Descartes Philosophy: Applied to Modern Sales Challenges

By Hope Eyre on Jul 29, 2020

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” -- Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

Last week, we attended our first large-scale virtual conference.

Organized by an industry association client of ours, it was in every way analogous to a sales kick-off meeting. About 8000 attendees registered. At any one time, 1800-1900 people were viewing a main-stage event, attending education sessions, browsing exhibitor booths or virtually networking.

The conference interface was intuitive and easy to navigate. You could go into and out of live sessions as easily as walking into or out of a hotel ballroom – easier, actually. You didn’t disturb anyone by opening a physical door. If you wanted collateral or presentation material, you picked it up and dropped it into your virtual briefcase for later viewing. You could chat with just about everyone.

Who would have thought 4 ½ months ago that an organization could pull this off virtually?

The Dilemma: Uncertainty, Complexity, Doubt

Pre-pandemic, our client didn’t know how they were going to run this event. Would it be in the physical world or the virtual?  If physical, how must they change it to ensure safety? Either forum would be complex to pull off and they had no experience running anything virtually.

What they did have – this was late February or early March – was an enormous amount of uncertainty, conflicting pandemic information, and business owners who were worried about whether they could even get to work to tend perishable inventory they weren’t actually sure they could sell.

Enormous uncertainty and nobody knew anything for sure. What should they do?

We’ve been writing lately about the intersection of philosophy and sales, pulling practical wisdom from pioneering thinkers like Epicurus and Sir Francis Bacon to see what we might offer sellers and leaders who feel as though they’re operating either down the rabbit hole or in The Matrix.

Enter René Descartes

You’ve heard the phrase, “I think therefore I am.” 

The author, philosopher René Descartes, was searching for an answer to the question, “What can I know for certain?” He lived at a moment in human history that looks a lot like this one: enormous uncertainty and conflicting information. One sympathizes.

We like Descartes, though, for a different aspect of his philosophy. Something called The Method of Doubts.

It’s a way of breaking complex problems into small, solvable pieces. “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it,” he wrote, like a 17th-century management consultant.

He had rules, too.

  1. Accept only clear and distinct ideas
  2. Divide problems into their simplest parts
  3. Solve problems by proceeding from the simple to the complex
  4. Recheck your reasoning – are there oversights?

These are comforting guideposts we can return to when our problems are complex, the environment is uncertain and the information conflicting. Notice how rules #1 and #4 are designed to prevent either magical or bandwagon thinking.

Relevance to Modern Sales/Organizational Challenges

This deconstruction approach was what our client had to use when they decided to run a huge virtual event, while starting with so little that they actually knew for certain: Would people attend, would they attract exhibitors, would the technology work, would the presenters manage, would the experience be enough to hold our attention for three consecutive days.

It was.

You have hard decisions to make in the coming months. They will be tethered to complexity, uncertainty and conflicting information. Reflect on these rules for deconstructing complexity, take inspiration from the example of our client’s success, and apply these learnings to the task in front of you. It’ll help.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may like the others in our Sales & Philosophy series:
What Sales Leaders Can Learn from Epicurus
Why Sir Francis Bacon Would Have Loved the Challenger Sale

Three ways to upskill your sales team

Hope Eyre

Written by Hope Eyre

Hope Eyre is a sales effectiveness expert who takes a roll-up-the-sleeves approach to building winning sales organizations. She regularly works side by side with sales teams around account segmentation and planning and has helped numerous complex organizations rethink they way they serve their largest accounts. Hope’s specialties include sales transformation, sales capability development, leadership development/coaching and performance management. If “sticky” could be a word to describe a consultant, it would be a perfect descriptor for Hope, as clients like to keep her around.

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