Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Leadership and the Technology Revolution

It is perhaps bold and exaggerated to claim that the rapid advancement of technology, particularly the Internet and mobile computing, have dramatically changes the way people communicate with one another.  The fundamental nature of communication, as seen in the content of communication, has changed very little in centuries – but it cannot be argued that the speed and frequency of this communication has increased significantly as a result of communication technology.

Meanwhile.  the practices of leadership and organizational management have been slow to change: the freedom of information and communication have posed a threat to the traditional means of coordination (i.e., control) and the notion that anyone can communicate anything to anyone else without express permission, facilitation, or censorship has been horrifying to traditional leaders, who want to prevent people from using this ability, or wish to ignore that the ability exists in hopes it will go away.  It has not, and it is not.

By removing the formal controls, technology has empowered people to speak freely – to communicate directly with one another at their leisure, without protocols and without permission.   In society as well as in organizations, this has broken the silos and enabled people to form large and amorphous networks of their own choosing, doing whatever is most efficient rather than what is permitted.       Most of this has occurred informally – social networking through Facebook and other “social media” services – and its uses have been largely frivolous.   Some of it has reached the political realm, much to the chagrin of totalitarian leaders who used information access to control their people.   Some of it has reached the commercial real, where autocratic managers controlled their workers by much the same means.

Admittedly, the instances in which free communication among people have toppled long-standing institutions are rare – but likely far less rare than imagine: when a small and nimble company has stolen the market from a traditional corporate giant, it is often due to the benefits it has gained from a more open structure and communication.  As such the nature of the revolution remains concealed: one company has toppled another (never mind what enabled them to do so).

Regarding technology itself, it is often relegated to a specific department and ignored by the rest of the organization.  Very often the IT department is a staff agency with no strategic authority, and is left to provide technical solutions to the demands of other departments in a firm – and these other departments are merely looking for more efficient and effective ways of going about business as usual, rather than considering that the capabilities of technology enable them to do business in new ways that are significantly different and superior to those of the past.

Of particular importance is the democratizing power of technology – to put the power of information into the hands of the workers, and to circumvent leadership control.   This undermines the hierarchy and silo of traditionally organizational structures that in the present age act as barriers rather than facilitators of organizational effectiveness and efficiency.

But there remains the question as to whether democratization leads to commoditization.   Without leadership to guide an organization in a distinctive manner, the mass of employees succumbs to crowd psychology – superficial thinking, dramatic reactions, and predictability.  Where the mind of an individual can conceive of a distinctive approach, the mind of a crowd is invariably reduced to the lowest common denominator.   So while there is the sense that the changes in technology should lead to a revolution, one wonders if that revolution will produce a better result.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Creativity is Unusual

It is often argued that studying creativity or even exploring what it means to be creative is an effete distraction from the more important business of getting things done in the moment.   This position is exceedingly short-sighted.   There is nothing meaningful to be done by practical men until creative ones have shown them what to do.

Certainly, it is necessary to deal with routine sustenance tasks in a competent manner, but this is a necessity rather than a goal.  One may focus on efficiency, but this merely accomplishes the same task as before with less cost.   Efficiency is accomplished in paying close attention to the existing processes rather than considering whether there might be a far more effective method of achieving the goal to which the process was originally attended – without pausing to consider whether there might be better goals to pursue.

The results of creativity, however, are significant accomplishments that effect dramatic changes and entirely new processes.  Creativity seeks to change, rather than perpetuate, the traditional methods of accomplishing goals that are laborious, tedious, and unfulfilling.   What creativity creates, in effect, is greater effectiveness by pursuing an alternate goal or taking a significantly different course to a given destination.   Where this does not occur, there is no creativity.

The same phenomenon occurs in academic situation where students are encouraged to think, but rewards are bestowed on those who toe the line and follow the canon.   Professors and students who pursue unusual or disagreeable ideas are shunned and discredited by any means necessary.   Students are not taught how to think, but told what to think, and are tested and graded on their ability to memorize and repeat traditional knowledge rather than using their minds in an original and creative manner.   And so, the firms that look to academia to provide “fresh” minds and “new” ideas are disappointed by constrained minds that merely find clever ways to support stale ideas.

Even the “creative” arts in the present day do not explore new ideas, but instead reproduce the ideas of the past.  The most creative minds of the present culture are not being creative at all - they are making sequels, remakes, and adaptations of the known.   The “alternative” has become mainstream and feeds upon itself rather than continuing to challenge traditions and offer new ideas.

Ultimately, the reason that creativity is so rare is because it is actively discouraged.  There is a conflict in each person when confronted with the risk entailed in doing something new and different, and it is tempting to retreat when there is a known and reliable method of achieving a goal, however onerous and wasteful its methods.   Creativity entails a much higher degree of risk than following conventions, and people differ greatly in the degree to which they are willing and able to tolerate that risk.

So in the current culture a great deal of empty praise is given to creativity and innovation while actual behavior favors traditional approaches that yield more immediate benefits with greater certainty.  In business, managers promote the idea of innovation while discouraging any risk-taking, and the system of rewards and punishments is rigged to discourage creativity even in organizations that loudly proclaim its necessity.   New ideas are actively discouraged in favor of business as usual, and even when they are adopted they are often mangled and stripped of their potential in sacrifice to the status quo.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Research and Innovation

While I tend to be an advocate of research-based design, I also recognize that it is not a panacea.  In fact, there are some instances where too much devotion to market research can be harmful to design, and ultimately to the abdication of competitive advantage.

Research can be detrimental to innovation because, by its very nature, it is focused on “what is” and is blind to “what could be.”   It is not possible to research what does not exist, hence researchers focus on the known (the known needs of customers and the known needs by which they solve them) and is incapable of exploring the unknown (unidentified needs and undiscovered solutions).  Gaps and anomalies in research can indicate areas where the unknown might exist, but that is all.

Research can also be detrimental because it assumes that its subjects are knowledgeable.   Where there is any inefficient or ineffective mechanism, research asks the customer to identify a better solution – as if the customer is an expert.  An airline passenger may be acutely aware of a deficiency in his experience of air travel, but he does not have the domain knowledge to design a better airplane – and when asked to define one he will struggle to speculate and confabulate, and neither speculation nor confabulation is likely to yield a reliable solution.

And this is where innovation and research come into conflict: research seeks to understand what customers currently do whereas design seeks to provide capabilities to do something they are not already doing, and this may be something of which they are unaware and completely unable to conceive.   To innovate, one must set aside existing products and existing patterns of behavior and investigate what might be possible.

And again, this is not to advocate switching entirely from research-based design to innovative design, but to suggest that each has their purpose and should be used appropriately.   When innovating, a research-based approach is toxic; and when optimizing, a innovation-based approach can bear little fruit: it is a matter of having both tools at the ready, and choosing the right one for the job.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Core Motivation of Customer Behavior

One of the weaknesses of customer experience planning and design is a lack of the context, specifically the root motivation for customer behavior.  The typical analysis begins with “a customer comes into our store [or visits our website] with the intention to buy a specific product.”   From here, the strategists and designers conceive of a way to make the shopping and buying process as comfortable and effortless as possible.   But this is beginning the inquiry a step (or more) too late.

Actions, the atoms of human behavior of any kind, are undertaken to produce results, by whatever word they may be described (goals, objectives, aims, desires, etc.)  By the time the customer enters the store, he has already been motivated by a desire to achieve results and he has already decided what action to take (which product to buy, which vendor to buy it from).  He brings with him his own reasons and his own expectations, and if strategy and design ignore those reasons and expectations, its success will be very limited.

Strictly speaking, the universal goal of every action is to enable a person to escape distress and return to a state of contentment.   The distress may be a threat to the status quo, in which case the goal of the action is to restore the previous condition, or it may be a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, in which case the goal of the action is to achieve a change to their previous condition, whether permanent or temporary.   Whichever the case, the customer is unhappy, or less happy than he would like to be.

This dissatisfaction generally arose from an incident.   In some instances a customer may be motivated by a chain of incidents (each of which is similar enough to be considered a repetition) but it is the last incident in the chain that motivated them to take action, whether a single incident was particularly irritating or their irritation is cumulative, such that the last recursion in a chain of similar incidents met with a reduced level of tolerance for discomfort caused by previous irritations.

The motivation to act is always in the manner of an economic evaluation: the displeasure of the action that will achieve the desired outcome exceeds the displeasure of failing to achieve the desired outcome and allowing the status quo to be degraded or to persist in an unacceptable state.   Or in simpler terms, the customer perceives the total cost (price and effort) of effecting a change to be less than the total cost (inconvenience and irritation) of not taking action to effect that change.

But when the analysis begins with “a customer enters the store,” none of this is considered: the factor that is motivating the customer to seek a solution, whether the action it is meant to restore or improve to their status quo, the expected cost of the solution, and the perceived cost of inaction.   That is to say, that such an analysis ignores the most important factors that motivate consumer behavior and will lead to engagement that will sustain the initial motivation.

The consequences of this disregard is in the provision of a solution (and a process of acquisition) that do not align with the motivation of the customer, hence the disengagement of the customer from the process of acquisition – and given the drop-out rates between the front door and the register, particularly in the digital channel, these items merit closer examination, consideration, and inclusion in the strategy and design process.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

How to Become a Trusted Advisor

In competitive markets, brands wish to become trusted advisors to their customers – but looking at their behavior, one wonders if they understand what it means to be an “advisor.”   They certainly seem to wish to have authority and control over the customer – to tell the customer what to do and for the customer to do it immediately and without question – but this is not being an advisor, and does not earn them the loyalty they covet.

Becoming a trusted advisor means taking an earnest interest in helping customers solve their problem, providing them with guidance, and following up until the problem is actually solved.   It is a long-term process rather than a short-term action, and it follows a very simple and predictable pattern that begins with considering the customer’s needs and continues through ensuring those needs have been fulfilled.  For simplicity’s sake, this can be broken into four basic steps:

Step One: Consider the Customer’s Needs

A prerequisite to the ability to give good advice is having something of value to offer the person you are advising.  In commercial relationships, this means having a good or service that meets the customer’s needs: it solves a problem that is troubling them or helps them achieve a goal that they have chosen for themselves.

This sounds simple enough, but the ambition to sell as many products to as many people as possible causes companies to fail to consider whether a given person would get a benefit from their product and whether it’s genuinely worth the cost and effort of obtaining and using it.   Their advice is self-serving rather than good for the customer, and most customers recognize this and reject it.

So the first step in giving good advice is to decide whether advice is necessary at all and to be both objective and reasonable is assessing whether a given product is at all useful to the individual customer – and if not, then seek a valid market or alter the product to make it worthwhile.

Step Two: Ask Relevant Questions

Good advice is tailored to the individual.  While certain practices are good in general, “general” advice is usually regarded as aphorisms and platitudes doled out nonchalantly without concern for a person’s individual situation.  In order to know the customer’s needs, you have to ask questions to learn about them.

Doing research is not the same as asking questions, nor does it help to build trust: while people are well aware that marketing databases exist, they still express that it is “creepy” for a company to know things that they haven’t chosen to disclose.   And research often turns up highly specious connections that, in spite of their statistical significance, seem irrelevant.

The questioning process demonstrates concern, builds trust, and makes the customer mindful of the reasons that a recommendation is made.   When you ask questions before giving advice, the customer recognizes (or at least reckons) that the advice you are giving is based on the information they just gave you.

Step Three: Justify a Solution

The final step in the advice process is to provide and justify a solution, based on the information gathered during the questioning process.   It is not until a trust relationship is well established that people will accept advice without justification – and even when the trust is there, it should not be taken for granted: always justify a recommendation.

Justifying advice not only builds trust, but it increases compliance.   A serious of studies in behavioral psychology (Langer 1978) demonstrate a dramatic increase in compliance when a person who makes a request states a reason, even if the reason itself seems entirely specious.

So the ideal way to provide advice is to use “since” or “because” in a very specific pattern:
  • Since [you said this], I recommend [this action]
  • I recommend [this action] because [you said this]
But simply providing advice is not enough, there’s one step left in the process:

Step Four: Follow Up and Take Responsibility

The greatest mistake most companies make is abandoning the customer the moment the sale is made.  There is no better demonstration of insincerity than a person or organization who abandons you as soon as they have gotten what they wanted from the transaction, and no better way to destroy any trust that might have been earned.

Following up is simple enough: it’s a matter of remembering to touch base with the customer after a reasonable amount of time to ask if their problem has been solved.   Customer satisfaction surveys are becoming more common, but they are not sufficient because the results are considered in the aggregate rather than individually – and it’s arguable whether they result in any significant amount of action.

The best advisors follow up individually – to see if their advice has been followed and, if so, to ensure that the person they advised benefitted from it.   More than that, the advisor will work with the other person to help them solve their problem or achieve their goal, by providing follow-on advice and recommendations, and stay with them until the solution has been achieved.  This demonstrates genuine concern and a true commitment to service.


The value of being a trusted advisor is the long-term loyalty of customers, but this loyalty is reciprocal: it must be given in order to be received.  An advisor must be loyal to the interests of those he advises, he must consider their objectives, learn about their situation, provide a valid solution, follow up to ensure the solution was implemented, and continue to provide support until the problem is solved.   Anything less is insufficient.