What Do Reductionism And Machine Design Have To Do With Selling And Buying?


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It’s probably hard to conceive of a sales guy, like me, using a multi-syllabic word like Reductionism. But my friend Charlie Green wrote a brilliant post, “The Number One Mental Illness In Business.” While it wasn’t the focus of the post, he talked a lot about Reductionism.

That concept caused a bunch of things to come together in my mind. I had to go to the dictionary on Reductionism:

1. The theory that every complex phenomenon can be explained by analyzing the simplest, most basic physical mechanisms that are in operation during that phenomenon.

2. The practice of oversimplifying a complex idea or issue to the point of minimizing or distorting it.

We live in worlds of ever increasing complexity. Our organizations, by themselves are a complex set of interactions between individuals, groups and functions. Likewise, our customers live in similar worlds. To make sense of this complexity, we break things down. We have to do that, we can’t possibly manage the complexity without breaking it down into components and subsystems.

We create “functional units” in our businesses, sales, marketing, product management, customer service, and so on. We break these down even further, inside sales, field sales, channels, sales operations, marketing programs, demand generation, marketing communications…….

Our customers do the same thing, engineering, design, manufacturing, quality, procurement, finance.

Each unit has goals, objectives, priorities, metrics. These all roll-up (or roll-down) so they are consistent with the goals of the function, say sales, which then roll up to the organization’s goals and objectives. So, I”m a lowly sales person, I have my quota. My quota, along with that of my peers, becomes my manager’s quota, and so on so that our combined efforts represent the revenue/order plan for the organization.

We each optimize what we do to achieve our goals, objectives, priorities. We each want to do our part. As thing progress, we put in systems, processes, tools to help us optimize our sub-functions–always focused on improving efficiency (sometimes effectiveness). As things get more complex, we break them down into more manageable components, optimizing each.

Sometimes we picture this as a series of gears. We express our operations as “well oiled machines,” people sometimes, disparagingly, call themselves “cogs” in the machine. What we’ve done is designed a set of interactions between the parts or components. This gear or function, drives these who drive yet others. The number of “gears” and the interaction of these with each other becomes quite complex. (Pay attention to the concept of interactions–it’s the featured character in this story.)

And this works brilliantly —- until it doesn’t, the machines break down or things change. There are all sorts of reasons things break down, one of the functions (gears) misses it’s objectives and it impacts everything else. We sales guys always like to blame the product guys for missing a launch date, or we blame the marketing guys for not generating enough demand.

We know how to manage these things. That’s what B-School, our years of experience teach us to do, we know how to fix problems in our functions, sub functions, and organizations. We break down the components, restructure, repurpose, create more silos, change the silos, and so forth. We get our well oiled machines functioning again. Each unit executing, each unit achieving it’s goals—hopefully they all roll up the right way so the organization achieves it’s goals – 2+2=4.

But here’s where reductionism comes in……

Our focus becomes optimizing the pieces/parts — and we lose sight of the whole. Each part is functioning, but somehow it doesn’t role up quite right.

We forget some things…..

One of the key things we forget is the interaction between the pieces/parts, between the different functions and organizations.

Any fourth year mechanical engineering student doing gear design problems knows several things—1: There’s friction between components–that friction creates energy loss. As you ripple though a complex machine, the collection of interactions, friction and energy loss changes the performance of the machine. 2: Each tooth of a gear creates stress on the tooth of the gear it connects to (and vice versa). Over time, these may break. 3: Or over time there’s another materials phenomenon called fatigue–things break. This happens in every machine–it’s due to the interaction of the parts. It causes the “machine” to fail-break, to perform inefficiently, to not achieve it’s desired output.

It happens in organizations as well.

So we have to make sure all the components are mated working together to achieve the desired outcomes. We can’t just focus on the design of each component, but we have to be concerned about the interaction — or relationships between components. Collectively do the components work together to produce the desired results. What are the interactions, where is there friction, where is there energy loss, what stress does each part create on the other, as a whole can the organization perform or do only the pieces/parts perform?

Reductionism blinds us to this.

Now imagine this, we have our “machinery,” the customers have theirs. We know that without anything else our “machine” and the customer’s can break down or not perform. But now we are trying to “mesh gears.”

We know there will be friction in the interaction–how do we manage it without energy loss.

We know there will be stress and fatigue between the parts.

We have to manage the interaction–the relationships to achieve the outcomes desired. We’ve become good at doing this–we build strong relationships, we work with the customer to facilitate their problem solving and buying processes, we manage the engagement.

But it gets more complicated.

We designed our machines for a certain type of interactions with our customers. We optimized our machines for those interactions. We excelled in those interactions.

But now our customers are changing the way they buy. The way we market and sell no longer “meshes” with the way customers want to buy. Our interactions aren’t right, our points of engagement aren’t right. We have huge friction and energy losses, we have total break downs.

Reductionism would have us assess the pieces/parts, breaking them down further, simplifying more—where what we really need to do is to look at the whole. perhaps do a total redesign (while the machine is still running). There may be many more points of interaction with the customer–through sales, customer service, our social engagement, partners, influencers…….

I’ll stop here. Forgive me for wandering a little in this post, coupling reductionism, machine design, buying, selling, change…..

I think there are some summary points, perhaps these will bring things together:

  1. We live in a complex world, the only way we begin to start handling that complexity is to start breaking things down into subsystems, functions, pieces/parts. Without this we cannot hope to begin to solve problems.
  2. While we have to optimize the performance of each function, we can’t lose sight of the “whole.” Optimizing the pieces/parts doesn’t mean the whole organization is performing as it should.
  3. In optimizing our functions, our own piece of the problem, it’s critical that we understand the interactions we have with other components—not just within our company, but with our cusotmers and the “ecosystem.” It’s usually in those interactions and relationships where things break down.
  4. We have to constantly be on the alert for “reductionist thinking.” It blinds us to the real thing we are trying to achieve.
  5. We have to look at a much more complex set of interactions with our customers. It’s no longer sales and the buyer. but it’s a complex set of interactions/relationships between our organizations and the ecosystems we live in (Reductionism would blind us to this).
  6. We have to be nimble/agile, the interactions are changing, the parts that need to “mesh” are changing, we have to continually redesign to optimize those interactions.

I’ll try to come back at this later–breaking it down, hopefully, making more sense. But I needed to start with the whole. Thanks for you patience.

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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