What the pandemic can teach the wine and spirit industry

3 lessons from Michael Lewis' The Premonition

Not all that long ago I shared my belief that the best books for wine and spirit professionals aren’t about wine and spirits. One of the books I recommended was The Premonition by Michael Lewis. Lewis is a prolific writer, perhaps best known for his works that have been turned into films—The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Blind Side. The Premonition, Lewis’ latest work, is as Nicholas Confessore describes it a “maddening account of America’s bungled response to the Covid pandemic.”

It might seem like such a book wouldn’t be of much use to wine and spirit sales reps, managers, and executives. However, Lewis’ skill as a writer is in extracting broad lessons about human nature from specific circumstances. In this way, The Premonition has lots to offer wine and spirit professionals willing to read between the lines. Here are three lessons (no spoilers) that will serve everyone from grizzled reps to the new managers:

  1. Avoid mental masturbation, especially when decisions need to be made.

    A 45-year-old Harvard Business Review article notes that “referring the matter to a committee’ can be a device for diluting authority, diffusing responsibility, and delaying decisions.” Early in The Premonition, Dr. Charity Dean, a public health officer, finds herself frustrated with the CDC for similar reasons. She characterizes her interactions with the CDC as irksome rather than informative because of their inconclusiveness. Lewis describes the CDC as “an invisible mob inside of an ivory tower.” You might recognize in that description a corollary with managerial and executive meetings.

    These should not be occasions for musing. Dr. Dean explains, “mental masturbation is actually an important concept. It's when you talk in circles for an hour and reach no decision.” Remember that an ineffective 2-hour meeting with eight participants doesn’t waste two hours, but rather sixteen.

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  2. The best narrative wins.

    The Premonition makes clear that the idea of social distancing was not an easy sell. When, in 2006, Lisa Koonin, Carter Mecher, and Richard Hatchett tried to convince the US public health system of the importance of social distancing as a means of combatting a pandemic, they came armed with data. It didn’t get them far. Quantitative data is a poor persuader because it’s abstract. The team only made in-roads once they realized that “the way to change minds was by first changing hearts.”

    History isn’t written by the victors.

    History is written by those with the best stories to tell.

    It doesn’t matter if your product is great if that’s not the story the packaging tells. It doesn’t matter if your company has hardworking salespeople if that’s not the story the managers share with executives. It doesn’t matter if the numbers look good on paper if there’s another narrative out there that competes with the truth.1

    Make sure you have the best story. Make sure you can tell it the best way.

  3. Prevention is a more efficient use of resources than correction.

    The Premonition traces the failure of the US government to successfully adopt and carry out pandemic disaster plans that had been developed over a decade ago. To this end, it is less a horror story and more a tragedy. The plans clearly showed the relative value of slowing or stopping the spread of the virus versus speeding up vaccine production.

    The idea that the proper execution of a plan is better than fixing errors produced in haste is not new. The phrase “a stitch in time saves nine” has been around for hundreds of years and relates to a lot more than just the current pandemic.2 This is why quality management systems (QMS) exist.3 As one consulting firm puts it, “if you don’t have a system to manage quality, you can expect quality problems.”4

    Any rep that has had an order missing an item that needed to be redelivered (at an additional expense) has likely gotten an earful about how costly mistakes can be. Reps are not the only ones liable to make errors that can affect the bottom line. Think of all that can wrong if compliance or logistics slip up. Are protocols established that are clear and consistent? Is your company auditing its processes for effectiveness?

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1

Ideally, the story and the data are aligned. Should they come to blows, a great story usually trumps good data, at least so long as human decision-making is concerned.

2

First documented in the 1700s, “a stitch in time saves nine” garnered some pandemic-related attention when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used the phrase in a September 2020 speech about why it was necessary to close pubs earlier.

3

It’s worth noting that the Wine & Spirit Education Trust operates in compliance with the requirements of ISO 9001 as a means of ensuring that the management of awards for the qualifications and examinations for the 100,000+ students that take their classes every year meet consistent standards.

4

It is rather curious that ISO standards have been so widely adopted by wineries and distilleries, but not yet distributors and importers. ISO standards are not just relegated to products; they also cover services because they are process-oriented by design.