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Meeting Complexity With Complexity

by David Brock on January 27th, 2021

We are surrounded by complexity–in our business, in our communities, in our lives. Complexity can be, by it’s nature, overwhelming.

Ironically, too often our approach to dealing with complex situations is to make them more complex. We do this, because we don’t understand what we face or what we may be trying to do. We do this, because we’ve never experienced the situation before. We do this because we worry about risk. We do this because we worry about what we don’t know. We do this because we may be frightened. We do this because we don’t know any other way.

Simplifying what we are looking at is the furthest thing from our minds.

Sales people often add to the complexity customers face. They do this because they don’t understand the problem/opportunity the customer faces. They do this trying to be responsive to the customer. They do this to feign intelligence and to match what they think customer expect.

Sometimes, they believe they must meet the customer’s complex situations with complex solutions. The attitude is “If the customer is facing something very complex, only a complex approach to solving their problems will be acceptable.”

We have our own language to explain what we do, using technical terms, acronyms, and words that are meaningless/confusing to our customers. Yet we assume they understand them and never give them the secret decoder ring. (Recently, a client sent me a document filled with acronyms and complex multi-syllabic words. I couldn’t understand it so I plugged it into Google Translate. Turns out Google Translate doesn’t translate complex.)

If we change our point of view. If we focus on helping them make sense of what they face, we can help them understand and navigate the complexity.

But we create greater value when we help simplify. When we help the customer identify the few things that are most critical to the issues the customer faces now and help them move forward. We don’t make complexity go away, but we help them understand “first things first.” We help them make sense of what they face, the alternatives they might choose, and what is important to their success. We help them not just manage complexity more effectively, but simplify things.

Question: “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: “One bite at a time.” Complexity is the elephant in the room for our customers.

How do we help the customer simplify their buying journey?

  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    As always, great stuff David – and Happy New Year by the way!!

    In reading your article here on complexity I had a few alarm bells go off in my tiny cranial cavity.

    What I see far too often happen in the rush to simplify is sales reps simplifying things for themselves, as much as for the client – perhaps more so.


    By being all about the products, features and who else has bought them.

    A client’s situation is complex – always. Deciding to do something about their situation, finding & evaluating potential solutions & suppliers and then making a final decision and then implementing the chosen solution is a complex process by itself. Put it in to the context of the wider circumstances and changing environment the client is operating in and we have complexity piled upon complexity.

    There are also several different categories of complexity I am familiar with – at the very least there is ‘detail complexity’ and ‘dynamic complexity’. The first is about the characteristics & features of something, and the other is about how something interacts with other things over time, and what the behaviour of the system as a whole does on one level vs the behaviour of a single part of that system.

    A focus on products & features is about detail complexity. It’s the easiest one to master to a reasonable level, and quickly. It’s generally the easiest to associate cause and effect with.

    But the client’s drivers for acting are business drivers, and take place in the context of a dynamically complex environment, with internal as well as external politics and behaviours in play constantly – more dynamic complexity. Plus the solution a client needs is never only about buying a particular product or service, but also how it is used and abused, or even ignored. More dynamic complexity.

    So what I see in practice is not simplifying of something to the point of being useful and valuable, but over-simplification – instead of simple or simpler, it’s simplistic. That’s just another way of delivering the same crappy low-value stuff to the poor client or prospect.

    Simplifying things to a useful, usable and valuable level in the dynamic complexity domain is where the client is going to see the vast majority of available value being created.

    How do we help them here? It’s by helping them make meaning of their situation, their end destination, the journey between the two and how best to move from the former to the latter with lowest total cost of ownership and lowest risk levels.

    And we help with THOSE specific elements by reducing the amount of options for the client to consider, and helping them focus on what truly matters to them.

    And we help with THAT by helping the client – and ourselves – more widely and deeply & clearly understand their circumstances, end goals and drivers.

    Almost none of that is about the product or service they thought they were originally setting out to buy – because they had simplified – maybe overly so – by focusing on the products & services – their way of coping with the sheer complexity of it all.

    Yes, let’s simplify, but let’s first be clear about the nature of the complexity challenging the client, and be clear about what our role is… is it to be useful, or is it to be right…

    Being right is about getting the client to see that our proposed solution – our stuff – is the answer they’re looking for. And it might be, but not for the reasons we usually assume.

    Being useful is exactly that – being useful. Ask a client what they would rather have if they could only have 1 thing – you being right or you being useful? Sure, being right is being useful, but how can they be sure of this when you’re biased in pushing your solution…? It matters in HOW you are being right… after all, a broken clock is right twice a day, but has absolutely no use and value in its primary and assumed role, of constantly and accurately telling the time.

    I’m pretty sure the client would rather you be useful… I’d accept being usefully right I guess!



    • Martin, sorry for the slow response. Thanks for diving into the issues so deeply. I think, too often, we confuse simplify with simplistic–mistakenly providing simplistic responses to very complex issues. The process you describe is more around sensemaking (which is simplification) and is critical in creating value with the customer. Thanks so much!

  2. Brian MacIver permalink

    “If a problem is complex, it means that it has many components. Complexity does not evoke difficulty. On the other hand, complicated refers to a high level of difficulty. If a problem is complicated, there might be or might not be many parts but it will certainly take a lot of hard work to solve.”

    Complexity, in B2B selling has increased Exponentially bigger DMU’s, add in more touches with suppliers in pre-Sales, executive Sponsors, and intensified Competition, it’s a lot more Complex.

    And, Selling has become MORE COMPLICATED, with COVID severely limiting Access and Communication.

    So, the Sales Solution to this TWO horned dilemma?

    Creative Thinking and Selling Skills.

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