As an engineer, I learned it is impossible to design and build the perfect part. While the design itself provides exact specifications, the part would have some variation when actually manufactured. So in designing products, we would always specify the acceptable tolerances for the part. For example, if we wanted to drill a hole in the center of a square plate, we would identify both the size of the hole and the exact center of the hole, +/- a certain tolerance. It might look like “Drill a 1 inch hole 3 inches from the left side, 3 inches from the top, +/- 1/32 inch. So if we were within 1/32 inch of that specification (for example 2 and 31/32 from the left side, we were meeting the specifications of the part.
In theory, this allows us to manufacture parts that met these specifications, even though one part might be off a little in one dimension or another.
Now let’s imagine we are stacking a number of plates together, each with 1 inch holes. And we intend to put a 7/8 inch bolt through that stack of plates. Each plate might be off by 1/32 of an inch and be within specs. But one might be a little to the right of center, another to the left, another above the center and another below. Every plate in a stack of 10, would be slightly off, but in different direction. Each plate meets spec, but, we find we can’t insert the bolt (particularly if it is also a little off).
This is what engineers call the “tolerance stack up problem.” It’s a huge issue, the parts individually meet spec, but collectively fail. This impacts every product we manufacture. In software there are equivalents of the tolerance stack up problem, in every material… everything. When taken as components they meet spec, but collectively they fail.
There’s more to it, but I’ll stop here. If you’ve ever assembled a child’s toy or Ikea furniture, you’ve experienced a tolerance stack up problem—nothing a few taps of a hammer can’t fix.
Selling is far less exact than making a product of any type. But we have massive “tolerance stack up problems.”
Stated differently, why, if everyone is doing their job, meeting their metrics, do we fail so miserably at producing the end result we expected?
In a perfect world, everyone does their job well…..
Marketing is producing MQLs, meeting it’s goal. Naturally there’s variation in each lead, different customers, markets, priorities, experience base, but they are meeting their criteria for quality and volume of MQL.
SDRs work on converting those MQLs to SQLs. Again, because each lead is different, each requirement is slightly different, and the customer may have shifted what they want a little, there is a lot of variation. We script our SDRs to navigate every MQL through the exact same path, even though they are different. In the end, the SDR converts them into SQLs, meeting the criteria and volume requirements. And sales takes that SQL, works with the customer to create a SAL, perhaps working on the deal themselves, or passing it on.
There is massive variation in each lead or opportunity. Each situation has some commonality and some uniqueness. Each marketing person, SDR, and AE involved has variation in how they execute their work and in the judgement they use to move an opportunity through the process.
As a result, while each group is nominally doing their jobs and meeting their goals, because of the variations in the leads/opportunities, because of the “Sales Tolerance Stackup Problem,” overall we may be failing to meet our objectives and goals. And that’s when we start pointing fingers at each other, “I did my job, I met my goals….” yet the organization has not met it’s overall goals.
It gets even more difficult. Let’s say one group wants to change something in their part of the process. Maybe it’s to make their goals more easily, maybe it’s to provide more consistency in what they do. For example, if marketing isn’t achieving their MQLs, they might cast a slightly wider net. Still within the “tolerance” of the specifications of ICP, lead quality, etc. But this may cause difficulties for the SDR, because while it fits marketing’s specs, it may require more different work from the SDRs, and you can see how that might ripple through the process. Each part of the organization is genuinely trying to do their jobs, meet their goals, but it impacts others.
The various pieces/parts no longer work together.
It gets even more complicated. Customer situations change through the process. The people involved, what they are trying to achieve, maybe they’ve learned something and shifted requirements. So while each group may have done their jobs well, the customer is introducing variation into this process.
This variation by the customer ripples back through each person touching an opportunity, they shift/change to meet their requirements, pretty soon the thing snowballs to a mess–but everyone is doing their jobs.
The tolerance stack up problem is a static problem. Working with our customers–finding them, qualifying them, helping them buy is actually a dynamic, process based problem. There is constant variation across each customer and across time.
But we tend to optimize, thinking of it as a static problem. We also tend to optimize for the pieces/parts, failing to understand it as a whole. So while the pieces/parts are hitting their goals, the overall organization fails.
Let’s look at other examples, where our focus on the pieces/parts and how they fail us. As an example, in LinkedIn, I read constant advice from “experts,” that focus on the wording of our first sentence in a prospecting call. A lot of advice looks at specific wording, tonality and so forth. But there is no discussion about the second sentence or the first conversation. As a result, too often, we don’t achieve our goals in those first conversations. Or we focus on the value propositions the customers realize in buying our solutions, but fail to look at the value we create in their buying process, or the value we create in inciting them to buy. We look at the customer preference for digital buying journeys, but fail to reassess the sales interventions optimized to support and reinforce those digital buying experiences.
This is a long winded explanation, really oriented around “Systems Thinking.” Not technology/IT or other systems, but how the entire process of engaging and working with customers is a system composed of various subsystems. To build effective systems, we have to simultaneously work on the overall system and the subsystems–making sure they all work together.
And, as one would expect, this becomes much more complex, because our “Selling System,” needs to interact, effectively, with completely independent systems—our customers and their Buying Process/Problem Solving, our partners/channels, and so forth.
While this sounds overwhelming, these are solvable, we have so many great examples of organizations being wildly successful. But these organizations look at the whole system and the interacting systems, nimbly adapting how they work to achieve their goals.
Over the coming couple of weeks, I will dive into this much more deeply. My goal is to help you think both about the pieces/parts, but how they work together as a whole. Tie on your thinking caps, some of it will get a little deep.
Afterword: For those that want to follow the Business Acumen/Systems Thinking series, click on the link for the collection.