Sales Design Thinking: How to Get More Innovative Solutions


Incorporating design thinking into sales challenges is a relatively new concept. Catching fire in the business world, “design thinking” is about empowering even the most traditional thinker to develop new, innovative solutions to business problems using an organized system leveraged from the design process.  Sales teams can benefit from using design thinking to address issues both within the organization and those affecting customers and prospects, too.

However, one of the misconceptions about innovation is the belief that good, creative ideas have to be completely new. They don’t.

In the Sales Design ThinkingSM process we use at SalesGlobe, we call gaining inspiration from other ideas combining parallels. Look to what’s been done in the past or what’s being done currently and use those ideas as a starting point. Beginning with and then looking beyond your immediate environment can be a great source of parallels. Because each step moves progressively further away from your team, company and market, we refer to these steps as “generations.” Here we go.

First Generation: Parallels Within Your Company 

Parallels within your company can be surprisingly diverse, especially if you look to the other divisions, regions, and functions. Often companies have proprietary research that can be leveraged. For example, Tracy Tolbert, executive vice president of global sales at Xerox, benefits from first generation parallels frequently. Xerox has nearly 100 different businesses globally. Tolbert’s sales organization pulls from the variety of experiences and ideas in all of those businesses. “It gives us some advantage as we create solutions for customers, because we have the ability to lean on different organizations and create solutions that may have an element of a prior solution from another business within Xerox. We’re able to come up with some pretty creative solutions.”

Second Generation: Parallels Within Your Industry

Parallels within your industry include what the competition has done or is doing. It’s likely that your competitors have addressed the strategy challenge or customer situation you’re dealing with at some point, too. But remember, don’t replicate their solution. You are looking for parts of their solution that can be combined with other puzzle pieces unique to your organizations to create a new solution.

Third Generation: Parallels in Companies or Industries with Similar Business Models

The third generation of parallels looks at businesses beyond direct competitors, that have a similar way of generating revenue. Imagine a software company that struggled with customer renewals. To solve the problem, it might look for parallels in other contract-based businesses. Those might include telecommunications, insurance companies or even streaming services that depend upon high customer revenue retention. The software firm could examine how these other organization build customer loyalty programs.

Fourth Generation: Parallels in Companies with Dissimilar Business Models

Parallels in companies with dissimilar business models extends the reach one step further.  It forces a sales organization to look at solutions it may never have considered. The same software sales team would now look at companies that need to retain customers, but without a contract. Sources might include airlines, hotels, grocery store chains, publications and even social networks. For example, grocery stores may seem completely unlike software companies on the surface. They may not typically be considered by the sales team. While grocery stores have a considerably different business model, many use loyalty cards that offer discounts to frequent shoppers. By examining the similarities between your business and these, you may find additional parallels that will contribute to your solution.

Fifth Generation: Parallels Outside of Business

By the time you reach the fifth generation of parallels, you’re about as far from home as you can get. Once you’ve looked for similarities within every corner of the business world, it’s time to think beyond business. At this point the software sales team might ask, “What happens outside of business to keep people loyal to something?” Examples may include sports teams that create fan bases, non-profits that rely on sponsorships from loyal donors year after year, even certain aspects of family or cultural allegiance can lend some clues. How do groups stay loyal, decade after decade, to a particular tradition?

At the conclusion of this exercise, you will have a pool full of parallels. These ideas will increase in divergence the further down the process you travel, where both the abundance and the range of ideas created will offer a plethora of components to choose from. Some combinations won’t make sense, but others can turn into real solutions that will benefit your sales team. This is just one of many exercises to employ using Sales Design Thinking that can lead to creative problem solving.


Sales Design Thinking is a comprehensive process for solving your biggest sales challenges.  Thinking “horizontally” and looking for parallel solutions is just one piece.  Mark Donnolo’s newest book, “Quotas! Design Thinking for Solve Your Biggest Sales Challenge”  takes you step-by-step through the Sales Design Thinking process.  If you’re interested in learning more about Design Thinking, sign up for our blog and get your free preview of “Quotas!”


This post was updated 17 June 2019.