Develop the skills to manage with multiple shades of grey


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Numbers guide controller’s and their professions. Established laws of physics and equations define the Science, Technology Math and Engineering professions. A colorful world with clear facts as base for decisions. But the reality today for sales and business professional is different. A reality with large amounts of gray shades and unclarity to navigate across.

This blog-post is not about managing in the outskirts of ethical correctness. It is about the excitement about managing without all facts on the table in a world that is hard to predict.

The gray reality origin

The world has become more complex. B2B sales has shifted from selling solution that work to deliver solutions delivering outcomes. Solutions development take place in an iterative way with frequent customer feedback loops. The number of factors shaping the decision are increasing. At the same time the number of decision makers is going up to deal with the increasing complexity.

When we add up all these factors we can conclude decisions are less green and red in nature. A transition from clear decision points to decisions taken in steps. More decisions taken on vaguer grounds. Even if the underlying data is clear the combined picture can be difficult to interpret. And the ability to manage and take decision in this gray world is central for business and sales leaders.

Triggers to move from clear colors into gray territory

The reasons to consider evolving with the demands from your business varies. The following business shifts can push you from clear colors into a world with multiple shades of gray:

  • From product to solution sales
  • From stable markets through market inflection points
  • From waterfall to iterative development
  • From answers to question based leadership
  • From crisp business cases to clear business canvases.
  • From organizational silos to cross functional teams.

Question is king

The most difficult part to deal with is our pride about our knowledge and how we define our knowledge. We tend to believe we know more when we have more answers. And answers that are clear. But the new reality is more and more shaped by the old saying “When everything is clear the window of opportunity is gone”.

Our knowledge value is shifting from knowing the best answers to knowing the best questions. Questions that are relevant for our clients as well as our own business. Questions that are relevant in different stages of an engagement. Questions allowing us to prioritize agile development. And last but not least questions for the feedback loop to secure we adapt to micro shifts in market and customer directions.

Don’t expect clients to have all answers. Don’t wait until answers are clear. Start with questions and expect an iterative journey.

How to track progress as you move between shades

It is harder to see progress when you move between gray shades. An art critical to develop as a core skill.

Group questions in related logical buckets. The buckets might not be clear from start but should be visible after your first projects. Once answers in a bucket of questions are clear you can tick of that bucket.

Map buckets in a client decision journey. Projects in gray territory is about building insights and clarity for both you and your client. By the end of the day your task is to bring your client through a gray zone to a points where they can take interim steps towards final decision.

The first project/s for a new opportunity is extra gray in nature. For coming projects it is important to extract knowledge from the first project. To reduce replication costs and secure continues progress rather than re-starts.

Questions for you and your team

  1. What is driving the need to operate and manage in shades of gray – aspire to understand which of the root causes that is central for your team.
  2. Is the transition from colorful to gray permanent or temporary – the more permanent the more you need ways of working for a gray reality.
  3. Who is best in our team at managing uncertainty – perhaps the most valuable mentor for the rest of the team.
  4. Which questions are important for the task at hand – good questions is a starting point.
  5. How do we best track progress in a gray world – traffic lights don’t fit iterative progress in dynamic environments.

Additional reading suggestions

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