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Yes, We Have No Blue Cars

October 6, 2011

After the last post you may be wondering if there’s any way for startups, which have very little ability to influence customers, to overcome immunity to change?  Well, there’s got to be.  Startups do start up. People do change, both personally and in their buying habits.  Companies do buy things they didn’t before.  Something’s got to be working.

Kegan and Lehey’s “immunity to change” thesis isn’t that people or organizations can’t change, or even that change is necessarily hard;  it’s that people stick to things, and resist change, because the way they act now is in service of some commitment they have, which may be hidden to them.

Imagine a car dealership.   A guy walks in and says “I’m looking for a car, and I’m ready to buy today.” “Great,” says the salesman, “what are you looking for?”  The guy says “I want a blue car.”

For K&L,  the action of going out to buy a specifically “blue” car  isn’t to be taken at face value.  Buying “blue” is an action that is probably tied to a commitment, which rests on some big assumption. What does that chain, from assumption to commitment to buying “blue,” look like?

Here’s a possible conversation:

Salesperson:  “Huh, blue.  What shade of blue do you like best?”

Customer: “I’m not sure, maybe a light blue.”

Salesperson: “So you don’t have your eye on a particular shade of blue?”

Customer: “Not really.  It’s just that I promised my girlfriend I’d buy a car in a color she likes, and I know she likes blue.”

Salesperson:  “Oh, ok. so what’s really important is that your girlfriend likes the color of the car?”

Customer: “That’s what I just said.”

What’s happened here?  The salesman has just discovered that the customer has a commitment that was hidden till now (he wants to get a color that his girlfriend likes).  Now the salesman knows that the fixed commitment isn’t to buying something blue, it’s to pleasing the girlfriend.  This enables the salesman to propose a non-threatening experiment that can help the customer find something that he really wants.

Salesman: “Well, if we could find a car that works in every other way, even if it wasn’t blue,  and if we took a picture and texted it to her, and she liked it, would that work?”

If you’re a startup,  people will tell you what they want, but what they’re really saying is some variation of “I want a blue car.”  Startups succeed by deeply understanding what customers are trying to accomplish, and innovating their products and services (in this case, offering to text a picture to the girlfriend) to help them reach their true goals.

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