Sensemaking: Selling To A Hierarchy Of Challenges


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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’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.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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