Selling SenseMaker to the Mulla Nasrudin

January 26, 2011

Feeling slightly sheepish today – two discussions yesterday with people about the potential of SenseMaker. One great conversation that lead into discussing multiple uses of a single implementation across different organisations, with some really interesting knock-ons. And one in which I singularly failed to get across much of anything of value. Sadly, the one with the potential client was the latter.

Different people take different approaches in talking about SenseMaker, I’ve noted. And different prospective clients can need different approaches. I’ve developed a general intuitive sense for what works – usually off the back of a conversation to start that helps me understand what people are doing/managing as part of their general work. Clearly yesterday that didn’t happen. (Having passed 45, I suspect I’m experiencing brain play-doh-icitiy.)

I tend to liken SenseMaker to the old Mulla Nasrudin story:

A man was walking home through the village one night, when he came upon the Mulla on his hands and knees searching the ground.

“Are you alright there, Mulla?” he asked.

“I’m just looking for my keys,” came the reply.

“I’m in no hurry, I’ll help.” And with that he joined the Mulla scouting the ground for the keys.

After 10 minutes without any sign, he turned to the Mulla. “Are you sure this is where you dropped them?”

“Oh no – I dropped them at home. But there’s more light here.”

In conversation with Michael Cheveldave last year, we were talking about what a great story that is – and how SenseMaker plays into it.

Many of the projects we’re talking to people about are on things they’re already researching – but in ways that aren’t necessarily effective. The methodology (questionnaires, focus groups) might be slanted. The research design might be too much in favour of a particular hypothesis. But it’s the only way they know how.

“There’s more light here.”

As Michael said, “But with SenseMaker we can floodlight the whole place.” Which is true. And – as we both recognised – would terrify lots of people. A floodlight leaves no room to hide – and can illuminate lots of things that we don’t want to have to deal with yet. Right now, some of the conversations we have focus on “find the keys” – opening up other possibilities at that point may end the conversation.

Alternatively, there are those who operate at a far higher level – particularly strategists and senior policymakers. For them, the lost keys are merely symptomatic of an underlying issue. A conversation then about the potential electrification of the village can ensue – straying even into using electricity for things other than lighting… These are the conversations I love best – but it doesn’t mean I can turn every conversation into one of these.

And then, of course, there are those who like to take the scientific approach – let’s take it to the excitation of atoms to produce photons. The excitation is derived from the movement of electrons…and so on.

There’s no single way to talk or pitch a project – other than that to tune in to the person on the other side of the conversation and adjust accordingly. That can be difficult, particularly when we’ve got visions of what SenseMaker should be doing – ideas that we’ve just discovered for ourselves, so are determined to bring others into.

The trick is to carry that enthusiasm for what we’ve thought of, but apply to what the other person is ready to hear. To push the edges of that, but recognise when we’ve crossed a boundary they are unwilling to cross yet.

Before now, I’ve managed to get someone energised and kept going – talked to them about other elements to build in. And before I knew it, I’d come out the other side of a successful conversation into one that had failed.

Sometimes it’s better to start with a torch that can help just find their keys…

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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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