When Winning Leads to Losing

Bob Wiesner | April 17, 2018

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Some new business pursuit leaders are delusional. I’m sorry to say it. But some kid themselves into thinking they – and their teams – are better at pursuits and pitches than they really are.

In most cases, these leaders were, at one time, completely justified in feeling confident. They had scored one or even a few wins. From there, they figured they were doing it right. So when subsequent pursuits came up empty, they resisted taking a deeper look at what went wrong.

According to this McKinsey article on the pitfalls of transforming into a lean management team, success can lead to failure. It’s true for lean management teams. And it’s true for pursuit teams.

Some Honest Assessment is Needed

If your team started well, but is now converting at a much lower rate, take a look at these possible causes, as cited by the authors:

  1. Losing business purpose. The objective behind new business pursuit has to be quality growth. That means growth that fits with the firm’s business strategy. Yet many new business directors and team leaders get seduced by the Dark Side. They start pitching whatever comes their way. Maybe the opportunity really doesn’t pass vetting criteria. Maybe it’s too much of a long shot. Maybe the timing sucks. Maybe the team’s burned out. A few early wins and suddenly these team leaders feel they can win ANYTHING at ANYTIME. Uh-uh.
  2. Focusing on tools, not ideas. Winning can lead to this conclusion: “We’ve got this pitch thing figured out.”  So every subsequent pitch unfolds in exactly the same way. The same research process, the same solution, the same pitch development process. One pitch leader, now frustrated, told me, “the team always brings the same ideas to every pitch, the same stories, the same lack of rehearsal.” Every prospect is at least a little different. Every pursuit requires fresh thinking. Maybe even a fresh team.
  3. Changing behavior but not mindsets. After a few losses, the team could be ready for some new approaches. Cool. But if they don’t buy into it, it won’t have much effectiveness. And certainly very little stickiness. Teams have to approach change with a real growth mindset. To reverse losses, and make long-lasting changes, teams need the willingness to listen, to learn, and to admit problems. And they need to take ownership of changes. When I look at teams on losing streaks, mindset is turning into the first place to explore.
  4. Building without balance. Winning requires a strong balance of attributes. Strategic thinking. Analytics. Storytelling. Solution development. Product and segment depth. Presence in the room. Listening skills. Etc. Your agency won a couple of pitches because you had strong creative ideas (said the prospect). You lost the next few. So you think the problem is your creative ideas weren’t good enough. Maybe. But too much emphasis on improving the creative solution might mask potential problems with strategy, storytelling, presenting. Or it might just be the completely wrong answer. I mean, did you really get honest feedback from the prospect?

When you’re in a losing streak that follows a winning streak, don’t stick your head in the sand. Don’t blame it on the law of averages, or dumb prospects. Ask yourself real diagnostic questions. And be prepared to make real adjustments.



It’s funny. The elements of a strong new business approach haven’t changed much. Most new business leaders and their teams already know what they are. But for the reasons above, they aren’t following through. I saw this first-hand with a top global ad agency in New York. Everyone on the top team had track records of success. They had walked away from many of the tools and techniques that worked.

Winning in the Room is a workshop-based solution that does two things. First, it brings back to the forefront the most important elements of human persuasion that have gone missing in many new business approaches and pitches. Second, it shows how to apply those techniques more effectively in the contemporary selling environment.

That New York agency took the techniques of the workshop to heart. The resulting pitches were things of beauty, as was the win rate that the agency achieved. It’s not fair to assert a direct cause-and-effect relationship of training to winning. But there’s no doubt the pitches after the workshop were different and more fundamentally sound. And the teams delivering them felt remarkably more energized by the pursuit.

(BTW, the woman presenting in the photo could use some “touch-turn-talk” training. For another discussion.)

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