The problem with sales guys… (a peek into complex adaptive systems)

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Vulgarity warning. Its the silly season, I am winding down and being more low-brow than usual with this post

There is this wonderful way to look at the world, through a lens of something called “Complex adaptive systems”. Unfortunately with a name like that, it is automatically doomed to be only spoken of and understood by, a small subset of those sort of dishevelled looking nerdy guys who others take the piss out of when they are not around.

The notion of complex adaptive systems explains many things, including why salesman can unintentionally really be damaging to an organisation. I thought that I needed to write about this, and given that I am going to talk about sales guys, I had to write in a manner commiserate with their level of understanding of how the world works. Since the chances of a sales guy reading my blog is probably low, I should be safe 🙂

So here we go.

Here is a sales guy. Although us geeks think they are assholes, for this metaphor we have to change our context of what an asshole actually is. I think of him more of a guy who gathers food and brings it to you.

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Here is the world for a sales guy. He finds work, and feeds that work into the mouth of the organisation. For performing such a feat, he gets to nibble off a small morsel of the meal to keep for himself. If he feeds the organisation enough and makes it grow, he will get enough morsels to grow rather nicely himself. This is a pretty sweet deal if you are good at finding food, because your reward is a percentage of what you push into the organisations mouth. Therefore it is in the sales guys interest to find as much food as he can for the organisational “body”. In fact his performance is directly attributed to doing exactly that in the form of quotas or sales targets

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At the other end of the chain, the implementers have to digest what has been fed them from mouth and produce output that makes clients happy. Therefore it is the people in the organisation that actually implement a project who are actually the assholes, not the sales guys. As a result, I can say with some confidence that most people reading this post, like myself, are all assholes.

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As this cycle perpetuates over time, the body in between these two ends grows. To continue to feed this body and keep it growing, we need to seek out more food. To do this we try and incentivise our sales people to supply more food by offering them larger morsels if they make more ambitious targets.

Never forget the assholes

Now we all know that we have to eat a balanced diet with healthy foods. But some people find it a pain to do all of that preparation and effort and instead go and grab some Chinese takeout instead. To a sales guy who is being rewarded for the amount of food being delivered to the organisation, fast food is great! Remember that the sales guy only takes just enough of the food for no lasting effects and is the furthest away from the assholes to feel the negative effects on the organisational as a whole.

Now our sales guy starts to look like the image below.

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Therefore, this process of incentivising sales guys by the amount of food that they pass into the mouth is not without its risks and often can damage the long term health of the organisational body. Fast food can be tolerated now and again of course. For example, we all get the occasional hankering for Kentucky Fried Chicken every 6 months or so, and delude ourselves that this time, unlike all of the other times, it will actually not be oily enough to power a small town and leave you with that queasy feeling that you get when your heart labours against your cholesterol.

This can be a self perpetuating cycle. For example, the sales guy feeds the organisation a blisteringly hot spicy lamb vindaloo. Naturally is a very unpleasant experience for the assholes and as a result, what is delivered to the customer is (literally) crap and costs much more than anticipated. This cost bleed puts pressure on the sales guys to feed the body to make up for the wasted time, effort and cost. But the sales guy is so far away from the assholes, it does not occur to him that it was the spicy lamb vindaloo was the wrong meal. Nor too, does he receive any feedback to let him know that the burning sensation still lingers.

So what does he do? He feeds an even spicier lamb vindaloo to the mouth. Why? because he now has learned how to find spicy lamb vindaloos and is reaping the rewards of many tasty morsels – a perfectly reasonable practice given that he is now put under pressure to deliver more food.

Despite good intentions…

This cyclical phenomenon is called the “ring of fire” and afflicts many organisations who just can’t seem to deliver projects on time and budget. The customers of these organisations, fed up with getting nothing but crap, start to look elsewhere, thereby increasing pressure and starting the cycle again. Management get all flustered and usually blame the assholes.

The essence of the notion of the complex adaptive system is that the assholes and sales guys need each-other. Attempting to optimise the sales guys performance in isolation, ultimately has a negative impact on the assholes, which in turn has a negative impact on the organization as a whole.  The organisation is a system that comprises of many parts that interact in different ways. The system is perfectly capable of self organising and self optimising. For example, if the sales guy feeds the organisation sushi and next time it is fed a burrito, the assholes have a certain amount of tolerance to deal with that. But when you optimise one end (reward for food) without considering the assholes at the other end, you actually reduce that tolerance to deal with change!

The lesson that should be learned here is that the command and control methods of problem solving or project management that operate by optimising one part of the system, will usually work in the short term, but to the long term detriment to the system as a whole. The result that I have seen first hand for many IT organisations in particular, is that they have developed a certain reputation in the market for being a bit on the nose because of their seeming inability to get a project completed. Once this happens, it is very very difficult for them to regain the lost trust.

Microsoft for example, has taken years to win back the hearts and minds of geeks for their actions more than a decade ago.

What sort of fast food is SharePoint?

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If SharePoint were a fast food, it would either be one of those giant steaks that you get your name on the wall if you finish, or the Guatemalan chilli that sent the normally invincible Homer into the spirit world. It is so seductive to the sales guys because it is in demand, but their distance to the assholes means that they will think it should be just like any other IT infrastructure oriented project to install. Therefore, some integrators will be doomed to repeatedly bite off more than they can chew and by the time they realise it, the long term damage will be done.

So what do you do?

If you accept that the organisation is a system and that optimising one part of it will likely impact the rest of the organisation, often in unpredictable ways, then incentivising has to be more strategically focussed. In other words, the true performance indicator on a good sales guy is actually the success of the project, because it is a much more reliable indicator of the sort of food being passed to the mouth and results in customer goodwill – social capital. If sales guys received their morsels based on the success of the project as a whole, then it would force them to interact more with the assholes to achieve that end and think a little more carefully about what they feed the organisation.

But self interest is a very strong force and there are very few sales guys that would be enthusiastic about that idea. This is of course the other big problem. The longer you leave it, the harder it is for an organisation to make the changes necessary to produce the outcomes that they aspire to.

If you want to see that in practice, look no further than the Copenhagen climate change conference.

Final note about thinking in terms of systems

Of course, if we are taking a complex adaptive systems view, then one could argue that the affect of all of this would be that your sales guys will leave and find organisations who feed them bigger morsels with much less effort of (heaven forbid) being judged on real outcomes. As a result, opportunities for sales may be lost to competitors and the organisation still suffers as a whole

This is the dilemma of systems thinking and what frustrates the hell out of the “command and control” world. You can just end up with a giant talkfest and never actually make a decision on anything because systems adapt in ways that can’t be predicted.

Is it any therefore wonder that command and control usually wins out? 

 

Thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

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The rationale of a 5 year old

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Hahaha ahem – I found this funny. I am teaching my 11 year old daughter how to perform issue and dialogue mapping. Each night, we pick a relevant family topic, discuss all of the issues around the topic and my daughter maps the discourse.

Recently and the root question of the day was whether her little brother (Liam) should get a cat for Christmas. We already have a cat named Jessica and a detailed conversation unfolded, where my 5 year old outlined his reasons to the family. We all had a good laugh and by the end if the session, my 5 year old changed his mind and decided that he’d rather ask Santa for some lego. 

Check out how it unfolded.

Start: Root question, some basic background and Liam’s first two answers

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Round 2. Mum and dad challenge both of the initial ideas and Liam offers a potential counterpoint. Unfortunately, Liam has the perfect comeback that his mother and I cannot argue with – Santa will take care of it!

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Round 3. Liam offers a new reason why he should get a cat. It will help him with spilt milk. When challenged on the grounds of the new cat eating fish as well as milk, and the possibility of the cat not liking milk, Liam offered to hiss at it to protect the fish.

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Round 4. Unable to get buy-in for the milk idea, Liam switches tack and comes up with quite a clever idea that has some merit. Our current cat has a particular talent for catching mice and then leaving what is left of them at the back door for our approval. Liam suggests that we can grow vegetables in the garden because of the fact that two cats are now hunting mice, thereby reducing the population (not bad logic for a 5 year old). Unfortunately for Liam, he is reminded that our current cat also has a habit of chewing plants in the herb garden now.

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Round 5. My personal favourite. Mrs Cleverworkarounds suggests that Liam should not get a cat because there will be more cat poop to clean. When asked who will clean up said poo, Liam was adamant that it would not be him. When pressed for suggestions, he firstly says he will cover the mess with Kleenex and as alternative suggests that we can get a “cleaner man” to pick up the poo. When Liam was further challenged as to who the cleaner man is and how to find him, he suggested the police would help. He also then hit upon the idea of teaching the cat not to poo as well! 🙂

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This proves that mapping discourse does work. At this point, faced with the prospect that he would have to clean up after the cat, Liam conceded defeat and asked for Star Wars lego instead.

The full map in context can be found below (click for the full size version).

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Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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SharePoint, Debategraph and Copenhagen 2009 – Collaboration on a global scale

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Note: For those of you who do not wish to read my usual verbose writing, then skip to the last section where there is a free web part to download and try out.

Unless you are a complete SharePoint nerd and world events don’t interest you while you spend your hours in a darkened room playing with the SP2010 beta, you would no doubt be aware that one of the most significant collaborative events in the world is currently taking place.

The United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen this month is one of the most important world gatherings of our time. You might wonder why, as a SharePoint centric blog, I am writing about this. The simple answer is that this conference in which the world will come together to negotiate and agree on one of the toughest wicked problems of our time. How to tackle international climate change in a coordinated global way. As I write this, things do not seem to be going so well :-(.

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Climate change cuts to the heart of the wellbeing expected by every one of us. Whether you live in an affluent country or a developing nation, the stakes are high and the issues at hand are incredibly complex and tightly intertwined. It might all seem far away and out of sight/out of mind, but it is clear that we will all be affected by the outcomes for better and worse. The spectre of the diminishing window of opportunity to deal with this issue means that an unprecedented scale of international cooperation will be required to produce an outcome that can satisfy all stakeholders in an environmentally, economically and social bottom line.

Can it be done? For readers who are practitioners of SharePoint solutions, you should have an appreciation of the difficulty that a supposedly “collaborative tool” actually is to improve collaboration. Therefore, I want you to imagine your most difficult, dysfunctional project that you have ever encountered and just try and now multiply it by a million, gazzilion times. If there are ever lessons to be learned about effective collaboration among a large, diverse group on a hugely difficult issue, then surely it is this issue and this event.

Our contribution

My colleagues and I became interested in sense-making and collaboration on wicked problems some time back, and through the craft of Dialogue Mapping, we have had the opportunity to help diverse groups successfully work through some very challenging local issues. I need to make it clear that much of what we do in this area is far beyond SharePoint in terms of project difficulty, and in fact we often deal with non IT projects and problems that have significant social complexity.

Working with people like city planners, organisational psychologists, environmental scientists and community leaders to name a few, has rubbed off on myself and my colleagues. Through the sense-making process that we practice with these groups, we have started to see a glimpse of the world through their eyes. For me in particular, it has challenged my values, social conscience and changed the entire trajectory of where I thought my career would go. I feel that the experience has made me a much better practitioner of collaborative tools like SharePoint and I am a textbook case of the the notion that the key to improving in your own discipline, is to learn from people outside of it.

We have now become part of a global sense-making community, much like the global SharePoint community in a way. A group of diverse people that come together via common interest. To that end, my colleague at Seven Sigma, Chris Tomich has embarked on a wonderful initiative that I hope you may find of interest. He has enlisted the help of several world renowned sense-makers, such as Jeff Conklin of Cognexus and David Price of Debategraph, and created a site, http://www.copenhagensummitmap.org/, where we will attempt to create a global issue map of the various sessions and talks at the Copenhagen summit. The aim of this exercise is to try and help interested people cut through the fog of issues and understand the points of view of the participants. We are utilising IBIS, the grammar behind dialogue mapping, and the DebateGraph tool for the shared display.

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How you can help

If you feel that issue mapping is for you, then I encourage you to sign up to Debategraph and help contribute to the Copenhagen debate by mapping the dialogue of the online sessions (which you can view from the site).

Otherwise, Chris has written a simple, free web part, specifically for Copenhagen which can be downloaded “Mapping tools” section of the Copenhagen site. The idea is that if you or your organisation wish to keep up with the latest information from the conference, then installing this web part onto your site, will allow all of your staff to see the Copenhagen debate unfold live via your SharePoint portal. Given that SharePoint is particularly powerful at surfacing data for business intelligence, think of this web part as a means to display global intelligence (or lack thereof, depending on your political view 🙂 ).

Installing is the usual process for a SharePoint solution file. Add the solution to central admin, deploy it to your web application of choice and then activate the site collection scoped feature called “Seven Sigma Debategraph Components”. The web part will be then available to add to a page layout or web part page.

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The properties of this web part allow you some fine grained control over how the Debategraph map renders inside SharePoint. The default is to show the Debategraph stream view, which is a twitter style view of the recent updates as shown in the example below.

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Stream view is not the only view available. Detail view is also very useful for rationale that has supplementary information, as shown in the example below.

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By the way, you can use this web part to display any Debategraph debate – not just Copenhagen. The Debategraph map to display is also controlled via the web part properties.

For information on how to change the default map, then check out this webcast I recorded for the previous version here.

I hope that some of you find this web part of use and look forward to any feedback.

 

Kind regards

 

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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