Why Every 21st Century Sales Leader Needs to Be a Creative Problem Solver

Guest post from Mark Donnolo:

In my new book Quotas! Design Thinking to Solve Your
Biggest Sales Challenge
, I recount an auspicious meeting I had many
years ago with Steff Geissbuhler, a partner at a prestigious New York City design
firm. I was in art school at the time, studying graphic design and branding.
Thanks to a couple recommendations from professors, I landed an interview with
Steff for an internship with the firm. As he reviewed my portfolio, I expected
him to ask how I got the ideas for my logo and design assignments. Instead, as
he flipped through the pages, he asked me one question, over and over: “What
was the problem you were trying to solve?”
It took me a
while to fully appreciate Steff’s question. Design isn’t about creating
something that looks great; it’s about solving problems. The same thinking
applies to solving sales problems. Practitioners use a time-honored methodology
called design thinking, a five-step, iterative process that starts with
empathizing with those who are facing the problem, then defining the problem,
brainstorming, and building and testing a prototype—all the while going back
and forth with stakeholders, fine-tuning to get the solution right.
In my work with
SalesGlobe I’ve developed Sales Design ThinkingSM   to
help sales leaders solve problems around any sales or business challenge, like
sales strategy, organization design, sales capacity, sales compensation, change
management, and of course quota setting. It’s less ethereal than design
thinking and more practical for the business environment.  
Beyond solving
strategic business or sales problems, how can we build our creative
problem-solving capabilities to become more competitive in our careers and
industries?  Recently, in a nationwide
survey of educators and policymakers, Adobe found that three quarters of the
respondents believe that students need to develop creative problem-solving
skills for their future careers. Almost 90 percent said that students who excel
at creative problem solving will have higher-earning job opportunities, and 85
percent agreed that these skills are in high demand for today’s higher-paying
careers. As I’m fond of saying, “You can’t offshore, automate, or AI
Yet the
respondents overwhelmingly agreed that this critical skill is either ignored or
under-taught in schools.
That’s why I’m
on a mission to share this skillset with sales executives.
Sales Design Thinking
has five phases: Articulating the Problem Statement; Redefining the Challenge
Question; Thinking Horizontally and Combining Parallels; Developing Vertically;
and Managing Change.
Let’s take a
hypothetical situation – communicating about organization changes after an
event such as a merger or acquisition – and put that through the Sales Design
Thinking process.
1. Articulate
the Problem Statement
Typically, it goes something like, “We need to communicate the new organization
structure following the merger because the team is confused – and we’re afraid
they’ll miss their number.” But if you try to solve for that problem statement,
you may miss the underlying issues. So, step one is to check yourself. Are you
asking right question?

2. Redefine
the Challenge Question
After thinking it through and discussing it, you’re likely to turn your problem
statement into a Challenge Question. A Challenge Question is more powerful
because it comes from expanded thinking, but also because it is a question. And
questions provoke thinking and ideas more than statements, which tend to be
static. For something as important as organization changes following a merger,
a communications strategy has to be designed thoughtfully. Ultimately, your Challenge
Question could end up closer to: “How can we best use all available
communication channels to deliver a campaign to each audience about the changes
that will affect them across the organization?” The Challenge Question focuses
on more components than a problem statement and gives us a better starting
point based on the real problems or root causes. In redefining the Challenge Question,
a lot goes into discovery, including understanding the story of how we got
where we are and creating a solution vision about what great looks like. If you
think you understand the whole story, the news is that you probably do… but
only from your perspective. This is where gathering insight from the team, the
organization, and from analytics comes in.

3. Think
Horizontally and Combine Parallels
In other words, brainstorm each part of the Challenge Question and start
expanding your thinking. The best brainstorming comes in the form of questions
that evoke further thinking. Who are the audiences? What are the key messages?
How do people understand and process messages? What are the options for
communications vehicles? How do they align to each audience? What’s required
for someone to understand a message in terms of vehicle and repetition? What is
necessary for someone to believe a message? For each question and each answer,
look at how you might combine them into possible solutions.

4. Develop
Now you can
begin to narrow down the universe of possibilities, solving for the challenge question
and factoring in degree of change, and ease and cost of implementation. If the
organization has sales teams on three continents, for example, it’s unfeasible
to discuss the changes with everyone in the same room. But asking each sales
executive to reach out to sales managers over the company’s instant messaging
platform could be a highly effective way to make the message stick. Perhaps
having them conduct follow-up workshops in person may reinforce those messages.
Your challenge in developing vertically is to narrow down and simplify the
abundance of ideas you created in horizontal thinking.

5. Manage
. Change
management requires a structured approach with frequent reinforcement. Messaging
isn’t a one-off; it’s an ongoing process that requires management – and may
also require tweaks and shifts as you roll it out.
Sales leaders
face weighty challenges from strategy to execution to change management that
have a direct impact on business results. You’ll find that if you pause, think,
and practice the five steps of Sales Design Thinking, you’ll start seeing new
ways to solve the real problem.
Mark Donnolo is founder and Managing Partner
of SalesGlobe,
a leading sales effectiveness, consulting, and innovation firm. For over 25
years, Mark has worked with Global 1000 organizations on strategies to grow profitably
by developing and implementing strategies that improve the effectiveness of
sales, marketing, and service organizations. Areas of focus include sales
strategy, customer segmentation, channel strategy, sales organization design
and deployment, performance management, and incentive compensation. Mark is the
author of numerous books and articles. His newest book is Quotas!
Using Design Thinking to Solve Your Biggest Challenge
(ATD Press). Mark’s
earlier books on sales effectiveness include: Essential Account Planning; What Your CEO Needs to Know About
Sales Compensation
; and The
Innovative Sale
. Access complimentary resources and subscribe to Insights at SalesGlobe.com.