.  By contrast, with a “best efforts” basis, where sales team members make  their best efforts every week, in a year, you could have zero introductions.


For science fiction fans, consider Neo’s choice in the movie The Matrix. Would he take the “Red pill” and wake up, or take the “blue pill” and continue sleeping? I’m encouraging you to take the red pill - challenge all your assumptions.


Another way to innovate is with the pre-mortem, one of the ten prediction rules  in the book Superforecasters. The book describes Superforecasters who have substantially above average ability to predict the future. You are probably familiar with the “post-mortem” - e.g. after you lost the sale, you analyze what went wrong, possibly debrief with the prospect.


The pre-mortem is an effort to do a postmortem, while the opportunity is still alive. A standard pre-mortem framing is: “why will I never close this opportunity?” You ask this question, even when you are sure you will close the opportunity.


You discover weaknesses in your approach through this brainstorming method, then address the weakness. Here’s an example:


A business owner, selling a retail product, needed to close a big sale. The owner had licensed a major property and Wal-Mart had decided to do a pallet promotion with that license. Once again, a business owner faced exquisite torture - desperately needing to close the “whale” yet not having a chance. In this case, the business owner had no chance because he wasn’t a vendor of record at Wal-Mart.


All licensees were invited to submit ideas - to the licensor - for submission to Wal-Mart. The business owner decided it was most likely Wal-Mart would select a product from the existing 30 licensees who were vendors of record.


To differentiate himself, the business owner created a special product for the promotion. The licensor liked the effort. At this point, the business owner did the pre-mortem asking: “why will I never be selected, never become a vendor of record?”


The business owner decided Wal-Mart was buying a pallet program and wouldn’t buy his concept, because he wasn’t showing a pallet. In the days before computer generated graphics, the office team hand built enough prototypes to fill a pallet, then built the pallet. It took a week. The day before the submission deadline, they took a high-quality photograph and submitted that to the licensor. Wal-Mart bought the program from the 1 picture that told a thousand words. The company became a vendor of record of Wal-Mart, receiving a 55-truckload order.


In this case, you see the sales innovation (the pre-mortem) being combined with a “do or die” approach - hand building the pallet.


What are some other sales innovations you can implement?

  1. The impossible customer method - think of a client you are certain you will never sell. Design an offering for them. They probably won’t buy it, but your easier to close customers will buy it. And you might never be motivated to develop these ideas, without the spark of going after the impossible customer.

  2. The 3-pipe problem approach - sustained focus. This approach is named after the Sherlock Holmes solution to the case of the Man with the Twisted Lip. He smoked 3 pipes of tobacco, as he thought through all the possibilities.

When was the last time you sat quietly and thought through a problem for 1 hour? 2 hours? 8 hours?


Your objective: to continuously generate options to solve a problem - e.g. close a sale - and test them until you find one that seems bulletproof.


One businessperson literally thought through a “do or die” scenario for 8 hours, before alighting on a bullet proof solution - which closed the sale.


  3.  Innovating to Scale - use what you have. This addresses a common self-limiting assumption: You need big resources to be innovative. $, people, facilities, technology. In his book Innovating, author Luis-Perez Breva, a professor of  innovation at MIT, points out:


   A.  We innovate to scale, using what we have


   B.  What we have is sufficient to innovate


   C.  Today is the prototype for tomorrow - what a liberating thought


What stops most people from innovating is a lack of commitment, a lack of “Do or Die”


As a final suggestion, develop an “induction worksheet”, to ask you questions prompting innovation. This idea was harvested from Francis Bacon’s “New Organon”:


Look at moments of transition. An example would be when water becomes ice.


A business application could be: what would cause a CEO to take a meeting; the moment of transition being: going from no meeting to taking a meeting?


Thinking from this starting point, here are some ideas which might command CEO attention, solutions which address:

  1. Culture/turnover

  2. Staffing key positions – direct reports

  3. Essential KPIs which are off

  4. Outside changes – economy, political

  5. Conflicts between departments, conflicts of interest

Write to me at for a copy of the induction worksheet.


Times are tough. With innovation and do or die, you can still get explosive growth.


About the Author


Andy Gole has been helping companies build their sales team, through sales training coaching and consulting for 27 years. He taught sales theory for 8 years at Fairleigh Dickinson University.  He has written a book, Innovate Now, available at


He presents a free 20 minute webinar on Urgency Based Selling every 2 weeks. For on-demand webinars, visit




You can write to Andy at







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