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Sensemaking, Selling To Customers In The Chaotic Domain

by David Brock on June 5th, 2019

This post is the seventh in my series on Sensemaking. It’s been a long and very technical journey. Thanks for hanging in. We have a few more steps to go.

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 Chaotic Quadrant, as well as what the Disorder space means to us. It builds on the previous discussion of selling in the Complex, Complicated, and Simple Quadrants. As a recap, the Cynefin model is displayed below:

While this may not be a popular position, I may even be completely wrong, with few exceptions I believe selling in the Chaotic quadrant is probably wasted effort on the part of your sales people and unappreciated by those in the Chaotic space.

Let me walk through my arguments, I’ll provide some ideas about who might want to sell in this space (for example, in our consulting business, many of our clients are in this space.)

The problem with the Chaotic space is that it isn’t just more complex than the Complex space.  It’s characterized by Chaos or crisis (well dugghh, Dave).  Where in the other spaces the leaders are focused on trying to understand patterns, test alternatives, apply new solutions, and continue to improve.

In this space, executives are focused on crisis management.  They aren’t so much looking for answers, they just want to “stop the bleeding.”  They are driven to immediate action, but often those are temporary measures, giving executives time to more effectively look at longer term solutions.

In Cynefin terms, they often refer to actions as “stopping the bleeding.”  I use the “triage” analogy.  In wartime, medics and battlefield hospitals aren’t looking to solve the problem, they are interested in keeping the person alive long enough to be moved to the hospital where they can take the time to solve the problem.

What leaders are doing in the Chaotic space is to take the actions necessary to get out of the Chaotic space as quickly as possible, moving it into another quadrant–where we can help them address their issues in more disciplined ways.  (Usually, they move to the Complex domain.)

Because the focus of leadership is on crisis management, unless what we sell has to do with crisis management, the customer doesn’t have the time for us (and probably shouldn’t) and we would be wasting our time in trying to sell to them.

We need to think of “disqualifying” customers that are in the Chaotic domain, waiting until they have moved to a quadrant where we can really help them navigate forward.

Here’s where it becomes a little confusing.  Unless we are dealing with the top executives, we may not realize–and our customer may not realize that the enterprise is actually in the Chaotic space.

Remember, when we started on this sensemaking journey, we learned the customers–the individuals or the department we are working with may be in a completely different space than the enterprise.

For example, the people who work in an Administrative function may see themselves as working in a Simple or Complicated domain.  We and they would be tempted to work with them, using the methods/tools we have discussed.  The problem, is they will be derailed.  All the focus of the corporation will be on survival.  They and we will not get the attention needed to move forward–in fact what they may be doing may actually be the wrong thing for what the corporation needs to do to survive.

As a result, unless your solutions help organizations “stop the bleeding,” immediately, if you aren’t focused on helping organizations in crisis, you and the customer are wasting each others time.  But you want to find a way to be there as they start to recover and move forward–and that will only be when they are in one of the other 3 domains.

There are some “offerings,” that help organizations deal with crises.  For example, a lot of our consulting business is focused on turnarounds.  By definition, those are businesses in crisis and in the Chaotic space.  Other areas might be crisis managers (companies helping you communicate with your customer/markets), some financial services companies have offerings tuned to this, some legal services offer these services.  But if you sell CRM, ERP, machine tools, semiconductors, or the like, you are wasting your time.

In the illustration, at the center of all these domains is the Disorder space, perhaps more accurately characterized as confusion.  This may be where a lot of organizations find themselves, at least initially.  We can create great value helping customers understand this.

What’s happening in the Disorder space is there are many perspectives and views about the situation.  Different managers and different organizations may see themselves in different quadrants.

By analogy, it’s like the 4 blind people feeling different parts of the elephant.  One might describe the trunk, another a tail, another a leg, another an ear, but none are “seeing” the elephant.

The way we deal with this is applying many of the critical thinking/problem solving processes.  How do we break the issues into different parts?  How do we categorize them into the right domains?  Once we have, we can use the Cynefin processes for each domain to help the customer address and resolve the issues.

So far, as we have explored the  Cynefin model, we’ve treated it as relatively static.  We’re tempted to think, once we’ve identified the quadrant the customer is in, we work with them on that basis, and they will always be there.

The reality is this model is quite dynamic.  As we’ve discussed, different parts of the organization may be in different spaces–though those in the Simple quadrant will be heavily influenced if the rest of the organization is in the Complicated and Complex quadrants.  And those in the Complicated quadrants will be heavily influenced by the other parts of the organization in Complex domains, and Chaos trumps (sorry) everything.

Things also change over time.  What was Complex, becomes more ordered, more predictable and moves into the Complicated space, and so on.

In the next post, we will examine the dynamic nature of this model, and how we leverage these with our customers.  You will learn, this is a huge opportunity to teach our customers, help them navigate their way to success, and create differentiated value.

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