Sensemaking, Selling To Customers In The Complicated Quadrant


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This post is the fifth 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 Complicated Quadrant. It builds on the previous discussion of selling in the Simple Quadrant. As a recap, the Cynefin model is displayed below:

The Complicated Context is, probably, one we think we are operating in most of the time.  Where the Simple Quadrant is characterized by known known and there are best practices and “right answers,”  the Complicated Quadrant is characterized by unknown-knowns.  Stated less obscurely, there can be many possible solutions or answers to the issues we or our customers are seeking to address.

While customers and others in the Complicated quadrant may not know or understand what’s happening, they know they can analyze it and figure it out.  While they may have never faced this before, others have and they can learn from what others have done.  The process we go through in doing this involves sensing, analyzing, responding. 

By this, in sensing, we are really trying to identify everything we can about the characteristics of the problem we are trying to address.  In our sensing process, also start to identify alternative solutions that might help us solve the problem.  This leads us to an analysis stage.  We assess the alternatives,  analyzing the pros/cons, strengths/weaknesses, relative benefits, risks, and outcomes of each alternative.  Ultimately, we select an approach and “respond” by taking action.

Many of our classic problem solving processes and approaches are optimized to addressing issues in the complicated quadrant.

The challenge here is not to identify the “right answer,” but to evaluate the best alternative for our specific situation.  Others facing similar issues may be looking at different alternatives.

As you might expect, those people who have deep expertise in a particular set of problems are sought after and deeply respected by those seeking to solve those problems.

It’s our experience and expertise in working with many customers and organizations on solving these problems that enables us to create great value for customers in the complicated space.

In their sensing process, we can help them understand and characterize all the dimensions of the problems they are trying to address.  We can create great value in this stage by helping them understand things they don’t know. 

In the analyzing process, we can help them define the criteria by which they are going to assess different alternatives.  We can introduce them to others that have faced similar problems.  Through them they can learn from those customers and their experiences.

We can add further value by helping them establish the criteria by which they will select a solution and a path forward.

And when they have chosen their course of action, we can help them “respond,” moving forward in their implementation.

One thing we have to be aware of, as we work with customers in this complicated domain, is  there may be very diverse solutions and paths forward.  Our real competition may not be our traditional competitors, but could be an entirely different alternative.

There are some areas of caution in working with customers in the Complicated domain.  Because there is no one right answer, the customer may be paralyzed, they may seek more and more analysis, trying to find the right or best answer.  Since none exists, they get frustrated and do nothing.

If we are to solve problems in the Complicated domain, or help our customers solve problems, we must put a time limit to our sensing and analyzing stages.  We have to at some point choose the better solution from an array of solutions to our problem.  Since a best solution does not exist, we waste time, resources and opportunity seeking it.   (It’s helpful educating our customers about this very issue.)

Sometimes, the reliance on those with expertise may blind us and the customer to newer or more innovative solutions.  The expertise itself, may limit our abilities to explore more alternatives.

While this may be overly simplistic, if we are looking to hang a picture, we may think of traditional solutions–hammer/nails, screws, traditional picture hangers.  But that entrenched expertise and experience may cause us to overlook newer adhesives, which enable us to hang a picture without putting a hole in the wall.

As we look to solving Complicated problems in our own organizations, we may become prisoners of our own experience of expertise, as a result, we may miss new and innovative solutions in which we have no experience or expertise.  So sometimes, purposefully looking for “out of the box” or creative thinking may be useful–even if we end up going with a more traditional solution.

For example, a number of years ago, we were working with a very large technology company on the topic of innovation.  At the same time, we were working on the same issue with a fashion company in the extreme sports sector.

What we, collectively discovered, were that known/traditional solutions in one domain were completely unknown and innovative when applied to the other domain.  While the solutions couldn’t be applied exactly, they could be adapted to each domain.  Without this very non-traditional approach, they would have limited themselves and what they could achieve.

While this may be redundant, what does all this mean for our marketing and sales strategies?  Fundamentally, what we want to do is help educate the customer on alternatives and how they might assess alternatives.  We may want to provide case studies and examples, of how others have evaluated and addressed similar issues.  We may want to provide the customers frameworks and tools for identifying/characterizing their problems, identifying alternative solutions, and evaluating each alternative.

From a sales point of view, we want to be seen for our expertise and leverage problem solving skills in working with the customer.

In the next post, we will move to the third quadrant, the Complex Context.

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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