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Predictably Unpredictable

by David Brock on August 16th, 2016

Over the past few years there’s been a huge rush to “predictability” in sales and marketing.  Marketing and sales automation tools strive to increase our ability to predict interest and propensity to buy.  Inbound and outbound sales development reps are scripted to qualify and move prospects through a series of steps that have very predictable outcomes.

As people have broken the code to Predictable Revenue, they ramp up the volume and velocity to drive more and more.  The process and metrics become very formularized.  We know how to drive results just by following the formula and minimizing deviation from the formula.

We can script the processes, we can understand the critical behaviors, capabilities, attitudes for success, hiring and onboarding those that fit the mold.  We can train them, provide them rigorous systems and processes—IFTTT (If This Then That).  Over time we can automate much of this, reducing the scope of what we need people to do. (Particularly appealing for those of you predicting the death of sales.)

It’s a great model and works until it doesn’t.

These models work very well with relatively simple phenomena–for example, dealing with individuals as customers or single decisionmakers.  They work will when we model them against sufficiently large numbers, knowing for a certain percentage of that population, they will follow a very predictable path.

But what happens in the complex sale or decisionmaking process?  The tenets of predictability become much more difficult.  We know CEB’s famous 5.4 decisonmakers for complex B2B decisions.  Math tells us there are 10-15 communications paths just between those 5.4 people (The formula to figure this out is N*(N-1)/2).

Each one of those is talking to and influencing each other.  As they learn and progress through the buying process, their needs and priorities change.

Each of them may be relying on advice from several people indirectly involved in the decisionmaking process.  If we look at 3 per decisionmaker, all of a sudden the communications channels ramp up to 40-51.

Layer on this the group may be considering 3 alternatives, perhaps dealing with several people from each potential supplier.

In just a simple model of the complex decisionmaking process, we see how the number of potential communication channels skyrockets.  Overlay this with rapidly shifting priorities, challenges, pressures, time compression, accelerating change, increased ambiguity and contradiction, compounded with overload and overwhelm.

This is the reality our customers face in driving change in their own businesses, and the reality sales and marketing professionals face in engaging their customers in complex business decisions.

The only thing we can say with certainty is it is predictably unpredictable.

Having painted such a dire picture, it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands or give up.

The reality is complexity is increasing in everything we do in business.  Understanding, managing, and simplifying how we cope with these very complex environments is the only way our customers and we can hope to survive or even thrive.

Where do we start?  Much of this will be covered in the upcoming Sales Executive Survival Guide, but here are some thoughts:

  1. Our predictable, high volume/velocity approaches in marketing and sales have limited utility complex environments.
  2. We and our customer need to develop models and frameworks to help understand the complexity, make better sense of the pieces/parts.
  3. We have to recognize the models aren’t perfect, but they provide a starting point from which to test ideas, engage in deeper learning, and make progress.
  4. No model is “forever,” they will change, morph, even be shattered.  The degree to which we stick rigidly to a model, decreases our ability to respond to or exploit changes and new opportunities.
  5. We and our customers will have contradictory and conflicting models.  There is no single right or ideal answer.  Finding the best becomes meaningless, looking for what works (at least for right now and this situation) will become the future of making progress.
  6. Success will increasingly involve “just in time” collaborations both within our customers, in our own companies, with our customers, and with other “partners.”  Teaming becomes critical in helping deal with and manage complexity.
  7. We and our customers will need to distinguish between the complex and complicated, between simplifying and simplistic.  They are very different and require different approaches.
  8. It will demand new skills and capabilities from sales people.  Critical thinking, problem solving, facilitation, nimbleness/agility, adaptability, continuous improvement and constant learning become critical.  The ability to figure things out becomes one of the most critical skills.
  9. It will demand new management and leadership approaches.  We can no longer prescribe what should be done.  Directive approaches, classic command and control organizational hierarchies become unresponsive.  Leaders will be more focused on creating the right cultures, values, attracting/retaining the right talent, providing adaptable processes/systems/tools/training.  Pushing decisionmaking down into the organization becomes critical to responsiveness.  Developing and empowering teams, encouraging fluidity with those teams, trusting the people on the teams and supporting their work will be where managers spend much of their time.
  10. Many of our traditional metrics for success will no longer be applicable. We have to determine how we track and measure progress in this complex environment.  Of course, good models and frameworks help us understand what can and should be measured.
  11. Organizationally, leaders will have to be concerned about overload and overwhelm.  Constant simplification of work, processes, communication, and how we engage our customers become the focus of top leaders.
  12. The degree to which we help our customers deal with and manage complexity within their own organizations becomes a critical differentiator.  Helping our customers simplify, cope, and make progress will set us apart from everyone else.
  13. We will actually have mixed environments which require mixed strategies.  Some complicated situations, problems and products can be addressed with the very structured, disciplined and predictable ways we address the markets today (Again complex and complicated are entirely different things).  Some of our teams may focus on these, where others will focus on helping our customers with the complex.

I’ll be drilling down into these in the coming weeks and in the Sales Executive Survival Guide.

How are you helping your customers deal with complexity?  What are the key things you are doing to deal with complexity in your own organizations?

  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Oohh!! Nicely done Dave – I can imagine you having fun crafting this little missive!

    It got me thinking, being a recovering engineer, and being in a hi-tech company…

    Traditionally we’ve tended to engage with 3-4 folk – so that’s 3-6 connections or relationships to grapple with. Manageable.

    But we know going forward that our old approaches are not enough to get us where we need to get to. We’ve made significant changes to what we do and how we do it, as you know. An incredible 1st quarter results off the back of a major acquisition, plus getting appointed to the Top 50 companies to sell for in Selling Power Magazine’s annual rankings (we got to #8 this year, first time in the top 10!) speak to these efforts.

    Well, I did a quick calculation… we need to be engaging potentially with 8-11 different folks in the new regime… that’s 28-55 different connections potentially. That’s quite a jump. And to do this without additional resources. Ideally more quickly than before…


    So you are right. You have to find some way to manage the complexity. The usual scatter gun approach won’t work – that’s part of the old way and we know the old ways alone are not enough any more.

    So you have to become more knowledgeable about the people you might engage with, pick the people to engage with based on influence, authority and their ability to get things done in your absence and move things along. And you have to be able to work the consensus angle as outlined by the CEB in order to use key influencers/contacts as a multiplier or nullifier of desired or undesired influences. You have to target better, and you have to speak to what really matters to these targeted folks…

    Forgive my looming profanity, but I found this explanation very helpful in a recent meeting of our new sales folk – some 70 people from 14 different countries, 10 different languages, in trying to explain the what/why/how of our approach… frustrated a little by the lack of general understanding, I became somewhat impassioned, so this is a little accidental, but it seemed that the words/language was readily understood by all, despite cultural and language difficulties (Americans, Europeans and Asians)…

    “Find the people who truly give a shit, find out what they give a shit about… then, engage with them about the shit that matters to them, target those who can get shit done, and help them make the right shit happen.”

    At the end of our 2 week boot camp, several of them came up to me at the end and repeated pretty much word for word what I had said… by jove I think they just might have got it!

    So we manage complexity by targeting who we engage most with, effectively reducing the number of people to engage with, and so reducing the number of relationships to influence. And we focus on what matters to them – which is almost never the products and services we or any other supplier is selling…

    Thanks again Dave – an insightful start to my Wednesday – with our next boot camp starting on Monday – another 70+ sales folk from around the world to induct in to our Client Engagement Process (as you know, we don’t sell anymore in the old sense… and just look at our results!!).



    • Martin, first, it’s good to see you back here, all of us have missed you!

      I’ll be writing a lot more about complexity and ways to deal with it. I do think it requires a very different mindset with leaders and individual contributors. Radical simplification will be a key aspect and helping our customers with this can be a very distinguishing part of our value.

      I really like the CEB consensus driven approach as one way of dealing with this. I don’t think it’s just the actions of the mobilizer, in some sense relying on the mobilizer transfers the management of the complexity to that individual, it doesn’t reduce the complexity.

      I think the real magic behind the CEB approach it the consensus process itself–and what we can do to facilitate it. Getting everyone together, in the same room, driving to common priorities, agendas, etc has the potential to dramatically reduce the complexity and improve results. Both from the customer side and from our POV in engaging the customers.

      To your, “Find the people who truly give a shit….” statement, I think passion/commitment/the ability to figure things out are critical to helping reduce and manage complexity.

      Thanks for the great thoughts, I’ll be writing much more about these issues.

      I am wondering though, I think of your boot camp, 70 people, 14 countries, 10 languages. I suspect English was a common denominator and you don’t even speak English 😉 You know what I mean 😉

      Thanks so much Martin!

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