Discussion: Concepts that Change People’s Thinking


Why the “black box” theory
of sales and marketing is wrong. 

Thanks for visiting this page. I want to explain why (for me) chapter three is the most important in the book.

For ages (literally), we’ve been taught to believe:

            • Whatever happens between someone’s ears is “subjective” rather than objective. (Since words they use can mean different things to each.)
            • Emotions drive human behavior; therefore, trying to scientifically define or analyze it is pointless (in business, or anywhere else).

This is the “black box” theory of sales and marketing. And since most products don’t sell themselves, it is a huge issue. Someone needs to sell them. That means finding people, motivating them to work hard at selling, and then (possibly) replacing them if results don’t come.

Many, many executives subscribe to this theory.

There is just one problem: Black box theory is wrong.


Why “Black Box” Theory is Wrong

The following notion is counterintuitive. I hope to prove it to you in the next few paragraphs:

Far from being subjective, awareness of our own mental processes (i.e., introspection) is the prerequisite for objective, scientific thinking.

To make this case, think back to how you learned arithmetic. Here’s how I learned it:

Mrs. Kennedy, my first-grade teacher, placed two pencils in one cup saying, “One, two. That’s two pencils.” Then she put three pencils in another cup, saying “One, two, three. That’s three pencils.” Then she moved all the pencils into a third cup, while counting to five. “That’s five pencils.” Her use of words demonstrated both counting, and addition (by the simple logic of counting).

She did this several times using different quantities of pencils. We learned the rules for digits in the tens place, the hundred place, and so on. Then, she gave each of us some pencils and cups, and asked us to talk it through for ourselves. Soon, we could add up any numbers, whether the sum came to thirty-two, or one hundred and seven. (That was a lot of pencils!)

The broader lesson was this: Scrupulous use of words informs us about reality (the quantity of pencils).

We could perceive a small number of pencils directly. But when there were too many to perceive at a glance, the rules of arithmetic could tell us the quantity. “Scrupulous,” here means, “acting in strict regard for what is right or proper.” And “right or proper” means ensuring the words of our thoughts (introspection) adhere to what we perceive (extrospection).

This principle explains how we “grasp” the quantities of everything in the universe, from pennies, to baseball scores, to the size of the solar system.

Now, here’s the thing. Understanding anything boils down to the scrupulous use of words to identify what our senses present to us. Number words isolate the quantities of things, no matter their identities or qualities: For example, fifteen things, whether they be rocks, countries, or degrees of temperature, is still fifteen things.

Other kinds of words isolate the identity or quality of things, no matter their quantity: Words like “rock”, “country”, or “degree of temperature” refer to readily identifiable, and entirely different, classes of things that exist in some quantity, yet could exist in any quantity.

In other words, if we scrupulously identify our sense perceptions with words, and follow logical methods of inference, we can understand reality well beyond our immediate surroundings. Therefore …

Far from being subjective, awareness of our own mental processes (i.e., introspection) is the prerequisite for objective, scientific thinking.


This is important because it proves the Black Box Theory is wrong. First, knowledge is the result of a specific method, which we all can – and must – learn. Second, that method is iterative, meaning we can make mistakes and learn more with experience. Third, the method is also contextual, meaning we only know what we have the means to know. Fourth, the knowledge we gain includes not just facts but also their value in relation to our lives. 

Finally, fifth, and most importantly, this method provides the means by which we can relate to other people and their beliefs. For example, asking questions like, “What experiences have made you think they way you do?” Such discussions take more time than just telling people what you want them to think or do. But they hold the potential for arriving at “respectful agreement” on a topic, whereby the team can agree to try out or test an approach in order to learn. 

THAT is why I believe this chapter is the most important one in the book. 

Of course, there is a lot more to say around values (vs emotions) and how they relate to sales and marketing. I’ll begin to address some of these in the discussion around chapter 4.  (Coming soon.)


What do you think about definitions and their Influence on people?

How have operational definitions (or lack of them) affected your business? Which ones have been the easiest or hardest to develop? What else would you like to know?

Make a comment below, or post your question here and you’ll receive a response within 24 hours.

I look forward to chatting with you.


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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