“This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, This ain't no fooling around. No time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain't got time for that now.” -Talking Heads
Every week, a financial advisor emails me (and every other subscriber) a long list of bullet points about the economic environment. Each bullet point covers a different facet of the economy—just the kind of thing an investor might use to stay on top of the market.
Recently, however, I’ve started to delete the email without even glancing at it, as it provides me no value. The data is on point, and there’s enough of it to seem valuable. But the email is missing meaning: the author provides no interpretation or expert perspective on what the data means now and for the future. I am certain he believes that sharing the data is a valuable service to his clients and prospective clients, but without some analysis, he’s leaving his subscribers no better off than they were before they got the email.
Sense-Making: Providing the Significance Needed for Change Initiatives
I first bumped into the concept of sense-making in Ken Wilber’s work. Wilber is, perhaps, the greatest sense-maker: his models fit the Universe into four quadrants, describing all existence. Since 2015, I have been fortunate enough to spend some time with Ken, most of which is him patiently helping me understand sense-making and map making. Here’s how he defines sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed.
That’s the problem with the economic data-dump: the financial advisor is not providing the meaning or significance of the information he puts in front of his clients each week. Granted, financial professionals have to be very careful not to promise a certain investment result, but that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) rule out sense-making. Otherwise, the dizzying number of data points with no narrative just creates confusion.
Or, as Principal Anderson said it: “Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
Factors that Stall a Change Initiative
When your prospective client is struggling to produce the results they need, there are certain factors that prevent them moving forward with a change initiative:
Uncertainty. An inability to make sense of your environment creates a sense of uncertainty. Without certainty, it seems like the safest choice to do nothing and at least avoid making a bad decision, one that makes things even worse than they are now.
Complexity. When something is complex or complicated, making sense is difficult. A lack of understanding of the connections between things, the causes and their effects, and their potential second-order consequences can paralyze a decision-maker.
Information Overwhelm. The technological environment in which we find ourselves creates a sense of overwhelm. There is more information and data than ever, much of it conflicting. This is made worse by narratives that cherry-pick certain data while excluding anything that might reduce the power of the argument.
To address these problems and get the change initiative back on track, sense-making is just what the doctor ordered:
Certainty. If you can explain the environment, providing both the data and an informed and experienced perspective, you can transform uncertainty into a manageable problem, allowing your client to confidently move forward.
Clarity. Providing a clear view of the connections between seemingly disparate facts and data reduces the complexity, providing a way for your client to make sense of something that was opaque.
Insight. When you can discern what information is important enough to share with your clients, you eliminate some of their overwhelm, especially if you are wise enough to explain the different perspectives and why they should value one over another.
The sense-maker wins deals because they provide their prospects and clients a level of value not provided by a legacy approach to sales. The contrast between these two approaches is shockingly different. A legacy salesperson provides a commoditized discovery call and a linear sales process inadequate for the current environment, while a modern salesperson provides a consistently valuable experience, giving their contacts a deeper understanding of their world and better preparing them to decide to change.
An Evolving Competency for Complex, Consultative Sales
Professional selling is clearly moving away from transactional approaches and towards greater value creation. That direction has been consistent for decades, and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The competencies and the character traits required of a professional salesperson have also changed, even if sales organizations and salespeople are not yet aware and continue to fall further behind.
Sense-making is now a primary competency for the complex and consultative sale. Curiosity and a desire to understand will be key to understanding. The data dumps that salespeople might have provided will be replaced by a very different—and more valuable—type of research, one that enables sense-making in a world of constant, accelerating, disruptive change.
The sales conversation has moved on from the legacy approach. When your client sits staring blankly into the distance as you recount facts about your company and your products, or mumbles predictable answers to your questions about their equally predictable problems, their lack of engagement is the natural result of soporific talk tracks. And if an afternoon nap is all you can offer your clients, then I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.