I’ve been asked several times in the past weeks to review lost deals, or “non realized opportunities” if you prefer the softer language. Why do we lose big deals, and is there one thing we can do to prevent it?

Enter a lesson learned from a History Channel show about the sinking of Titanic. (yes, I watch a lot of historical shows, along with a strong dose of Oak Island treasure hunting). First, let’s define what the sinking of the Titanic actually was. It all comes down to perspective. As I often quip, in most people’s perspective, it was a disaster, but to the live lobsters in the kitchen, the whole thing was a miracle. Outside of the lobsters’ perspective though, with enough study, I conclude it was not a disaster per say, but rather a catastrophic collision of systemic failure. The same goes for lost deals. It’s not usually one thing. It’s usually a pattern of failed thinking and poor choices.

Firstly, the builders of the Titanic called her “unsinkable”. They started believing their own hype. There is a reason pride is one of the 7 deadly sins. That arrogance permeated into their thinking and planning. The Titanic had enough lifeboats for approximately only half the people on board. Who needs lifeboats for an unsinkable ship, right? The false thinking then infected others in the building process. The mechanism for lowering the lifeboats was a new type of davit. One that the crew was unfamiliar with and untrained on. The Captain was brought out of retirement, despite having a record of failed leadership on his last assignments (namely on the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship). Captain Smith also cancelled the lifeboat drills that are always scheduled early in a trip like this (even cruise ships today hold one). Arrogance often compounds poor leadership decisions.

Failed leadership usually impacts the whole team. The wireless operators were not members of the ship’s crew, but employees of the Marconi company (who manufactured the devices). Captain Smith was distrusting of the “new” technology of the wireless and hence there were several communication failures between two orgs that delayed radio distress calls going out to the 10-12 ships within sailing distance. Even more amazing was something that was not figured out until the Titanic was found, many years later, almost 14 nautical miles from her last reported position. Further investigation revealed that the officers responsible for plotting position and heading using sextants had been improperly trained, and hence the ship’s position was incorrectly reported to the wireless operators, so even if the distress signal had been sent earlier, it would have sent rescue ships to the wrong position. Then more arrogance at trying to impress everyone with speed and ignoring dangerous conditions and protocols associated with them. 
All of that led to a breakdown in order and SOP, resulting in some lifeboats being sent out only 20-50% full.
So lets review:

– Arrogance/pride

– Planning based on said arrogance/pride

– Not enough proper training on essential SOP (davits)

– Not enough essential tools (lifeboats)

– Bad communication between team members

– Weak leadership

– Tolerance for repeated small mistakes

– Not following established protocols and SOP

Look familiar? None of these factors alone necessarily lead to a massive loss of life, but combine them all, and catastrophic collision of failures results.

If you are losing big opportunities, or just losing a lot of opportunities, the answer is likely a series of failures of thinking and failures of action along the way.

– Are you preparing a plan and assigning roles before presentations?

– Do you have a checklist of what you need to know before moving forward on a proposal?

– Are you debriefing after calls and meetings?

– Do you/your team have the right tools, and is everyone properly trained on them?

– Is everyone within your team on the same plan/playbook?

– Do you analyze for and plan for obstacles/failures likely to happen?

No one plans to fail, but failing to plan creates the same result. Massive failures are usually based on the same recipe as great successes. The accumulation of the effect of many smaller decisions and actions. Think small to solve big problems.