Selling Complexity & Narrative-based Projects

September 26, 2007

Over the years I (Sonja) have been part of many sales pitches, both successful and unsuccessful. In this post I want to share a couple of thoughts on some of the do’s and don’ts of selling projects of this nature. I would also be really interested to hear from you and want to encourage you to share some of your own learnings by commenting on this entry.

One of the key learnings I’ve taken from the unsuccesful pitches I’ve been a part of is not to try to sell the approach or methodology. Often when people are introduced to a new and exciting concept like Cognitive Edge, their first inclination is to evangelise as many people as possible and try to sell it into the business (or to a client) as soon as they can. I fell into this trap myself – after hearing Dave for the first time, I tried to put a ‘complexity’ spin onto everything – desperate to sell my first project. Problem was, I haven’t had time to really get to grips with the thinking and make it my own, so I was using Dave’s terminology (that I didn’t quite understand myself), hoping that no-one would ask me to explain ‘epistemology’ in detail! This approach mostly met with blank stares and no sales!

Since then I’ve learned to find a specific business need (preferably a burning platform) and place the emphasis on that. Most of the people that we are selling to don’t really care about the underlying philosophy of the approach, they just want to know that it’ll solve their problem. I’ve had even more success in cases where they’d already tried several other approaches with limited success!

In cases where I had to discuss the fundamentals of Complexity and Narrative, I’ve made sure to use my own examples and language that resonates with executives. In fact, one of my biggest challenges have been to ‘translate’ these complex ideas into a format that is familiar enough for them to buy into it, while still retaining a sense of novelty.

I also make sure that I take a printed set of archetypes with me to every meeting, as I’ve found that the cartoons are great tools to use to facilitate dialogue – especially if the discussion is around culture. I’ve found that archetype cartoons always seem to resonate, even if they emerged from an organisation in a completely different industry.

We’ll be hosting a CE network event on the 2nd of October in Johannesburg to discuss this in more depth and share some ideas with other pratitioners. If you’re based in SA, feel free to join us! You can send me an email on if you’re interested.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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