Q: How might we brainstorm new ideas to serve our customers better?
A: Have a brainstorming session that starts with “How Might We help customers [Job to be Done/problem]?”
If only it were that simple.
How Might We (HMW) is an incredible tool (not BS, as some would assert), but we misuse it. We focus too much on the “we” and not enough on the “might.”
Might > We
HMW was first used to prompt people to be “wildly creative while simultaneously leveraging [company’s] innate strengths.”
IDEO popularized the prompt as a way to solve “wicked problems” – problems so complex that there is no right or wrong answer.
In both of these cases, the assumption was that the word “might” would free people from the shackles of today’s thinking and constraints and give people permission to dream without fear of judgment and reality.
“We” kept ideas tethered to the reality of the company’s “innate strengths,” providing a modicum of comfort to executives worried that the session wouldn’t result in anything useful and would, therefore, be a waste of time.
We > Might
Alas, as time went on and HMW became more popular, we lost sight of its intent (prompt wildly creative thinking about wicked problems) and twisted it to our purposes.
- We end the HMW sentence with our problems (e.g., HMW cut costs by getting more customers to use self-service tools?).
- We use it to brainstorm solutions to things that aren’t even problems (e.g., HMW eliminate all customer service options that aren’t self-serve?)
- We mentally replace “might” with “will” so we can emerge from brainstorming sessions with a tactical implementation plan.
Might Can YOU Fix HMW?
If you’re not getting creative, radical, or unexpected ideas from your brainstorming sessions, you have an HMW problem.
As a result, continuing to use HMW as a tool to prompt creative, radical, or unexpected ideas is the definition of insanity. And you are not insane,
Instead, mix it up.
Use different words to articulate the original intent of HMW.
How would we solve this problem if the answer to every request is YES?
Innovation thrives within constraints. Brainstorming doesn’t.
Even when you tell people not to constrain themselves, even implore them to value “quantity over quality,” you still get more “safe” ideas rather than more “crazy” ideas.
Do more than tell. Make a world without constraints real. Explicitly remove all the constraints people throw at ideas by creating a world of infinite money, people, capabilities, willingness, appetite for risk, and executive support. Doing this removes the dreaded “but” because there is no “but we don’t have the money/people/capabilities” or “but management will never go for it” and creates space for “and.”
What would we ask for if we were guaranteed a YES to only ONE request?
This question is often asked at the end of a brainstorm to prioritize ideas. But it’s equally helpful to ask it at the beginning.
This question shifts our mindset from “the bosses will never say yes, so I won’t even mention it” to “the bosses will say yes to only one thing, so it better be great!” It pulls people off the sidelines and reveals what people believe to be the most critical element of a solution. It drives passionate engagement amongst the whole team and acts as a springboard to the next brainstorm – How Might We use (what they said yes to) to solve (customers’ Jobs to be Done/problem)?
How would we solve the problem if the answer to every request is NO?
This one is a bit risky.
Some people will throw their hands in the air, declare the exercise a waste of time and effort, and collapse into a demotivated blob of resignation.
Some people will feel free. As Seth Godin wrote about a journal that promises to reject every single person who submits an article, “The absurdity of it is the point. Submitting to them feels effortless and without a lot of drama, because you know you’re going to get rejected. So instead of becoming attached to the outcome, you can simply focus on the work.”
For others, this will summon their inner rebel, the part of themselves that wants to stick it to the man, prove the doubters wrong, and unleash a great “I told you so” upon the world. To them, “No” is the start of the conversation, not the end. It fires them up to do their best work.
Don’t invite the first group of people to the brainstorm.
Definitely invite the other two groups.
Might Will/Do YOU Fix HMW?
If you want something different, you need to do something different.
Start your next brainstorm with a new variation on the old HMW prompt.
How do people react? Does it lead to more creative or more “safe” ideas?
How might we adjust to do even better next time?
“When you say, ‘uh-huh’ over and over like that, I can tell you’re not listening to me.”
Me, age 7, to my mom
It doesn’t take a lot of experience to know when someone isn’t listening. From a young age, we can tell when someone is listening and when they’re simply responding.
When we’re with the person, we notice the lack of eye contact or the blankness in their eyes showing us where their thoughts are actually at. When we’re on the phone, we hear the repetitive and monotone mumbles that tell us they’re attention is elsewhere.
Yet often, what we want most is simply to be listened to.
This is true in our personal relationships and in our relationships with the businesses and organizations we support. We want people and businesses to listen to our opinions, to understand them, and to thoughtfully respond to them.
Instead, people and businesses simply “hear” us.
There’s a big difference between listening and hearing
According to the Oxford University Press, hearing is “the faculty of perceiving sounds” while listening is “give one’s attention to a sound” and “take notice of and act on what someone says.”
As I explain to my clients, surveys, focus groups, and even in-depth qualitative research is often a Hearing exercise – the company develops a list of questions, asks their customers to answer the questions, then tabulates the answers and passes them along to whoever needs them.
This is a transaction. An exchange of information. It is not listening.
Listening requires engagement. It happens during EPIC conversations, those typified by empathy, perspective, insights, and connection.
Listening accelerates innovation and drives transformation. When we’re listening, we’re learning new information and discovering new insights, which enables companies to create and act differently, differentiating themselves from the competition and ultimately gaining an advantage.
Listening takes practice but here are 5 simple steps to help you get started:
- Drop the agenda – Before you have a conversation within someone, identify the 1-3 things you need to learn and leave space for at least 1 surprise. If you go into a conversation with an agenda or a long list of questions, you’re only going to hear what you want to hear because your mind is primed to seek confirmation for your opinions and to reject anything counter to what you’re hoping to hear.
- Follow where they lead – During the conversation, don’t worry about trying to steer the conversation or “keep things on track.” If you only need to learn 3 things in the conversation and you have 30 minutes or an hour, you have plenty of time for tangents, stories, and random connections. This is where the surprises and the insights come from.
- Ask Why – Channel your inner two-year-old (or Toyota Production employee) and ask “Why” multiple times. When you ask “Why” you get personal, surprising answers that point to the motivations behind people’s choices and actions. When you ask “What” you get rational, expected, even obvious answers that you, and your competitors, have heard before.
- Say as little as possible – Follow the 80/20 rule and spend 80% of your time listening. When you ask a question, don’t go into a long pre-amble about why you’re asking it or follow it with a long list of options or examples. Simply ask the question and the answer will come.
- Let the silence work for you – After you ask a question, start counting silently in your head. Before you get to 8, the person you’re listening to will start talking. Silence makes people uncomfortable but it’s also when the brain goes into exploration and discovery mode. And the longer the silence goes on, the faster the brain works to come up with something to fill it. So, stay quiet and let the brain work!
Whether you’re talking to a customer, a colleague, or a friend, you’re talking to someone who wants you to listen, to hear and understand what they are saying. These 5 tips will help you do that and, if done well, discover something wonderful and unexpected with the power to transform.
Originally published on April 20, 2020 on Forbes.com
If you’re innovating without involving your customers, you’re wasting time and money.
I believe this so deeply that I require all of my clients to spend time talking with and listening to their customers at least once during our work together. Investing in customer research, I explain, is the single smartest and best investment that any business can make. Just 5 or 10 customer conversations can dramatically alter the course of an initiative, positioning it for incredible success or killing it before too much time, energy, and money is wasted.
Understanding your customers, especially through Jobs to be Done, is the hill I will die on.
But I actively resist doing this for my business.
The idea of interviewing my customers, or investing to understand their Jobs to be Done, or altering aspects of my business based on their feedback triggers a cold sweat and a very real flight response.
So why is my business different? (It’s not)
Why am I such a customer research hypocrite?
Here are the thoughts that run through my head when I consider talking to my own customers:
- I’m supposed to be the expert in this, what if they tell me something I haven’t thought of?
- What if my customers say they don’t like or want what I’m doing and would like or want something I’m not?
- What if I do try something new and it fails?
It is SO much easier, and it feels so much safer, to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s what I’ve always done and it’s what bigger and more “successful” firms do.
I suspect that I’m not the only one with these thoughts.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with lots of corporate innovators who proposed customer research only to be told, “We already know what we need to know” or “we did research a few years ago, let’s just use that,” or “sure, but we don’t have the resources right now so check back next quarter.”
These reasons make sense. On the surface.
We all know that getting feedback is key to keeping customers and it’s cheaper to keep a customer than acquire a new one. We’ve heard AG Lafley, P&G’s former CEO, proclaim “the consumer is boss.” We understand that when Steve Jobs said he didn’t do customer research it was because he and his inner circle were the customers they designed for and the rest of us would catch-up.
So we come up with reasons why something else (waiting, referring to old data) is a better option. We decide with our hearts (emotions) and justify with our heads. We give logical reasons – we already know this, we’ve already done this, we can’t do this now – so that we don’t have to confess the emotional reasons – fear, discomfort, insecurity – for refusing to do something that seems like common (business) sense.
How do we overcome these emotional barriers?
How do we overcome the fear and take action?
Here’s what I’m doing:
- Remember “Will the Real You Please Stand Up?” the great poem my dad gave me – “If you move with the crowd, you’ll get no further than the crowd. When 40 million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea. Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere.”
- Find my big-girl pants. Put them on.
- Take a deep breath
- Write down what I want to learn, especially if it scares me
- Find someone to help me do the research or, better yet, do it for me so I can avoid the emotion and engage in the insights
- Do the research
- Listen to and be curious about the results (if I’m defensive, I will not benefit)
- Create an action plan and get moving
Honestly, I’m on step 4 and really not looking forward to 5, 6, and 7 but I know that, when this is all done, my business and I will be better off.
At the very least, I will no longer be a hypocrite.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve kicked off innovation projects with multiple clients. As usual, my clients are deeply engaged and enthusiastic, eager to learn how to finally break through the barriers their organizations erect and turn their ideas into real initiatives that generate real results.
Things were progressing smoothly during the first kick-off until a client asked, “Who’s my customer?”
I was shocked. Dumbfounded. Speechless. To me, someone who “grew up” in P&G’s famed brand management function and who has made career out of customer-driven innovation, this was the equivalent of asking, “why should I wear clothes?” The answer is so obvious that the question shouldn’t need to be asked.
Taking a deep breath, I answered the question and we moved on.
A few days later, the question was asked again. By a different client. In a different company. A few days later, it was asked a third time. By yet a different client. In yet a different company. In a completely different industry!
What was going on?!?!?
Each time I gave an answer specific to the problem we were working to solve. When pressed, I tried to give a general definition for “customer” but found that I spent more time talking about exceptions and additions to the definition rather than giving a concise, concrete, and usable answer.
That’s when it struck me – Being “customer-driven” isn’t enough. To be successful, especially in innovation, you need to focus on serving everyone involved in your solution. You need to be “stakeholder-driven.”
What is a customer?
According to Merriam-Webster, a customer is “one that purchases a commodity or service.”
Makes perfect sense. At P&G, we referred to retailers like WalMart and Kroger as “customers” because they purchased P&G’s products from the company. These retailers then sold P&G’s goods to “consumers” who used the products.
But P&G didn’t focus solely on serving its customers. Nor did it focus solely on serving its consumers. It focused on serving both because to serve only one would mean disaster for the long-term business. It focused on its stakeholders.
What is a stakeholder?
Setting aside Merriam-Webster’s first definition (which is specific to betting), the definitions of a stakeholder are “one that has a stake in an enterprise” and “one who is involved in or affected by a course of action.”
For P&G, both customers (retailers) and consumers (people) are stakeholders because they are “involved in or affected by” P&G’s actions. Additionally, shareholders and employees are stakeholders because they have a “stake in (the) enterprise.”
As a result, P&G is actually a “stakeholder-driven” company in which, as former CEO AG Lafley said in 2008, the “consumer is boss.”
How to be a stakeholder-driven organization
Focusing solely on customers is a dangerous game because it means that other stakeholders who are critical to your organization’s success may not get their needs met and, as a result, may stop supporting your work.
Instead, you need to understand, prioritize, and serve all of your stakeholders
Here’s how to do that:
- Identify ALL of your stakeholders. Think broadly, considering ALL the people inside and outside your organization who have a stake or are involved or affected by your work.
- Inside your organization: Who are the people who need to approve your work? Who will fund it? Who influences these decisions? Who will be involved in bringing your solution to life? Who will use it? Who could act as a barrier to any or all of these things?
- Outside your organization: Who will pay for your solution? Who will use your solution? Who influences these decisions? Who could act as a barrier?
- Talk to your stakeholders and understand what motivates them. For each of the people you identify by asking the above questions, take time to actually go talk to them – don’t email them, don’t send a survey, actually go have a conversation – and seek to understand they’re point of view. What are the biggest challenges they are facing? Why is this challenging? What is preventing them from solving it? What motivates them, including incentives and metrics they need to deliver against? What would get them to embrace a solution? What would cause them to reject a solution?
- Map points of agreement and difference amongst your stakeholder. Take a step back and consider all the insights from all of your stakeholders. What are the common views, priorities, incentives, or barriers? What are the disagreements or points of tension? For example, do your buyers prioritize paying a low price over delivering best-in-class performance while your users prioritize performance over price? Are there priorities or barriers that, even though they’re unique to a single stakeholder, you must address?
- Prioritize your stakeholder by answering, “Who’s the boss?” Just as AG Lafley put a clear stake in the ground when he declared that, amongst all of P&G’s stakeholders, that the consumer was boss, challenge yourself to identify the “boss” for your work. For medical device companies, perhaps “the boss” is the surgeon who uses the device and the hospital executive who has the power to approve the purchase. For a non-profit, perhaps it’s the donors who contribute a majority of the operating budget. For an intrapreneur working to improve an internal process, perhaps it’s the person who is responsible for managing the process once it’s implemented. To be clear, you don’t focus on “the boss” to the exclusion of the other stakeholders but you do prioritize serving the boss.
- Create an action plan for each stakeholder. Once you’ve spent time mapping, understanding, and prioritizing the full landscape of your stakeholder’s problems, priorities, and challenges, create a plan to address each one. Some plans may focus on the design, features, functions, manufacturing, and other elements of your solution. Some plans may focus on the timing and content of proactive communication. And some plans may simply outline how to respond to questions or a negative incident.
Yes, it’s important to understand and serve your customers. But doing so is insufficient for long-term success. Identifying, understanding, and serving all of your stakeholders is required for long-term sustainability.
Next time you start a project, don’t just ask “Who is my customer?” as “Who are my stakeholders?” The answers my surprise you. Putting those answers into action through the solutions you create and the results they produce will delight you.
Originally published on March 23, 2020 on Forbes.com
Innovation doesn’t start with an idea. It starts with a problem. Sometimes those problems are easy to observe and understand but, more often, those problems are multi-layered and nuanced. As a result, you need a multi-layered and nuanced approach to understanding them.
You need to have EPIC Conversations.
EPIC stands for Empathy, Perspective, Insights, and Connection. As my clients have experienced, conversations rooted in these elements consistently produce unexpected, actionable, and impactful insights capable of getting to the root of a problem and shining a light on the path to a solution (and meaningful business results).
EMPATHY for the people with whom you’re talking
According to Brene Brown, empathy is connecting to the emotion another person is experiencing without requiring us to have experienced the same situation.”
For example, I have a friend who struggles to stay focused and deliver on deadlines. I can empathize with her because, while I have no problem focusing or delivering on deadlines, I know what it’s like to struggle with something that other people think is easy.
Take the time to connect with people’s emotions, to understand not just what they’re feeling but also why they’re feeling that way and to connect with the experiences in your life and work that led you to feel that way, too.
See things from their PERSPECTIVE:
When we’re working on something – a project, a product, even a task – it gets a great deal of our time, attention, and energy. But it can lead us to over-estimate how important the work is to others.
Instead, ask people about the topic you’re interested in AND all the topics and activities around it. Take the time to understand where the things you care about fall into your customers’ priority list
For example, when I worked on developing and launching Swiffer, all I thought about was cleaning floors. One day, we had to decide whether to source the hair for the dirt that would be used in product demos from people, yaks, or wigs. We obsessed over this decision, debating which hair would “resonate” the most with consumers. Turns out, consumers didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing the hair in the demo dirt, they only cared that it was picked up immediately by Swiffer.
Be open to INSIGHTS
Most people use conversations to get confirmation that their ideas and recommendations are good ones. They’ll spend time explaining and convincing and very little time listening. And they definitely don’t like surprises.
This is wrong. The most successful and impactful conversations as those in which you are surprised, in which you get an unexpected piece of information and has an insight, an “a-ha!” moment.
Years ago, while conducting research with people who self-identified as environmentalists, my team spoke with a woman who had the most sustainable house I’d ever seen. Everything was reused, recycled, or composted and they generated most of their own power. But, in the garage was a huge yellow HUM-V. It would have been easy to dismiss it as an anomaly, until we asked about the contradiction and she explained that the reason she owned a HUM-V was the same reason she and her family lived such a sustainable lifestyle: her highest priority was keeping her kids safe. At home, that meant doing everything possible to help the planet, but on the roads, that meant driving around in a tank.
CONNECT with the person you’re speaking with
It’s tempting to jump right into the conversation, to ask the questions that brought you together. But that’s like proposing on the first date – you’re not going to get the answer(s) you want.
The best conversations aren’t information transactions, they’re trust building exercises. Take time to get to know each other. Make small talk, talk about the traffic and the weather, share a bit about yourself and ask about them. Throughout the conversation, share a bit about yourself, commiserate over shared frustrations, and laugh at silly stories.
By sharing a bit about yourself, the person you’re talking to will share a bit of themselves, they’ll feel comfortable admitting to things that might not make sense, and to the feelings and rationalizations that drive their behaviors.
EPIC Conversations can happen with anyone anywhere from customers in focus group rooms to employees in conference rooms. You don’t need an executive mandate to have one, so have one today and let me know how it goes!
Originally published on February 10, 2020 on Forbes.com