This was a task I gave to students on the first day of my graduate course on ”Structuring an International Sales Team”. You might consider this task more appropriate for the level of Kindergarten than for a graduate course. Permit me to disagree. I believe this task fits well in the trend of using gamification to make training more effective.
Having the students draw and present each other’s pictures of an international sales team served two purposes.
- It has proven to be an efficient and effective way for me to get to know the students’ current thinking about the topic.
- It gives them a practical example of the Mental Model level of the Iceberg Model to explain the System Thinking concept the students had just discovered in class.
Here is a short summary of the types of pictures that were presented:
- Almost two thirds of the pictures showed people distributed over the globe or carrying different national flags.
- About one third of the pictures were about some form of an organization or process chart.
- One picture was quite different from the others. It showed a metaphor in the form of a machine producing money.
What could I learn from these pictures? I took them as the students’ current mental models of an international sales team.
- I was not surprised that the majority of the pictures showed an attraction of the students to the term “International”. Students today are traveling widely and are exposed to different cultures. They are fascinated by traveling and discovering new things. However, they might over-rate the international aspect for structuring a sales team. For me the pictures represent “voice of the customer” and I have to address this aspect during the course to not create frustrations.
- I also expected that most of the rest of pictures illustrated an international sales team in the form of an organizational or a process structure. This is telling me that students painting these pictures where actually more on the Structure and Process level of the System Thinking Model rather than on the Mental Model level. This level risks ignoring the root causes which only becoming apparent when going to the Mental Model level.
- The picture of the machine, producing money, is on metaphorical and illustrates well what the purpose of a sales team is to be.
What struck me though, was the absence of the customer in all the pictures presented. One could therefore classify all representations as inside out views.
Before I presented my model to the students, I reminded them that questioning whether a model is right or wrong is a useless discussion. All models are “wrong” as they are an abstraction of reality. However, some models are more useful than others for explaining variances in observed outcomes, behaviors or events.
My picture is of metaphorical nature. It shows a deep valley separating a customer from a supplier. The sales team is represented as a bridge over the valley, allowing the exchange of goods and services against money. The international aspect is also considered as I drew a national frontier at the bottom of the valley.
I consider this model as an outside in view which also illustrates the boundary character of the sales force between the organization providing products and services and the customer organization buying such products and services.
As my model is rather different from those of the students, I had to reach inter-subjectivity about a mental model of an international sales team as the foundation to further discuss the structuring of a sales force which has a likelihood to lead to desirable trends, patterns and events. I am happy to report that we seem to have reached the inter-subjectivity. I could feel this by the students interactions during the rest of the day.
Could this exercise be of significance for leaders of sales forces?
System Thinking postulates that transformational change is only successful if the Mental Model level is addressed.
I hypothesize that the current abysmal and continuously deteriorating performance of sales forces measured by any KPI you wish (tenure of leaders, turnover of employees, quota attainment, win rate of forecast deal etc.), might be due to the frequently observed current modus operandi of sales leaders; trying to eliminate undesired outcomes with knee jerk reactions to events directly by commanding changes to structures, processes and systems (tools). A simple test of this hypothesis would be to ask leaders to draw a picture of their sales force. I postulate that pictures illustrating the Structure Level could be an explanation why we see little to no improvement of performance from these knee jerk reactions.
If you, as a leader, want transformational change which sustainably improves the performance of your salesforce, you have to dig deeper and first get clarity of your Mental Model.
To align the thinking of the members of your sales force, you then could do the exact same exercise with your people as I did with the students. Creating an inter- subjectivity on a Mental Model, helping to understand the root causes for undesired outcomes, will certainly increase change adoption compared to commanding change by tweaking structures, processes and systems.