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I just finished a presentation for the leadership team of a European travel company that wanted to better understand the barriers they would face on their journey to true customer-centricity. And what they could do about it.
It was a good excuse to give a 2022 update to some of my older thinking on the topic. And while I can’t really share the presentation, I’m including as summary of the Top 3 barriers below. In case you find them of interest.
BARRIER #1: Lack of Clarity
Everyone wants to be customer centric, but no one explains what that means in practice. Not just to agree on what a great customer experience looks like. But also to think through its implications for the business.
What changes does Aïsha need to plan in her logistics department? What return can shareholders expect for investing in ‘happy faces’? What new developments do distributors and ecosystem partners need to plan for? And are any of these implications realistic within available timelines and budgets?
Without this clarity, everyone will interpret ‘being customer-centric’ in its own way, so initiatives will go in a thousand directions. Or simply grind to a halt because of an operational or financial disconnect.
Either way, with the best of intentions, the only certainty is that customers will have a variable experience depending on the touchpoint, person or time of day.
Overcoming the Barrier: Clearly describe your customer experience. What are you promising? How will you make it happen? And what does it mean for each of your internal and external stakeholders? And before you hit the ‘start’ button, check whether all of your ideas are realistic.
BARRIER #2: Lack of Empathy
Whenever a leadership team embraces customer-centricity, the buzzwords and targets start flying around. Metrics like Net Promoter, customer ease or new kid on the block TLM appear in PowerPoint decks and we focus everything on driving the numbers.
But as management teams get excited, those around them care a lot less. Employees prefer meaningful work and decent salaries over KPIs. Shareholders may not see why they should sacrifice short-term profit for customer smiles. Distribution and ecosystem partners have got their hands full in running their own business.
The result is that strategies are implemented because you say so as a leader. This compliance often works in the short-term. But it disintegrates when processes, negotiations, and culture get in the way. Or when the next budget cut or senior executive comes around.
Overcoming the Barrier: Anchor your customer-centricity drive in the culture by reframing it into what matters to your different stakeholders. Connect the customer experience to the values and culture of those who work for you. Show your shareholders how smiles and money go hand in hand. Engage your ecosystem to create a common vision, instead of imposing yours. Make the strategy theirs, instead of yours.
BARRIER #3: Lack of Vision
Customer teams focus most, if not all, of their attention on improving the customer’s experience based on feedback and competitive benchmarks. Rightly so. Dropping the ball on a touchpoint or moment may cost dearly in both loyalty and revenue.
But too much focus on ‘continuous improvement’ can blind us to the experience that ‘should exist’ tomorrow. In today’s economy, the last best experience the customers had anywhere, become their expectation everywhere. It’s just that they can’t tell what it is before they’ve had it. At which point, we’re too late.
Unfair? Totally. But also reality.
Overcoming the Barrier: Keep improving today, but allocate at least 20% of your time to imagining the customer’s future that ‘should exist’. Look at life through the eyes of your customer and prototype experiences they cannot imagine today. Be the one who raises the expectation bar, so it forces others to follow.
I’m not saying these are the only barriers. But if you tackle them, you’ve probably avoided some of the biggest pitfalls to customer-centricity out there.
May the customer force be with you!
Image credit: Pixabay
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You may know that I’m hunting for a Transformation Algorithm
Its goal is to help us move beyond the >70% failure rate of corporate transformations and create transformative experiences for employees, customers and society. Ambitious? Moi?
To get there, I’m walking around the problem.
Looking at it from all perspectives (Japan style). So without claiming expertise in any domain, I’m blending systems thinking with neuroscience, behavioral psychology, philosophy and my background in experience design. There’s even a little math (I couldn’t resist .
It’s a work in progress, but I’m getting there.
Meanwhile, here are some more thoughts as I put together the puzzle. The article starts a bit gloomy, but it ends more upbeat… I promise.
It’s all work in progress in which I’m still improving both language and content.
So don’t hold back on comments, compliments or corrections.
These days, every company wants to see a ‘mindset change’.
People need to be customer-centric. Digital. Agile. Sustainable. Innovative. More in love with the color blue. After all, the consultants, executive trainers and software vendors say this is the future. Not to mention Mark’s metaverse:
To make this happen, organizations unleash a barrage of initiatives
They do enthusiastic presentations. Introduce new KPIs and dashboards. Launch internal communication programs and training academies. Create new journey maps. Introduce AI. Get some fancy software.
Some even call me (obviously the smartest ones ).
At first, the signs are good.
After all, with enough pressure, you can get water to go uphill. Also, any decent third-party consultant or vendor will make sure that employees leave those workshops with a smile and some quick wins. Especially those that show progress in pretty graphs and numbers.
But then – one by one – the ‘old ways’ assert themselves
They raise dozens of practical, budgetary, emotional and IT concerns which are all valid and require the change program to be calibrated. After all, leaders need to be pragmatic. These thousand slight cuts erode the big transformative vision and expectations get lowered. Things might even become as they were.
What if we were aiming at the wrong target?
If you look up mindset in a dictionary, you find it is a mental attitude or inclination. The combined set of assumptions, methods and notions with which each of us approaches problems and the world at large (our perspective). Something rooted in the way we view the world and our perception of reality (our paradigm).
This means that every mindset change is in fact a change in perspective or paradigm.
Let me illustrate with a consumer electronics company that wanted to go from product- to customer-centric value propositions. Digging deep, we found that from the engineer’s perspective, the requested mindset change meant letting go of their long held belief that as the world’s best technical experts they knew how to make the best products on the planet (and had the awards and accolades to prove it).
Instead, they had to embrace that the customer knew better what great looked like and their opinion didn’t matter as much as they thought.
If you’ve worked all your life to become that smart and esteemed technical expert, this is an existential pill to swallow. Especially if the only rationale from the top is that “our Net Promoter Score should improve”.
These shifts in perspective lurk in any transformation
Being agile means seeing that we live in a chaotic world where we can never really be sure of our best next step. True sustainability means accepting that there are limits to growth, also ours. Going digital means letting go of activities we have long considered to be uniquely human (ours?). Innovation requires unlearning the orthodoxies and beliefs we may have held since childhood. And so on.
For some people, these steps may be easy. But for most, they can challenge the core of who they are (even if they may not admit this to themselves).
Ignoring this deeper reality can doom your transformation from the start.
If the new KPIs, processes, systems and incentives you introduce do not match the worldview of the people you target, they will reject them. Sometimes they rebel. Sometimes they stand in the way without realizing it themselves. Either way, your culture will eat your strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So what to do instead?
If you want mindset change, focus on the paradigm shift first.
Before you expect people to approach problems differently (mindset), work on the way they perceive these problems and their context. Clearly describe the required paradigm shift in a FROM… TO… statement and make it as compelling as possible. All while acknowledging the uncomfortable bits head on.
Then, give people opportunities to embrace this new narrative through experiential programs (remember: the old brain doesn’t do PowerPoint).
Once they see the world with fresh eyes, the mindset and changes will follow.
Or as my ultimate change guru Antoine de Saint-Exupéry used to say: “if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
But always remember that your perception as a leader is flawed too.
When you say: ‘I want a mindset change’, you are actually saying: ‘I want you to see the world as I do’.
This is often a big ask, as chances are you live in a world that is more affluent, more educated and more informed (I won’t mention diversity … oops, I did). You probably have a different education, live in a different social media bubble and even shop in different stores. You may even have the freedom to make your own decisions.
Seeing life your way, may not be as easy for someone who has grown up, works and lives in a different context (no value judgment here, just observation).
Inversely, unless you’ve done their jobs and lived their lives, you will have difficulties to imagine the world through the eyes of your people. No matter how you try.
So before you talk about mindset change.
Understand and start from your people’s perspective and then expand it in the direction you propose. And if the gap between the two is too big, consider adapting your strategy.
Perhaps your world view and sense of possibility need an update too.
Image Credits: Pixabay
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It is not too often that the leader of a Fortune 500 gives you an insight into how their company achieves competitive advantage in the marketplace in a letter to shareholders, instead of launching into a page or two of flowery prose written by the Public Relations (PR) team that works for them. The former is what Jeff Bezos tends to deliver year after year. This year’s letter is particularly interesting.
The two key insights in this year’s letter were that:
#1 – Amazon strives to view itself as a startup champion riding to the rescue of customers
#2 – Amazon chooses to be customer-obsessed, not customer-focused or customer-centric, but customer-obsessed
Both of these are crucial to sustaining innovation, and are supported by Jeff’s other main pieces of advice:
– Resisting proxies
– Embracing external trends
– Practicing high velocity decision making
But, I won’t steal Jeff’s thunder. I encourage you to read Jeff’s letter to shareholders in its entirety, check out the bonus video interview at the end, and add comments to share what you find particularly interesting in the letter.
—————————————————————- 2016 Letter to Amazon Shareholders
April 12, 2017
“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?”
That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.
“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.
I’m interested in the question, how do you fend off Day 2? What are the techniques and tactics? How do you keep the vitality of Day 1, even inside a large organization?
Such a question can’t have a simple answer. There will be many elements, multiple paths, and many traps. I don’t know the whole answer, but I may know bits of it. Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.
True Customer Obsession
There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.
Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.
Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight. A customer-obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.
As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.
A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.
Another example: market research and customer surveys can become proxies for customers – something that’s especially dangerous when you’re inventing and designing products. “Fifty-five percent of beta testers report being satisfied with this feature. That is up from 47% in the first survey.” That’s hard to interpret and could unintentionally mislead.
Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.
I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.
Embrace External Trends
The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.
These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace. We’re in the middle of an obvious one right now: machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Over the past decades computers have broadly automated tasks that programmers could describe with clear rules and algorithms. Modern machine learning techniques now allow us to do the same for tasks where describing the precise rules is much harder.
At Amazon, we’ve been engaged in the practical application of machine learning for many years now. Some of this work is highly visible: our autonomous Prime Air delivery drones; the Amazon Go convenience store that uses machine vision to eliminate checkout lines; and Alexa, our cloud-based AI assistant. (We still struggle to keep Echo in stock, despite our best efforts. A high-quality problem, but a problem. We’re working on it.)
But much of what we do with machine learning happens beneath the surface. Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and much more. Though less visible, much of the impact of machine learning will be of this type – quietly but meaningfully improving core operations.
Inside AWS, we’re excited to lower the costs and barriers to machine learning and AI so organizations of all sizes can take advantage of these advanced techniques.
Using our pre-packaged versions of popular deep learning frameworks running on P2 compute instances (optimized for this workload), customers are already developing powerful systems ranging everywhere from early disease detection to increasing crop yields. And we’ve also made Amazon’s higher level services available in a convenient form. Amazon Lex (what’s inside Alexa), Amazon Polly, and Amazon Rekognition remove the heavy lifting from natural language understanding, speech generation, and image analysis. They can be accessed with simple API calls – no machine learning expertise required. Watch this space. Much more to come.
High-Velocity Decision Making
Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations. The senior team at Amazon is determined to keep our decision-making velocity high. Speed matters in business – plus a high-velocity decision making environment is more fun too. We don’t know all the answers, but here are some thoughts.
First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong? I wrote about this in more detail in last year’s letter.
Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.
Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.
This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.
Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!
Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.
I’ve seen many examples of sincere misalignment at Amazon over the years. When we decided to invite third party sellers to compete directly against us on our own product detail pages – that was a big one. Many smart, well-intentioned Amazonians were simply not at all aligned with the direction. The big decision set up hundreds of smaller decisions, many of which needed to be escalated to the senior team.
“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.
So, have you settled only for decision quality, or are you mindful of decision velocity too? Are the world’s trends tailwinds for you? Are you falling prey to proxies, or do they serve you? And most important of all, are you delighting customers? We can have the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. But we have to choose it.
A huge thank you to each and every customer for allowing us to serve you, to our shareowners for your support, and to Amazonians everywhere for your hard work, your ingenuity, and your passion.
As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. It remains Day 1.
If you’d like dive deeper into the mind of Jeff Bezos, then check out this interview with him conducted by Walt Mossberg of The Verge last year at Code Conference 2016:
And here is another fascinating peek inside the mind of Jeff Bezos from 1997:
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