There's no earthly way of knowing
Which direction they are going!
There's no knowing where they're rowing,
Or which way the river's flowing!
Not a speck of light is showing,
So the danger must be growing,
For the rowers keep on rowing,
And they're certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing...
- Roald Dahl
You may have noticed how many prospective clients recognize that the status quo no longer serves them or their business, but still decide not to change (the dreaded "no decision"). Other decision-makers and their teams don’t even make it that far: they refuse to meet with salespeople because they can't imagine how they could manage change when they are already overwhelmed just trying to hold things together. In the age of consensus decisions, the net effect is an increasing inability to change.
One underappreciated factor in this trend is the complexity of the client’s environment and the increasing difficulty of deciding under conditions that provide uncertainty. The legacy approaches to professional selling provides no strategies, tactics, or concepts that might help the salesperson serve their prospective clients by helping them deal with complexity or the uncertainty it creates. At best, a legacy salesperson might offer a conversation about how their “solution” allegedly fixes one specific problem, without even scratching the surface of the chaos underneath. This is often a path to a “no decision,” as no client has only one problem.
A Short History of Large Events
Complexity occurs when you have interdependencies between diverse entities responding to changes in their environments. Complexity results in unpredictable and large events, often creating difficult problems and circumstances. When those events speed up with more destructive results, it is natural for people to avoid significant decisions. One result of large, difficult, or destructive events is greater uncertainty.
The 2000 Dotcom Bubble, for example, started when venture capital poured into the new Internet companies between 1995 and March 2000. The Nasdaq grew by 400%, giving back 78% of its peak by 2002. If you had a 401K or an investment portfolio, you might remember looking at the major hit to your bottom line.
Almost fifty years passed between the attack on Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001. That long period created complacency, a sense that the United States was immune to such things. Needless to say, it was undone in a single day, eventually resulting in two wars in the Middle East.
In 2004, Zuckerberg and friends unleashed Facebook on the world, providing a platform to connect with friends and family. By 2019, Facebook had almost 2.5 billion monthly users and by 2020 it became an $843 billion-dollar digital advertising platform. Twitter started in March 2006, creating another social platform that allowed people to connect. Both platforms are now being hauled before Congress for their increasingly negative impact on children, an apt venue given the political divisiveness that Facebook and Twitter enable.
In 2007, Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. This pint-sized product eventually became a large event, one that caused some improvements to our lives and societies but also created some incredibly negative consequences. There would be no Uber or Lyft without the iPhone. That same device makes it impossible sit through a family dinner—let alone a date—without being interrupted by the ubiquitous screen that rules our lives. Ten years after being created, Apple had sold 1.2 billion iPhones.
The Great Recession began in 2008, the result of subprime mortgage lending and the derivatives that financial institutions traded colliding with dropping home prices. On September 29, 2008, Congress refused to bail out the banks, causing the Dow to fall by 777.68 points, the largest drop in history at the time.
Throughout the 2000s, there has been an increase in populism on the Left and Right. Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, has carefully and meticulously documented these populist movements’ history and implications, focusing on how both sides seek more autocratic leaders to bring the chaos under control. The increasing divisiveness is resulting in violence and civil unrest.
The pandemic that started in 2020 resulted in The Great Resignation, with millions of people quitting their jobs, Baby Boomers retiring for good, a labor market with too few people to fill open positions, supply chain issues, a lack of microchips that prevent automobile manufacturers from delivering new cars, and an explosion in housing prices—all exposing how small and flat our world is and how interdependent we are. And as of December 10, 2021, we reached the highest inflation rate in almost forty years.
Sense-Making, Certainty and Dealing with Complexity
When the future is uncertain, it can feel as if the best thing to do is to wait until things stabilize. While it might seem safer to wait, even the seven events above demonstrate the constant, accelerating, disruptive change in our 21st-century environment. It's important to know that while it might feel safer to not to act under conditions of uncertainty, a lack of action can cost your clients time, money, opportunities, and the chance to position themselves to succeed in the future. The thing about Black Swans is that they are unexpected, meaning you and your clients are not likely to find yourselves in a time of great stability and certainty anytime soon.
The value of sense-making, a key responsibility for consultative salespeople, is that you remove some of the mystery and the unknown by making sense of the complexity. Having a greater understanding of what's going on, and even why it is happening, makes it less frightening. Since you and your clients must live with this complexity, you are responsible for helping them move forward, even when it’s raining Black Swans.
That’s where the Certainty Sequence comes in. It lets us clean up the uncertainty and help our clients recognize the certainty of increasingly negative consequences that result from doing nothing. You then teach your clients how to create the more positive results that only come by taking new actions. Leading your clients through this sequence is both your place and your responsibility—and believing that it’s all up to the client will put you far behind your competitors.