Saturday 23 February 2013

Simplification is the real problem

I support the sales operations function for my organisation and during a quick corridor conversation one of the sales managers outlined that sales performance was driven by one factor only -- the use of compensation to drive the right behaviour. This is a common stereotype for sales persons i.e they are “in it for the money” whereas I professionally find that the best sales persons that deliver consistently are driven by something else.

I have a sales background and then moved into the sales operations fuction so I have a habit of looking at an issue from many angles. This makes it difficult for me to simplify the decision making process when reacting to failure. In fact, after the discussion on sales performance my mind started thinking of the role of competition; price; product; knowledge of sales person; personal sales style; sales manager’s style; supply demand in the market place etc. and how that could negatively impact sales performance. In due course, I mentally admonished myself for complicating the “simple” challenge of delivering sales performance. Nevertheless, it did bother me that improving sales performance had been simplified to one simple rule. Was this simplification correct? Had I lost connect with the concept of simplification due to the constant bombardment of ideas on how to simplify one’s own life or had my two decade stint in the corporate world rendering me incapable of simplifying?
My mind wandered off to the reference of Occam’s razor that posits that “simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones," which I felt was contra to the explanatory power needed to undertake analysis.

I started thinking about simplification and my mind wandered to many meetings where the discussions on a problem would be taken over by an attempt to take a reductionist approach to understanding the problem and then solutioning for the same. Theoretically, nothing sounds more rational than this approach as humans have an inherent fear of change and such utterances act like a balm in calming this inherent fear.

The problem that occurs is that many times after an unexpected outcome (for e.g. loss of a sale as the “competition outmanoeuvred us”) the discussion would be to identify how this happened or what/who caused this? There may be variations to this type of questioning but they all aim at reducing the possible response(s) to the identification of one reason to attribute the outcome whereas there may be multiple (equally valid) reasons/factors that contributed to the outcome. To further compound this I then see the use of fallacious arguments i.e. “arguments that don’t work”. This is a particularly strong approach in the sales world due to the inherent high pressure nature of the sales function and the drive to maximise remuneration and performance (which is usually measured in quantitative terms – sales; margin; market-share etc.). The focus is “now or never”. That is why we generally don’t hear too much about quality, reliability, complexity etc. in sales meetings. I do hear the word simplify all the time in sales meetings.

However, if I look back at some of the discussions and resulting decisions taken then I can state that simplification occurs as finding an executable solution means that action has been taken by those who must tackle/resolve the problem at hand. We all leave with a misplaced feeling of comfort once this occurs. Simplification is an attempt at problem solving whose use in the corporate world ignores or does not include in the analysis the element of complexity that exists in any organisation (of course it is relative and differs in degree of intensity). Ignoring complexity is not recommended as I have always been wary of outcomes or decisions that came out due to the simplification applied to both understanding and then solutioning the problem. Such outcomes are not reliable.

In fact, I argue that those organisations or environments that are labelled as complex have become complex as the processes and standards that are now labelled complex were actually designed (in the first instance) to avoid failures that were caused by simplification! Reductionist thinking or not being able to see the big picture when solutioning has led to most failures and that failure was then used to enhance and strengthen a process (to which the failure was attributed). As an example, most compliance and audit requirements that we argue about or debate arose because the earlier process breach that occurred was because the process was not designed to acknowledge complexity of the process or problem at hand. [“Simplicities are enormously complex. Consider the sentence I love you” - Richard O. Moore, Writing the Silences].
So how could I close off without giving some guidance on how to avoid simplification when analysing a failure or taking a decision?

Start with adopting a culture of understanding what is failure and a near-failure i.e. any opportunity that could have led to a failure (but did not due to some random event) is worthy of review. Do not tolerate small failures as they will lead to more complex and costly failures over time. This is another example of a slippery slope, where tolerating small failures ultimately may lead to catastrophic failure!
Do not encourage or fall into the trap of simplifying events. I absolutely endorse training and adoption of techniques that force one to understand how defective performance occurs and how organisational processes link to each other. Train yourself to understand complexity and not be scared of it. Root cause analysis is not an easy task but something fundamental when attempting to explain or examine a problem. This is even more critical due to interdependence of processes and organisational units as well as the “butterfly effect”.

In the sales domain, sales leadership should take ownership of operational excellence and not only sales excellence. This thinking is more liberating and Weick and Sutcliffe make a case for operational excellence as it encourages viewing all organisational activities (remember the reference to interdependence of processes in the paragraph above) and how they are linked together rather than take the “30,000-foot, big-picture level.” My professional perspective is that I have noticed that sales leadership that takes into consideration (and develops) a broader and deeper understanding of operational excellence can avoid simplification and be mature enough to ensure that they don’t fall into the trap of  fixing the blame rather than fixing the problem.

What do you think?

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1 comment:

  1. I think boss, its human nature to look for simplification while decoding a problem, however simplification techniques or arguments should be done / applied on the micro aspects of the complete problem statement, rather than the complete business problem, thus "breaking the problem" is the key step which I feel most managers for forget during their analysis of the issue at hand.