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.


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


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.


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.


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?

image image

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

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  2. Andrew Jolly says:

    Ha ha ha ‘Ring of fire’ , great post once again Paul! Cheers AJ

  3. an asshole says:

    Why can’t people just get along. You need a break man…

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  5. It all sounds way too familiar! From my experience, the majority of IT service providers find themselves in this dilemma. According to Game Theory, this is a classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the problem is that the Nash Equilibrium is not the optimal solution. In other words, you have a situation where there is no or little effective communication between the sales guys and the implementers. Both groups are then acting purely based on self-interest and selecting the best option from their own perspective without realising that there is a more optimal solution if the parties were collaborating.

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