Sensemaking, Selling To Customers In The Complex Domain


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This post is the sixth in my series on Sensemaking. For links to the other posts in the series, go to: Sensemaking, The Big Issue Facing Both Our Customers And Us.

In this post, I’ll do a deep dive into how we sell into organizations operating in the Complex Quadrant. It builds on the previous discussion of selling in the Simple Quadrant. As a recap, the Cynefin model is displayed below:

At a corporate or enterprise level, virtually, every organization is operating in the Complex Quadrant.

In the first article of this series, I introduced the concept of “turbulence.”  It’s the convergence of rapid change, transformation, disruption, information overload/overwhelm, increasing complexity, increasing risk, uncertainty and many other things.  Few modern organizations are immune to the turbulence in their markets, industries, and within their own organizations, though they may not be aware of it.

At a corporate level, they are squarely in the Complex domain.  As inevitably happens, “complexity rolls downhill.”  The complexity our companies face invade our functions, departments, and organizations.  And as complexity infects each department and function in the organization, the complexities of getting things done across these functions and departments increases.

So while, the functions or departments we work with may be in Complicated or Simple domains, they are increasingly feeling the pressure and seeing the characteristics of the Complexity domain impacting them.

We see so much data reinforcing this, lengthening buying cycles, increasing numbers of people involved in the consensus buying process, increases in “No decision made.”

It’s important for us to understand the stresses and complexity our customers see at the enterprise level, ultimately starts impacting everyone in the organization.  As a result, many of the departments or functions we deal with are that were in Simple or Complicated quadrants may be moving into other quadrants.

Stated differently, everything that we did to work effectively with customers in the Complicated and Simple spaces no longer works, because they are no longer in those spaces.

In Cynefin terms, in the Complexity quadrant, we are facing unknown unknowns.  Where in the Simple and Complicate domains, we could eventually establish cause effect relationships, as a result put “order” into the solutions, in the Complex domain these cause effect relationships don’t exist.

How do we work with Customers in the Complex quadrant?

In this domain we  tend to “probe, sense, respond.”

Probing is probably where we and our customers spend the most time and resources.  Probing is simply trying to understand what we face and to experiment with alternative ideas to address these issues. 

The probe-sense stages are characterized by experimentation (either those done by our customers, themselves, or experiments that we can share with our customers).  The experiments are provide “safe,” rapid learning environment to help us better understand what’s going on, to help us start to figure out how to bring order to what we face, and to help us learn.

The probing-sensing cycle is iterative, we try lots of different things to try to find something that works.  Over time, we find some things that may work, perhaps not perfectly, but they are good enough, we respond by putting them in place.

All of this is focused on creating understanding, developing new practices based on our evolving understanding, and striving to create order with what customers face.

As sales and marketing professionals, we can create huge value in helping our customers navigate the unknown.

The interesting thing, is that while the customer may be facing things that are unknown to them, they may not be totally unknown to us.  After all, we work with hundreds to thousands of people and organizations facing similar issues–and at various points in their “probe-sense-respond” journey.

We are the beneficiaries of a form of “crowdsourcing,” which we can leverage in helping our customers in addressing their own issues.  We can help with:

  • What questions should they be asking themselves, based on what we have seen of others going through similar situations?
  • What are areas that are interesting to probe, what might be wastes of time?
  • How are other looking at similar situations and what can the customer learn from their experience?
  • What have others seen that works what doesn’t work, and how is the customer’s situation different from what others have experienced?
  • How have our solutions helped in those situations faced by other customers?
  • How do we experiment with potential solutions–perhaps trials, proofs of concept?

A mistake we make, too often, is that we “skip” the probing-sensing parts of what the customer must go through in understanding the issues/problems and deciding how to respond. We believe we know how the customer should respond, because we have other customers that have gone through similar situations.

In our rush for a PO or in our “well intended” desire to be helpful, we try to skip the probing-sensing piece of the process. But our customers need to go through this, otherwise they are incapable of addressing their own complexity. But we can help them do this more efficiently, we can help them accelerate the process, we can help them learn they aren’t alone and can learn from others.

But there is another aspect of the Complex domain that we need to address. It may be situations we and our customers have never seen before, where we have no experience, where we have to go through the probe-sense-respond cycle ourselves.

In reality, we discover these through working with our customers. They face the unknown unknowns. These situations provide us the opportunity to innovate with our customers. We collaborate in the process of probing-sensing-responding, figuring things out together, trying to extract order from the complex.

If you think of most innovation, it’s the result of us confronting the complex and taking action to address it. We see this in many start-ups or in some new product development (not product extensions). Much of what we see in our own product/solution innovation is a result of understanding the complexity our customers face, working with them to make sense of these issues.

If we think of Geoffrey Moor’s Crossing the Chasm, customers in these stages are the Innovators and the very Early Adopters.

While I will address this in another post, you may be getting a sense of the dynamics that underlie the Cynefin model. As we look at the Complex quadrant and begin to understand it better, at some point it moves from unknown-unkowns to unknown-knowns, or the Complicated domain. Likewise, what was Complicated, at some time might become Simple. Finally, as we will learn, and I’ve implied earlier in this post–it can go backwards. What was Simple, can suddenly be Chaotic or Complex.

In my next post, I will move to the Chaotic Quadrant.

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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