Systems thinking as a sales perspective

Systems Thinking is a way of looking at the world where one thinks about interactions and relationships rather than isolated elements. This world view means that Systems Thinking is neither a model nor a methodology1. It’s an approach, or a perspective.

It can be taught. I believe it’s the most effective way of thinking for a solution sales person. Adults and children can learn this view. Ecologists understand it intimately; think of nature’s ecosystems.

Gene Bellinger’s ebook – (update Feb 2013, now is distributed through his wiki) – introducing a systems thinking perspective, explains it quite well. It’s a quick and easy read. Using the iceberg analogy, he says:

While it is the situation that gets our attention there is actually an underlying pattern of behaviour leading up to the current state of things which captured our attention. Below that there is a structure, or network of interactions, which is responsible for the patterns of behaviour. For us to develop more meaningful approaches to dealing with situations we need to understand the situation and all that is actually responsible for that situation.

The intent of developing a systemic perspective, knowing that reality is complex and often perceived as complicated, and that cause and effect are often separated by distance or time or both, is to develop an understanding sufficient to craft a strategy for improving the situation with a level of confidence that there will be a minimum of unintended consequences.

In a recent book, Beyond Performance, Keller and Price of McKinsey talk about how businesses trying to effect change need to consider performance and organisational health. They stress that most important word is ‘and’. This is consistent with a systems view.

For example, it is less effective to exclusively focus on organisational performance such as revenue growth if you do not consider the people who deliver it, how well the organisation learns and other soft factors. They have determined that companies who focus on both performance and health are four times more likely to have successful transformations. It’s quite a remarkable book; plus it’s based on very impressive empirical data.

In solution sales, the systems perspective allows you to more accurately understand a client’s situation, so when you propose a solution it is going to more truly reflect the needs of the client (thus appear more attractive) and the solution will more effectively achieve its purpose once implemented.

Sales training has methods like the ‘pain chain’ or ‘stakeholder mapping’ or needs analysis which are all tasks that benefit from a systemic input. The ‘five whys’ method is similar. Generally these methods identify an issue, propose a solution, verify its impact and quantify the benefits of the change, and most importantly link that problem/solution to another stakeholder’s needs. The process is then repeated from the next stakeholder’s perspective; ideally you get a story which is relevant to an executive who can allocate budget.

One such example used within Cisco is shown:

It’s quite possible you’re a systems thinker but didn’t have the label for it. Alternatively, you may find systems thinking a very natural approach to extend yourself into. I realised I was a systems thinker in about 1995 after reading reading Peter Senge’s famous book Fifth Discipline, which is still worth reading but today I’d read Beyond Performance first.


1. systemswiki, part of System Thinking World on Linkedin.
2. Ecosystem image from NOAA.