Over the last decade or so, lean and agile principles and practices have become increasingly popular and prevalent in many aspects of business. Whole communities of people have begun to embrace lean and agile, industries focusing on lean and agile have sprung up, and many organisations have bet their futures on “transforming” to lean and agile ways of working.
So what has this got to do with the business of sales and selling? I believe there are many good concepts in lean and agile, and that sales and salespeople can benefit from embracing at least some of them.
But first a little bit of history to set some context.
“Lean” thinking began way back in the 1950’s, and its industrial use was led by Toyota with the Toyota Production System. The aim was to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of production plants by (among other things) managing the flow of value through the system, removing waste (e.g. unnecessary time, effort, steps) from the workflow, and seeking to continuously improve the process.
In more recent years Lean has been increasingly adopted by knowledge workers: IT operations people, product designers, engineers, and yes, even HR and marketing teams. A lean practice known as “Kanban” (use of workflow visualisation boards) has become very popular in these areas and is a key enabler for optimising the flow of work to deliver value. Respect for people is a core concept at the heart of lean thinking.
“Agile” has its roots in IT in the 1990’s, and became a movement in the world of software development in 2001 with the publication of the Agile Manifesto. This manifesto advocated (among other things) the importance of team collaboration, the frequent delivery of value, the ability to respond flexibly to change versus following rigid plans, and the importance of regular reflection on the team’s way of working. Like Lean, Agile also encouraged a visual approach to planning and tracking work.
In recent years, agile has broken out of the IT space where it started, into other areas of business, and the concept of “business agility” is now synonymous with a healthy, robust organisation and business culture.
In the rest of this article I will explore some of these Lean and Agile concepts with reference to sales and selling: visualisation of work; team collaboration; iterative working; responding to change; elimination of waste; continuous improvement; and respect for people.
Visualising your work has obvious benefits – as human beings we are programmed to process information visually. In sales, our “work”, and the value we deliver, is our pipeline of sales opportunities that we endeavor to get over the line to deliver value to our customers and to our business.
Nowadays it is not uncommon to see an opportunity pipeline visualised on a Kanban board, where the columns (or lanes) represent the stages of the sales cycle. But we can also use Kanban to visualise our customer account status and health, our territory, account and opportunity plans, and to perform detailed assessment of the different aspects of our opportunities.
Visualisation helps to surface problems earlier, giving us a more accurate understanding of an opportunity’s status. The more we visualise, the more effectively we can communicate, resulting in stronger qualification, better planning, and more accurate forecasting.
I’ve always believed that selling is a team sport, and collaboration between the various functions and customer facing roles is essential to sustained success. The agile movement places a lot of value on cross-functional teams, who ideally are “self-organising” – in other words, they own their way of working, and are trusted to make good decisions about how they work together to achieve the desired outcomes (or targets). By definition then, imposing processes and practices on the team from above, or being too prescriptive about their way of working, can be at best counter-productive and at worst demotivating.
Adopting this approach within a sales organisation means building teams including field sales, inside sales, business development, solution engineers (“pre-sales”), customer success, and even marketing and professional services people. Management must allow the team to own its way of working, albeit within certain rules of governance to ensure the team can function as a part of the wider organisation. The team shares a common territory and target, and ideally the team members are rewarded for team performance rather than individual performance. I have had personal experience of working within, and leading such a team, and it can be game changing – what you can achieve with the level of collaboration, empowerment and motivation that derives from a positive team culture vastly outweighs what you can achieve working independently – and everyone gets to share in the rewards that come with the team’s success.
Clearly, adopting a sales process that recognises the importance of the team, provides a means to assess the maturity of the team, and encourages regular retrospection and continuous improvement of the team’s way of working, will be a big help.
Lean and agile thinking embodies the concept of working in short iterations (sometimes called sprints or timeboxes), with frequent and regular delivery of value, and short, tight feedback loops to provide opportunities for improvements to the process, recalibration of priorities and refinements to plans. Having a long-term planning horizon, perhaps many months away, is OK, but this is usually in the form of a vision or roadmap, and is not expected to contain great detail.
In sales, the delivery of value equates to closing the deal, and we can’t always do that in a short timebox. Sales opportunity cycles can sometimes be short (if we’re lucky!) but very often they can be complex and drawn out over many months. Indeed, the larger the opportunity, often the longer the sales cycle. In this case we need to take a longer view, or consider the “bigger picture”, rather than simply focusing on monthly closing. However, we also need to ensure that we are making progress and taking the necessary steps that will advance our larger opportunities towards ultimate closure further down the line.
Iterative planning (whether weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly) helps, provided we have clear and measurable objectives, or outcomes, that we are working towards, and that can be completed within the short timeframe of a single iteration. Our plans are then detailed and actionable in the short term (the next iteration), but can be increasingly less detailed as we look further out. Plans evolve and mature over time as we build stronger relationships with, and gather deeper intelligence from, our prospective customers. A good agile sales process will support iterative planning, focus on measurable outcomes, and enable regular re-prioritisation of objectives.
Responding to Change
One of the four core value statements of the Agile Manifesto is “Responding to Change over Following a Plan”. Immediately I hear cries of outrage from seasoned salespeople and sales managers: “How can you succeed without having a plan”? “No plan equals chaos, stumbling from one meeting to the next!”. In the Agile Manifesto’s defence, it’s not saying that plans should be abandoned, just that there are better ways of thinking about planning.
The problem with most approaches to sales planning is that they are based on sales processes which are completely linear, consisting of a series of steps that are to be followed in strict sequence. But the real world doesn’t work like that – it’s messy. Events happen which are outside of our control. (Do you ever really control your prospective customer or your competition? Did your customer ever change their mind about anything?). Inevitably, trying to follow such a linear process will result in situations where the reality of where we are and what we need to do next, simply cannot be accurately modeled or reflected. We need greater agility in the way that we act, in the way that we progress the sales cycle, and in the process we use to help manage all of that activity.
An agile process, built on an iterative planning cycle, gives you that flexibility. It allows you to adopt only as much process as you need to solve the challenges presented by any given opportunity. It allows you to track the progress of that opportunity without having to force fit its current status into one of a number of distinct stages. It allows you to plan based on where you are, and what you, your team, and your customer agree are valuable next steps, rather than what the process says you should do next. An agile sales process provides rigour without rigidity, and empowers the team to own and improve their way of working, not constrain it.
Elimination of Waste
Lean thinking defines waste in a number of different ways, and I won’t go into all the detail here. Suffice to say that waste is anything that is not value-adding: this could be in the form of activities, artefacts, deliverables, wait times, process steps, under-utilisation, context switching – the list goes on.
Perhaps the most obvious form of waste in sales, is working on opportunities that we never close. The answer then is simple – qualify out early! We therefore need to understand what qualifying out and qualifying in really mean, and have clear definitions for both. We also need to qualify continuously, because events happen, situations change, we learn more about our opportunities and our customers, so we need to know when it’s time to let go and move on. Our sales process should provide clear definitions for qualification and support continuous qualification throughout the sales cycle.
Another form of waste is often found in the sales process itself. While sales processes are generally good things to have, many require following a strict sequence of activities, and prescribe tasks and steps which may or may not be value-adding for any given opportunity. All sales opportunities are not equal, and the sales team should decide which activities are necessary and which are not. The process needs to be flexible to allow the team to tailor it to the current situation, and focus on performing only those activities which add value, when and where it makes sense to do so.
Sales reporting and forecasting is another common form of waste. How many sales organisations spend fortunes on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, only to have their sales people create weekly reports (usually in spreadsheets) to inform their management the state of their pipeline and what they expect to close this month? In my experience it’s all of them. Why? Because sales leadership doesn’t trust the data in the CRM system. Why? Because too often, maintaining accurate records in the CRM system is simply another non-value-adding activity, that doesn’t help the sales person at all – more waste. As sales people, we need ways of planning, tracking, and recording our sales opportunities that is a natural part of the way we work; we need “information radiators” that provide real-time, instant access to the state of the pipeline and individual opportunities.
Let’s touch briefly upon all those artefacts that we are usually required to deliver at the start of the sales year or quarter: territory plans, account plans, opportunity plans etc. Do we really need the 30 slide PowerPoint deck to describe our Territory Plan? Will anyone ever really read it? Is any of the information in it actionable? Let’s endeavor to keep our plans light, actionable and iterative. This means less waste, greater agility, and better results.
Finally, a brief mention of under-utilisation and context switching. The former often occurs when sales people working as individuals have imbalanced territories: one person is struggling to find good quality opportunities, while a colleague is overwhelmed – a team based approach will help balance the workload and eliminate this form of waste. Context switching can also be reduced by a team approach, with different roles within the team focused on different types of opportunity (tactical versus strategic, new logo versus renewal etc.).
Over my career in sales I have noticed one thing very clearly: targets seldom get smaller each year. This means that no matter how effective we may already be, sustained success means we must always be looking for better ways of working. Whether that means finding more and better opportunities, qualifying them more rigorously, progressing them faster, or closing them bigger and more efficiently. We also need to get better at building and maintaining our customer relationships, and staying up to date with the accelerating pace of change in our industry. If we don’t, you can be sure the competition will.
With Lean and Agile ways of working, regular reflection on the way of working is built into the process, typically at the end of an iterative planning cycle, or at the completion of a significant delivery. A lean-agile sales process should remind and encourage sales teams to do just this, at every iteration, and at the conclusion of every opportunity – whether we won or lost.
In agile language this regular reflection is known as conducting a retrospective, and focuses on three simple questions: (as a team) what did we do well; what did we not do well; and what should we improve? Improvement objectives then become actionable items of work that can be prioritised for the next iteration or opportunity cycle. Some practitioners of Lean encourage continuous improvement by setting each team a simple objective: find and implement one process improvement every month (or planning cycle).
Of course, in order to continuously improve, it is essential that we have a flexible, adaptable sales process – a rigid process that is imposed, enforced and mandated will stifle improvement, if not kill it completely. A flexible sales process will allow the sales team to adapt their way of working to a given situation/opportunity, and allow them to decide on the detailed stages and steps that they will take to move the opportunity forwards.
Respect for People
Respect for people is one of the core pillars of the Toyota Way, and a key principle of Lean thinking. But what does it really mean? Applied loosely, we could interpret this as treating people fairly, being open and honest in our interactions with people, be they customers, salespeople, or sales managers. But that goes without saying – who would not want to be respected in that way? Others might see this as “respect among professionals” – when we work within a world of highly qualified and experienced professionals, traditional relationships between manager and worker become less about command and control, and more about provision of leadership and coaching.
Within Lean, respect for people has a somewhat more precise meaning. It recognises that the people best placed to make decisions about how the work gets done, are the people doing the work – the workers own the way of working. They are then empowered to improve their way of working, which improves motivation and satisfaction in their work, and leads to better outcomes. But it also recognises that workers sometimes can be too close to their work to be able to see the real issues, or the root causes of those issues. So the role of the leader is to challenge assumptions, and keep the bigger picture in view. Respect flows both ways in a relationship that benefits everyone, and improves the whole.
As professionals, I truly believe that most sales people want to do their best work: develop good pipelines of business, take good care of customers, provide timely and accurate forecasts, and achieve their targets – all while being great team players. A sales leadership approach based on respect, is one that trusts the team to do the right thing, trusts their forecasts (however good or bad), and provides the leadership, coaching and support to help the team succeed and improve.
In conclusion then, there are many ideas within lean and agile thinking that apply very clearly to sales, and can help sales teams work more effectively, and achieve sustained success. Many of these ideas are complementary and work well together: for example, visualisation is a great enabler for team collaboration, and can help eliminate waste by removing the need for manual forecast updates; a sales process based on iterative working is a great starting point for achieving greater agility and responding to change; iterative working provides the feedback loops essential for continuous improvement; which in turn helps us eliminate waste.
The future of B2B selling is going to look a lot different to how it looks today – the rapid and accelerating advancements in technology will make sure of that. Will salespeople even be needed in the future B2B world? Probably, but I suspect our roles will change dramatically, as we become increasingly disintermediated. Lean and Agile principles and practices may not be a solution to all of that, but they will help us be more effective sales people today, and help us embrace the transformation tomorrow.