October 2020 – Andrew Bird
The team let out a collective sigh. We’d been searching through industry reports and market trends for days. This important data was meant to be central to our business strategy. We’d been doing all sorts of internal pow-wows with exec and management teams. But to be honest, these were turning out to be more of an ego-fest of who was the ‘smartest person in the room’.
Time was ticking. We needed to land on a strategy that we all had conviction behind. The problem was, most of the analysis & data we found was ‘looking through the rear-view mirror’. The socio-economic and market conditions were changing so much, we needed a ‘live’ read on our customers & market. In order to make the right decisions.
We knew our recent customer surveys hadn’t got to the heart of our customer’s actual problems. If we continued down this path, we were playing a guessing game. Or worse, kidding ourselves with a false sense of security. Knowing we hadn’t really got to the heart of what would really make a difference.
Ron Carucci from Harvard reminds us that executives fail to deliver strategy because they’re too internally focused. “Focus is pulled toward internal issues: resolving conflicts, reconciling budgets, and managing performance. Consequently, paying less attention to external strategic issues like customer needs, competitor moves, and technology trends”
The conventional approach to business strategy is typically developed from eyes that are ‘inside looking out’. A group of intelligent people coming up with ideas they think best serve their customers and will keep the organisation heading in the right direction.
An alternative perspective
We realised it wasn’t too late to flip the old-school way of doing strategy on its head. And start the other way around. We paused. And started to put our research, competitive analysis, and internal ideas aside for a moment.
Instead, we started to take an ‘outside looking in’ perspective on our strategy. Putting ourselves in the shoes of our customers & partners.
Beginning with a ‘blank page’ approach, not a prescriptive methodology or framework that promised the silver bullet.
Starting with the ‘people closest to the problem’
We started to get in touch with the people closest to the problems we were trying to solve. Our customers and partners.
We began to see that if our strategy didn’t start from this perspective then it could just be a whole heap of guesswork wrapped up in a glossy document. That didn’t mean a whole lot.
Don’t look for a great idea. Look for a good problem. Inc.
With good intention, we had by default tried to take comfort in telling ourselves that we’d listened. But really, we hadn’t spent the time alongside our customers & partners in their unknowns and ambiguity. To find out together what was actually going to make a difference.
Not just through surveys & voice-of-the-customer feedback. These had been done with good intentions but had missed getting to the heart of the problem. Often, only getting a surface level understanding with the potential of taking us in the wrong direction anyway.
We instead, started to have real conversations.
Not with specific agendas, glossy slides, or lists of structured questions like we had in the past.
But rather, simply listening to what our customers were seeing, hearing, thinking & feeling. Through human-centred design principles, we began immersing ourselves in their ambiguity & unknowns.
“For costs, the company makes the decisions. But for revenue, customers are in charge” R. Martin – Harvard
Uncovering blind spots
We started to actually listen to what our customers, partners, and related industry players were saying. There might not have been the glaring answers upfront. In fact, like most, they didn’t really know what they needed.
But when we started to put ‘what we thought’ was happening and our biases aside, our collective blind spots began to dissolve.
Bailey Richardson in Harvard “Turn Your Customers into Your Community” – the likes of Lego & TEDx were able to build, with real feedback from their community. They were willing to trust their customers.
What happened then?
Things started to appear that we’d never seen before. Real-life ‘jobs to be done’ and insights we’d never noticed in the past. We might not have had the answers right then & there. But the foundations for a strategy that was actually going to solve real-world customer problems began to emerge. It wasn’t just based on historical data or what we ‘thought’ was right.
The bonus with this approach is that our customers & partners started to know they had been listened to. We were building a community.
Once we started to get this understanding of the problems that would have the most impact when solved, we could start to flesh out our strategy. Having conviction behind it as a team.
Human-centred design principles haven’t typically been applied to core business strategy.
Although, now that’s changing.
For real-life examples where we have applied this approach with significant outcomes or to learn more, get in contact here.