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A client asked me to interview a candidate for a key sales role.

The sales person had several jobs over the past 5 years, none lasting longer than 18 months. He had been in his current job for 9 months.

In each role, he outlined his stellar accomplishments, his great wins, his quota over-attainment. I was suitably wowed!

I dug in a little, what’s the onboarding time for each of these roles? What’s the average sales cycle for each role?

The sales person wanted to impress me with his knowledge and ability to sell very complex deals. “Oh the onboarding took about 6 months, in one it was almost a year…. These were all long cycle, complex deals. The shortest was 9 months, most were well over a year…..”

“I’m confused,” I said, “You’ve described complex solutions, long onboarding, and very long sales cycles…..”

“Yes!” he responded eagerly, “And I was a top performer at each of those companies….”

“I’m confused,” I said, “You’ve described your great success and quota performance in a very long, complex sales cycle. But you were never in a job longer than 18 months, in a couple it was just over a year. What am I misunderstanding?”

Offended, the sales person responded, “You can check with my references, I’m not lying……”

“Oh no,” I responded, “I don’t think you are lying at all. I absolutely believe you. I just want to meet your predecessors in those jobs. It looks like they did most of the work, you just got the orders….”

The market data is distressing. Average onboarding periods are 10 months. Average tenure in a sales job is reaching 19 months. If we look at the “success” of candidates, are we really seeing their predecessor’s success? How can we be confident in the skills, experience, capabilities of candidates, when they’ve only been in a job one sales cycle or less? We want people who have been able to repeat and sustain their success.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons sales performance is plummeting.

Two key issues: We have to hire candidates that have proven experience of their own, not those who have drafted off the work done by their predecessors.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to recognize the importance of talent. The most damning piece of data is the continued decline in average tenure for both managers and sales people. Just do the math, look at the real and opportunity costs. It’s mind numbing to look at average onboarding of 10 months, long sales cycles and the plummeting average tenure. The math just doesn’t work for driving high performance.

Talent–hiring the right people, developing them, retaining them, is one of the top issues impacting our success in the future. We cannot afford to treat people as commodities, we are irresponsible to our people and our companies if we don’t take action.

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I know how unfashionable it is to say this, but I hate prospecting. We’re supposed to love it. According to many pundits/sales experts, it is the secret to sales success. We are supposed to love and revel in prospecting.

I get it, if our pipelines are empty, we have to find new opportunities and we do this through prospecting. But my news feeds are dominated with things like “the Joy of Prospecting…” There are battles about which prospecting techniques are alive or dead, which is best. Is it social media where all the cool prospectors hang out, is it hitting the phones, is it email, or even door to door–which one of my B2B clients exploits very well?

I know, I suppose I am violating some secret code of “sales bloggers,” but I hate prospecting. I just can’t excited about all the stuff I read, even from close friends.

But since I have to do it, I set about trying to figure out how to do the least amount of prospecting possible–yet still make my numbers.

To figure this out, I had to start at the bottom of the pipeline–actually with my wins and losses. I had to focus on, who, where how I won and what types of situations to avoid so I didn’t lose.

This led me into analyzing what I do during the buying process and how to maximize our wins in that process. I figured, if I doubled my win rate, I would only have to prospect half the opportunities I’d normally have to do to hit my numbers. As a result, I really tuned what we do in managing opportunities in the pipeline. One of the biggest levers in that was to do a better job of disqualification.

Just by doing this, I could significantly cut down on my prospecting.

But that wasn’t enough, remember I really hate prospecting. I decided, “What if I double the size of our average sale?” That meant, I would only have to chase half the number of opportunities, yet still make my number. And again, it meant that I would have to prospect 50% less to find the opportunities necessary to make my number.

So let’s reflect on it. If right now I have to prospect 100 people/companies to make my numbers, and my goal is to reduce that as much as possible:

  • If I double my average sale, I only have to prospect 50 people to make my numbers. That’s a big improvement!
  • If, next, I increase my win rate, let’s say I double it (yeah I know that’s hard, but it makes the math easy), now I only have to prospect 25 people to make my numbers! I’ve reduced my prospecting by 75 people!!!!!
  • Interestingly, by doing this, I free up a lot of time so that I can actually improve my win rate–doing a better job with those opportunities I have qualified, or get more (higher sales) from those.

Bottom line, if I get much better with selecting the right opportunities and managing them very well, I can hit my numbers and reduce what I hate the most in selling–prospecting! I still have to do it, but I can hit my goals and do much less.

As I reflected on this, getting much more effective in managing the opportunities I do qualify, winning more, freeing up lots of time because I don’t have to prospect as much, I got greedy. I realized I could overachieve my number. I might not have to prospect as much as I do now, but I could close a lot more business.

In the end, my greed won out, I actually chose to keep up with the same amount of prospecting, but am selling a hell of a lot more! That’s a personal choice.

OK, it’s time for me to come clean. I’ve been fooling you. I actually like prospecting, I’m curious, I love talking to people and seeing how I might help them.

But I wanted to make a point that I think is missed in 90% of the “You must prospect” conversations I read. We don’t prospect just for the sake of prospecting and it’s the current hot topic among all the “sales gurus.” We prospect to find enough opportunities to win to make our numbers.

But we are squandering our prospecting results, if we don’t, at the same time, get much better at handling the prospects we do qualify.

The goal is not really more prospects, the goal is making the most of every prospect we get, enabling us to achieve our numbers.

Whether you like prospecting or not, try this exercise. Figure out what it takes to reduce your prospecting to the absolute minimum–yet still make your numbers.

Go through the analysis of what it takes to be better at all aspects of selling, not just prospecting. Once you’ve done that, and mastered the practice of that, you have choices–you can do the minimum and make your numbers, or you can do more, growing your numbers. But at least then you are making the most of every prospect you touch.

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I’ve been obsessed with failure recently. More specifically, I’ve been pestering close friends and mentors with the question: “If we know what we should be doing, if we know how to do it, if we know how important it is to our results, why do we consistently fail to do those things?”

Unless you are brand new to sales, your name is Rip van Winkle, or you are absolutely clueless, all of us know what we should be doing. We know we have to:

  • Prospect
  • Qualify
  • Engage in a disciplined selling process, aligned with our customers’ buying process.
  • Keep a full, high integrity pipeline
  • Create value for our customer in every interaction
  • Be customer focus.
  • Be disciplined in our use of time, avoiding distractions, blocking time.
  • Grow our share of account/territory
  • Constantly learn and improve
  • Leap over tall buildings…. (Oops)

As managers we know we have to:

  • Hire, onboard, develop, retain the very best talent.
  • Maximize the performance of each person on our team.
  • Coach and develop each person on the team.
  • Assure our team is executing our corporate priorities.
  • Remove barriers and get the support our people need.
  • Leap over taller buildings…..

Every experienced sales professional I know can describe, to varying degrees, the things we know we must do to drive success.

Most of us even know how to do those things. We’ve been through endless training programs, we go to conferences, we read books and blogs. While there are many different ways of doing these things, and there are endless discussions about which method is better, virtually everyone I know, has at least some level of knowledge about how to do these things.

We invest billions in tools, systems, programs, content, to help us do those things better. We have playbooks, templates, mobile tools, content, success stories, references, tutorials.

But at the end of the day, we consistently fail to do the things we know we must do and how to do.

We know it’s about execution, but what keeps us from executing, particularly when we know how? Somehow, I think all of us treat this far too lightly.

The people I work with, for the most part, are extremely successful, wickedly smart, well intended. Yet they struggle with this very issue every day. One thinks, “How can people who are so successful and so smart, fail so miserably?”

It is not a trivial issue, it’s at the core of everything we do, we cannot afford to treat it lightly or prescribe trivial solutions/success stories to something that is very complex. (Unfortunately, too many experts/guru’s treat this far too trivially.)

Frankly, I’m struggling with the answers to this issue–it is the issue that stands before all of us.

Certainly, it’s about change and managing change. But I think there is something deeper, so we can’t treat this as “just a change management issue.”

I believe, at the core of this issue, there is a complex interplay between commitment and fear. Both organizationally and personally. We cannot address these issues logically, or with a structured problem solving approach.

Individually, we know how difficult it is to change our own personal habits–exercise, eat healthy, lose weight, stop smoking, work-life balance, ……

I do think some of the solutions can be found in the science of habit formation. For those of you interested, I suggest you start studying this, I know I am.

One learns you can’t change habits by yourself, when you study, you hear of things like “accountability partners.” Which brings us to how do we do this organizationally.

The wonderful thing about addressing these issues organizationally is that we have a built in “accountability ecosystem” that, should we choose to, we can leverage to drive organizational performance. Unfortunately, too often, we fail to recognize this in more than lip service.

I believe much of Peter Senge’s work helps us understand and address these issues, organizationally. It really starts with a leadership team. their commitment and building learning organizations. His principles:

  • Personal mastery
  • Building a shared vision (underlying this, I think are having a “purpose,” and a culture)
  • Team learning
  • Mental models
  • Systems thinking (which recognizes simplistic thinking does not work)

It is hard work, there are no shortcuts. It is about commitment and developing that shared commitment in the organization. It is about having the courage to recognize and confront our individual and shared fears. It is recognizing there are no easy answers-there may be no answers and we have to discover them for ourselves. It is rejecting “miracle cures,” and the charlatans claiming to have them.

I’m obsessed by this challenge and will be sharing more ideas. But more importantly, I’d love to start a conversation to hear your views.

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Recently, someone posed a question on LinkedIn: “What is the most important part of the sales process?—–Prospecting, Discovery, Closing?”

We see versions of this question all the time, with everyone staking out various positions (often supporting what they sell). Some of the discussions drill down into an issue, for example the endless battle of social and other selling (would one call this anti-social?). Others look at skills like questions, objection handling, and so forth.

Whatever the version of the question there is the continuous exploration of “What is most important?”

These questions always present us a false choice. The reality is we have to do it all, we have to do the whole job!

What these questions/discussions fail to recognize is that each part of the sales process requires expert/successful execution of all the other parts of the sales process.

If we focus on prospecting, but fail to convert the majority of those great prospects into wins, our prospecting prowess is wasted.

If we focus on closing, we empty our pipelines and have nothing left to close.

There’s a tremendous appeal to finding “the ONE THING,” hopefully, it’s the one thing we really like or excel at doing. Even if it isn’t the implication is that we don’t have to do the other things.

The reality is we have to do all of it all the time. We have to do it in balance–continually finding new opportunities, continually moving them through the buying process, continually making sure we are pursuing enough quality deals to achieve our goals, continually engaging the right customers in impactful, value based conversations.

We don’t serve the sales profession or our customers in this continued quest to determine the One Thing.

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Partners in Excellence Blog by David Brock - 1w ago

“Hacking” is a hot word. We read constantly of hacking–both in good and bad contexts:

  • We’re terrified of people/organizations hacking our passwords, ids, accounts, systems, and so forth. In this case, hacking is breaking in and stealing something.
  • We’re fascinated with computer hackers. Both terrified of those hacking for bad purposes, and envious of those that figure out how to get things done in clever ways.
  • People like Tim Ferris, make millions in helping identify “hacks” or shortcuts to all sorts of things–whether it is learning a language, traveling, learning a new skill, making money, getting fit. We’re enthralled to learn the shortcuts to success.
  • We identify “hacks,” as “cheap, mediocre, second rate practitioners,” often incompetent.
  • Hacks are often “jury rigged” or temporary solutions.

Hacking sales/marketing is the subject of countless blog posts and books. Every pundit seems to have some sort of magical short cut to success, stating, “all you have to do is this simple thing….”

We invest huge amounts of time and energy in trying to “hack” sales/marketing success. We seem to be obsessed with finding short-cuts, ironically, not focused on helping us get better, but more focused on avoiding doing the work.

We mistakenly think these sales hacks make us better. I’m no different from you, I’m not a masochist, I want to find better/easier ways of doing things.

I think we confuse “hacking” with “simplification.” Both appear to have similar objectives–perhaps making us more effective or more efficient, or to make things easier.

But the way we achieve these objectives is very different, and our ability to continuously achieve those goals is very different.

The process of finding hacks is usually focused on short cuts. It’s typically very narrowly focused on just one thing. For example, “How can I avoid all the tough work in prospecting?” We usually come up with very narrow solutions, optimized just to that. For example, hacks for prospecting might be: It’s marketing’s/SDRs job, I’ll let them do it, it’s not my fault if they can’t find enough. I’ll just focus on inbound. Or, “Targeting is too much work, I’ll just send a few thousand more emails and see who responds.” Of course, technology is our friend in coming up with hacks, we have the ability to scale what we do virtually infinitely, at no or low incremental cost. So, too often, we leverage technology to hack selling.

Hacks work until they don’t, usually they work for a short time, but I’ve never seen a hack that produces sustainable results.

Simplification is different–simplification is not simple, in fact it’s hard work. It means we have to really understand what’s happening, and why. In prospecting, we have to understand, “Who’s most likely to respond to our outreach, why do they respond? How do we find them? How do we engage them in the most impactful ways?”

At the same time, in our simplification process, we recognize that what we do is impacted by other systems, processes in the organization, and we impact other systems and processes. We don’t treat the problem in isolation, but try to understand the interconnections. So we might work with marketing to see what they might do that can help improve our ability to prospect, or to make sure we understand if anything we might be doing might have an adverse impact on what marketing is doing. Likewise, we would look downstream from those prospecting activities to understand how what we do impacts others that might be involved. Then we would look at how we do it effectively and efficiently, producing the best possible outcomes in the best way possible.

You may be thinking, “this is entirely too much work, it’s just so much easier to find a hack……” But then the reality is our hacks aren’t working. If they were, we wouldn’t see:

  • Continued year over year declines in sales performance.
  • Continued customer avoidance and unhappiness with sales engagement.
  • Active customer dis-engagement.
  • Increases in dis-engagement among our people.
  • Increases in voluntary and involuntary turnover.

Organizational and Individual Performance is driven by obsessive learning, relentless execution, continuous improvement, deep understanding. There are no shortcuts, we have to do the work.

We can’t hack our way to success. We can create some “sugar highs,” but without deep understanding, it is impossible to sustain.

And we’ve known this all the time, but too often choose to ignore this. After all, the dictionary is very clear: Hacks are cheap, mediocre, incompetent practitioners. Hacking something is only a temporary, jury rigged solution.

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We live in a world of constant distraction, driven by our Fear Of Missing Out.

We can’t bear being separated from our devices, constantly diverting our attention to their vibrations, beeps, and alerts. We spend more time looking at the small screen than we do looking at the world around us.

We spend endless time in meetings, but we actually aren’t present. As a result we have to schedule another meeting, at which we still aren’t present. Then we muse about why we aren’t making the progress we hoped to make.

We fail to make progress in our daily “to-do” lists (if we even have them), constantly being diverted by the latest email, voicemail, text. Our well planned day falls apart because of the constant interruptions we allow to drive our priorities.

We “buckle down to work,” yet we have dozens of tabs open on our computers. We jump from tab to tab, and back, unless diverted by the alert that keep popping up in the lower right corner of our screens.

We worry about missing out, so we respond immediately, even though, unless you are an emergency services operator, an immediate response is not required.

We have trained each other to be driven by interruption, so we are surrounded by a network of people, that are continually diverted from their goals and displaced priorities. Networked FOMA snowballs to mass distraction.

We confuse busyness and activity with making progress and producing results.

We measure our importance by how full our calendars are and how many meetings we participate in.

We are consumed by our “sales stack,” thinking we are being efficient, not realizing we aren’t being effective.

We are so afraid of missing out, we don’t realize we really are…..

The data surrounds us, yet we ignore it. Year after year of declining sales performance. Year after year of missed goals.

If you buy Mike Weinberg’s #SalesTruth for nothing more than his discussion about our FOMO (though he doesn’t call it that), and the importance of disciplined time blocking, you will get huge value! But there is so much more.

Don’t miss out!

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This is the final post in this series——-YAY! Thank you for hanging in there!

If you have missed the previous posts, The links to all the others in this series, please go to: Sensemaking, The Big Issue Facing Both Our Customers And Us.

As you might have guessed, I’m trying to make sense of sensemaking myself. I’ve been studying it for some, time, creating some experiments with clients. But I still have a lot to learn. Writing down some of the ideas is helpful to my learning process and my ability to articulate the them. I am still clumsy in the articulation, but will continue to refine and improve it.

But I wanted to try to give you some thoughts about how to move forward in your own sensemaking journey.

Some ideas, thoughts, challenges:

  1. Learn how to characterize where your customers find themselves. Which quadrant do they see themselves in? We’ve learned some parameters of how to do this–looking at order versus disorder, what is known versus what is unknown. Based on where they see themselves determines how we most effectively engage them.
  2. Recognize your customers may not know where they are or be able to articulate it. We create value by helping them assess their situation against the order/disorder, known/unknown dimensions through asking them questions about what they face.
  3. They may be in multiple spaces at one time. A certain part of the organization may be in a certain quadrant, other parts may be in different quadrants. Remember, complexity “rolls downhill,” so the “customers” you work with will be impacted by the rest of the organization. The lower they are in the organization, the more they will be impacted by those higher and in other parts of the organization.
  4. If you have to guess, a safe guess is that they are in the Complex domain. But again, how they respond to your questions in (2) will help refine that guess.
  5. Once we’ve figured out where the customer perceives themselves, you know have a “formula” for how to engage them in helping them address their challenges and move forward (respond). We know the frameworks for working with our customers:
    1. Simple: Sense, categorize, respond.
    2. Complicated: Sense, analyze, respond.
    3. Complex: Probe, sense, respond.
    4. Chaotic: Act, sense, respond.
  6. Our customers are “prisoners of their own experiences.” This impacts how they assess their situations, and where they are positioned. Because we work with 100s to 1000s of customers in similar spaces, we have a much broader experience base and a very different context to help our customers understand what they face and how to respond. Sharing this experience and helping the customer in their own sensemaking initiatives is, possibly, the greatest value we can create.
  7. We create our greatest value in helping our customers make sense of what they face, then helping them determine how they best respond. Our solutions are only vehicles for helping them achieve this, not the reason they are buying. We lose site of this.
  8. Your customers are likely to be grouped in the same domain. There’s a temptation to think, “Do I have to figure this out for every customer in every sales situation?” Here’s where being very clear on your ICP is critical. Customers in your ICP, are likely to be clustered in a similar domain–at least for the problems and issues that you address, and the target personas within your customer.
    1. As a result, you can develop tools, processes, skills, content, systems, organizational structure/roles expert at addressing the problems and challenges within a specific quadrant.
    2. Where your customers are will vary depending on the market/solution maturity. Early in a market/solution cycle, we are likely to be in the Complex domain. As the solutions/markets mature, we move into the Complicated, ultimately Simple domains. Are targeting strategies and engagement strategies will vary depending on the maturity of the market/solution.
  9. Our customers have hierarchies of challenges. As we look at the customer problems/challenges we have some interesting strategic choices about who and how we engage. We have the opportunity to reposition ourselves, changing who we engage and how we differentiate what we do.
    1. Consider who owns the root problem you address with your customer? Problems/challenges generally occur in hierarchies. While we may focus on the “problem owner,” that problem may just be a small component of a much bigger set of problems. We might gain deeper insight and create greater value by working with those who own the “root” problem.
    2. We can dramatically reshape the market perception of a problem. Remember how SFDC reshaped the market for CRM, by redefining how customers perceived the problem.
  10. Recognize that becoming a Sensemaker demands new skills and capabilities at all levels of the organization. Sensemaking is neither a marketing nor a sales enablement program. It is a strategic choice that shapes everything you do in the organization, the people you hire, and how you engage your customers.

Whew!!!! This has been a long journey! Thanks for hanging in there with me!

This was important for me to write. As we look at the turbulence both our organizations and our customers face, most of our traditional approaches, methods, strategies will no longer be sufficient. We have to change profoundly. We have to look for new processes, tools, approaches.

I’m early in my thinking on Sensemaking. Writing this was my attempt to start to think about the issues myself. I will keep coming back to this topic over the coming months.

Because I’ve covered so much in this series, I will be putting it together in an eBook. I will be adding a lot of references of materials I find helpful and tools you can use. If you are interested in getting it, send me an email at dabrock@excellenc.com. Give me several weeks, I have to consolidate and edit these posts.

Thanks again!

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This post is the eleventh post in my series on Sensemaking. The previous posts focus on how we can align and become sensemakers in working with our customers. This will focus on how we look at our own organizations.

For links to the other posts in the series, go to: Sensemaking, The Big Issue Facing Both Our Customers And Us.

As a reminder, I’ve posted a copy of the Cynefin model below.

The model provides us a framework to assess our organization and how we best address our challenges and problems, based on which quadrant we find ourselves in.

I won’t review the characteristics of each quadrant, or the Sensemaking methodology we apply in each quadrant. The diagram provides an overview. Also, earlier in this series, I went through each quadrant–from the customer perspective. The principles outlined there are the same principles we would apply in our own organizations.

Building on those capabilities, there are a few key points:

When we look at our own organization or function, in isolation, we may, mistakenly put them in the Simple or Complicated quadrants. For example, we may have had a very stable set of target customers, a well defined structure and go to market approach, and we keep just keep doing what we’ve always done. Stated differently, we’re happily working in our silos without needing to change.

Unfortunately, we find the world, consequently our businesses, don’t work in siloed domains–at least effectively. We are dependent on other parts of the organization and they are dependent on us. As a result, what used to work is no longer working as effectively as before.

More importantly, our customers force changes on what we do, how we do it. Being able to support them, creates problems and challenges we haven’t seen before.

Overlay on all of this, the “turbulence” I outlined in the very first post in this series. Few of us are not impacted by turbulence, as a result, increasingly we are finding our functions and enterprises moving into the Complex domain.

For many of us, facing severe disruption of our markets, severe disruption of our organizations (through mis-management, strategic errors, mergers, acquisitions, divestitures), we may find our organizations in the Chaotic domain.

Or more often, we find our organizations in Disorder–that is everyone has a different view of where we really are at, and we can resolve that difference. (And usually, when resolved, we probably find ourselves in the Complex domain.)

As we struggle to cope, as we try to figure out where we are at, then leverage the Cynefin principles to figure out how to respond, it’s important to understand the fundamentals.

We will be unable to respond or sustain our ability to respond without the fundamentals:

A clear purpose and everyone aligned around the purpose. Implicit in this purpose is a culture where everyone is aligned around the same values, everyone is committed to the same vision.

The organization, from the top leaders through the rest of the organization, must be obsessed with learning and continous improvement. But this learning is focused, it is tested an applied every day by everyone in execution, and drives another learning loop.

Individually and organizationally, we have to think in systems and frameworks. Cynefin is one set of frameworks that help us, there are many others like agile, lean, or problem solving methods that help us characterize and solve the problems we want. There are complementary Sensemaking tools we can leverage to help us understand and respond.

As individuals and organizations we have to increasingly become comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to become comfortable with risk, uncertainty, ambiguity, dichotomy, paradox, change and adaptation.

At whatever level, we must recognize we cannot do this alone, we must leverage our teams, our colleagues in the organization, our partners, customers and suppliers. We will only be successful learning from each other and collaborating.

Most of all, we must recognize the tendency to become complacent, to not recognize the change and disruption around us. We must avoid becoming prisoners of our own experience.

We have the tools to help us understand and deal with these things. But without leadership, we will never understand or respond.

Tomorrow, I will wrap up this series. Sensemaking, at least initially, is very difficult to understand. It’s difficult to wrap our minds around how we leverage it to drive our own strategies, and how we innovate value with our customers. In the final post, hopefully, I can start to help you make Sense of Sensemaking.

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This post is the tenth post in my series on Sensemaking. Like the previous two posts, this focuses on how you apply the principles of Cynefin in your sales strategies with your customers.

For links to the other posts in the series, go to: Sensemaking, The Big Issue Facing Both Our Customers And Us.

In the previous posts we looked and how the “context” or domain your customers may be in will change depending on where in the organization of the functions that you engage. As a result, our organizational strategies, our engagement strategies, the skills, competencies, tools, content, processes will have to change to be aligned with the part of the organization we choose to target.

Likewise, at all levels, things change over time. As a result, we need to look at where we and our customer are, how things are changing, and align what, with how, and how we engage with our customers–engaging them where they are at.

We live in a very dynamic world, over time, things change. What was new and innovative in the past, has become commonplace or even mundane. Problems and challenges that seemed to have been insurmountable 5 years ago, may be well understood and easily addressed today.

In the Cynefin model, over time and experience we see a clockwise movement of problems, issues and challenges. As we gain collective experience and knowledge of things that were Complex, many may move into the Complicated. Problems that had been Complicated may move into the Simple. Likewise, disruption may occur in our Simple context, throwing everything into Chaos. (Disruption can occur with any problems in any context.)

We are actually quite familiar with this concept in another context. If we look at the product/market maturity curves made famous by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing The Chasm, we can see how Cynefin contexts can be mapped to his model.

How we engage customers in identifying issues and solving their problems changes based on where they are in this model.

Understanding this becomes very useful across several areas:

  1. Our targeting strategies. Depending on customer/problem maturity, our targeting strategies are very different. Innovators and early adopters will have the mindset, skills, disciplines, risk profiles to address complexity far better than laggards. As we, ourselves, seek to position solutions to challenges that are in the complex domain, we have a lot to test and learn ourselves. Consequently, we want customers that are anxious to collaborate in understanding. As our, collective, experience grows, the issues move into the complicated domain, and we can expand our markets to customers that have the characteristics and abilities to address and manage challenges in this space. And it doesn’t make sense to engage the laggards until the problems are moving from the complicated to simple contexts.
  2. Beyond our targeting strategies, the buying difficulty becomes different from stage to stage. As a result, our engagement strategies, and the skills/competencies we need in our sales teams change as we move from context to context. This goes beyond just our people, but impacts the tools, programs, content, systems, processes, and support required for success.
  3. Our organizational and deployment strategies will change as we move from the complex to simple domains. In the complex domain, we will probably need a team oriented sell, with subject matter experts, account managers, people with problem solving expertise and so forth. As we move into the complicated domain, we may move to a simpler structure, as well as having more tools to support our people in selling solutions to customers in this quadrant. And as we move to customers in the simple quadrant, we may ultimately move to self education and web based sales. As we look at these domains, the skills and competencies required for success change, the systems, tools, processes change, the content and other support programs change. To maximize sales performance and our abilities to engage our customers in a value based way, as well as our ability to be as effective and efficient as possible, we have to align our organizational models and deployment strategies to match the domain we and our customers are at.
  4. Related to the previous points, in large organizations, we may focus on a wide array or problems and challenges, working with different customers in different domains. We have to align our go to market strategies, our organizational and deployment strategies with the context for those problems/issues and the customers that have those challenges. Too often, we have a “one size fits all” approach which will cause us to be far less impactful than we could be.

One thing, we and our customers must be attentive to, regardless of the quadrant or domain we, collectively, are operating in, is Disruption. Increasingly, whether it’s new technologies, new business models, societal or governmental we are increasingly vulnerable to disruption.

This throws both we and our customers into the Chaotic context. When we find our markets and customers are in the Chaotic domain, the challenges are different. All the old rules are gone, many of the traditional solutions may no longer be relevant, we and our customers will have to reinvent ourselves or fail.

So far in our exploration of Sensemaking, we’ve focused on our customers. We’ve looked at identifying where our customers are at and how we most effectively engage them in our Sensemaking.

In the next post, I want to offer some thoughts on our own organizations. Our own companies and our people live in worlds of increasing turbulence. As a result, Sensemaking within our own organizations is critical. If we can deal with our own challenges, we will never be able to address those our customers face.

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This post is the ninth post in my series on Sensemaking. Like the eighth post, this focuses on how you apply the principles of Cynefin in your sales strategies with your customers.

For links to the other posts in the series, go to: Sensemaking, The Big Issue Facing Both Our Customers And Us.

Normally, I’ve started this series with a recap of the Cynefin model. Today, I’d like to look at it differently. When we look at organizations, the reality is there is a hierarchy of challenges/problems they face.

As a result, depending on the parts of the organization, the key personas we work with in presenting out solutions, each may be in a very different place. What we may encounter is something similar to what’s illustrated below:

Within an organization, there may be entirely differing operating modes. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, most organizations, at a corporate level are in the Complex domain. This is driven by the massive turbulence we see in markets, society, and business.

However, within the organization, departments or functions may be operating in a different spaces. For example, regardless what the company is going through, companies still have to pay bills, issue/collect on invoices. As a result, the AP/AR functions may be operating in a Simple domain. If we tried the approach of probing/sensing/responding (Complex domain behaviors) with these customers, they would be confused and disengage. Working with them, we have to sense, categorize, respond–helping them identify best practices.

But we have to be careful in choosing the engagement strategy, making sure the problems/challenges the customer is facing are isolated from the rest of the organization. To the degree, they are connected to other problems in the organization, Simple problems may be a subset of the issues for a large Complicated process. And in that case, we would have to adopt the sense, analyze, respond mode–helping the customer recognize and execute that, as well.

This hierarchical nature of organizational/enterprise challenges also enables us to “change the rules,” re-positioning who we sell to and how we sell in ways that dramatically increase our ability to create value with the customer.

For example, a semiconductor client is using this approach to reposition their sales efforts and the value they create for their customers. In many cases, the purchase of semiconductors has become a transactional or Simple process, primarily involving procurement, supply chain, and perhaps some engineering to validate the semiconductor works in the product.

But my client realized the core challenges their customers face was less about semiconductor selection, but on maximizing new product introduction success, reducing product risk, and reducing their customer’s time to profitability. Those were the issues facing Product Management, Design And Manufacturing Engineering. These were issues squarely in the Complex domain.

Their whole selling process has changed, amplifying the value they create and their differentiation. They still need to work with their traditional buyers, but they are helping those buyers recognize the issues the people they are supporting face–enabling them to better support their internal customers.

At the same time, they are engaging the customers that really own the problem, the core issues, and ultimately the decision about building a product and what components are best for that product. While my client can’t solve all the problems of the NPI process, risk, time to profitability, they are able to connect the dots for those things they can help with, and better help the customer understand all the components of the issues they face.

When we look at the hierarchy of challenges our customers face for the projects we work on, we have the opportunity to reposition ourselves creating greater value (or at least understanding) and differentiation. But it’s critical to address them where they are at. If they are in the Complex domain, we must help them in probing, sensing, responding. Whichever domain they are in, we have to be able to respond in the way that best fits their approach to addressing those issues.

Likewise, we may have the opportunity to reposition the view of the problem and challenges. The customer may view they are in a Complicated quadrant, but as we educate them, we may be able to reposition them into the Simple quadrant. If you think back to Salesforce.com’s market entry strategy in the late 90’s/early 2000’s they executed this strategy, profoundly changing the way CRM is bought and sold.

This discussion is less one about how individual sales people engage with their customers. It represents strategic choices we can make as part of our go to customer strategies. We can look at the problems we solve and how they are surfaced in the customer. We can choose to where we want to intersect them, to produce the greatest value for the customer and to differentiate ourselves. As a result, we change the game.

This is really an issue of value innovation. Too often, we do what we always have done, but fail to look at the root issues the customer faces, how those position them in the hierarchy of challenges, and where we most effectively can engage and create value for their business.

We’ve seen too much evidence of organizations like the semiconductor company and SFDC that change all the rules and change the game.

In the next post, we will continue to explore how we can leverage the Cynefin model and Sensemaking in other aspects of our go to customer strategies.

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