Blog post

Simplification, Complexity, and Complication

By Hank Barnes | February 28, 2017 | 1 Comment


I recently had a conversation with my friend, Dave Brock.  Dave and I connect periodically to exchange ideas and thoughts on what is going on in the world of B2B sales and marketing.    One of Dave’s current areas of focus is helping his clients get their sellers more time to sell.    As he has been exploring this issue, he has taken a look at “selling complexity.”  And yes, it is a complex topic.


Our discussion today made me realize that my view of the role of marketing may be based on wearing some “rose colored glasses.”  I’ve long stated that I believe that marketing’s job is to make it easier for customers to buy and for sellers to sell.   But, if buying is inherently complex, is that a realistic goal?

Maybe.  But it requires a deeper look and coordinated effort across the buying cycle.

In order to simplify anything, you have to understand the details of the situation.   Building that understanding provides the context for improvement.  There are a few steps required for this process.  First, you have to go beyond just saying “there is complexity” to understanding the nature of that complexity:

  • Is it complex to navigate the work to execute the internal (your own) organizational processes to execute your half of the sale?
  • Are target customers buying processes complex?
  • Do partners increase the complexity?
  • Is it the product or service?

Until you work to understand these things, you can’t try to address them.  But when you dig into this and work to gain that understanding, you are in a position to do something about it.  Marketing should work with sales to unwrap complexity and figure out where they can help–and some of it may be unraveling processes.

In some cases, as Dave points out, what we call complex is really just  “complicated.”   What does this mean?  In my mind, when we say something is complicated, we often are implying “I don’t know why we do things that way, but it is what is is.”  When things are complicated, there may be opportunities for improvement.  But regardless, if we know that something is complicated, that means we know how things get done–we just have to determine if there is a way to simplify.  That may mean re-aligning resources, simplifying processes, or just obliterating activities that no longer make sense.   But the key is, we can understand complicated.

Other things are complex simply because they are hard to understand.  Its a new situation that we’ve never dealt with before.  We don’t know everything (or aren’t confident we know everything) that needs to be done.   Often, we figure it out as we go.  As we get better at anticipating situations, we get better at handling this type of complexity.

How does this apply to customer situations?

First,  its important to coach (think sales enablement) your sales teams on how work with the customer to understand the nature of their situation, and your part in it.   For example, can you determine if the buying effort for your product or service is part of  a bigger project, with lots of other purchases and projects that all have to be coordinated (complicated)?  If that is the case, is there work to figure out how all these things will really fit together (complex)?

As we learn these things, then we can help sales teams know where to apply resources to help customers move toward success.   Do we try to help with coordination?  Do we bring resources forward that can clarify design issues?   It could be a variety of things.  And if patterns repeat, then marketing can make that a standard part of training.

At the same time, its critical to make sure your customer understands their own situation–sounds crazy but they sometimes don’t.   If they can’t tell you where the “buy” fits into an overall project–whether you are at the core of it or not–then you know this is risky.   You need to help them connect the dots.  Or,  qualify yourself out, as its likely to be one of those “no decision” nightmares.

Marketing can help with all of this by refining the idea of target customers, creating materials that help address complexity (and complication),  and making this a core part of sales qualification.  Marketing could take it further by championing, with sales, internal process improvements that take away selling time.

In summary, I believe that:

  1. Efforts to simplify can always drive improvements in performance.
  2. In order to simplify, you have to understand the complexities of the situation.
  3. When looking at complexities, break it down into that which is understood (complicated) and that which has more unknowns (complex).
  4. For complicated things, look for opportunities to streamline–a great focus for simplification.
  5. For complex things, look for ways to collaborate to quickly address unknowns and uncover patterns that can accelerate understanding.

Simplification is a quest.   Getting there is complicated.  And complex.


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1 Comment

  • Dave Brock says:

    Hank: Outstanding post. Understanding and managing complexity, in all its forms–complicated/complex is probably one of the top issues facing business executives in the coming 5 years. It will be the top issue for sales executives in maximizing the performance of their own organizations and a top opportunity in helping customers with their own issues of complexity.