The Radical Power of Listening and How to Harness It.

The Radical Power of Listening and How to Harness It.

“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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

Confessions of a Customer Research Hypocrite

Confessions of a Customer Research Hypocrite

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. Find my big-girl pants. Put them on.
  3. Take a deep breath
  4. Write down what I want to learn, especially if it scares me
  5. 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
  6. Do the research
  7. Listen to and be curious about the results (if I’m defensive, I will not benefit)
  8. 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.

 

5 Ways to Go Beyond Your Customers & Serve All of Your Stakeholders

5 Ways to Go Beyond Your Customers & Serve All of Your Stakeholders

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:

  1. 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.
    1. 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?
    2. Outside your organization: Who will pay for your solution? Who will use your solution?  Who influences these decisions?  Who could act as a barrier?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Starts with EPIC Conversations

Innovation Starts with EPIC Conversations

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

Back to Basics: What is Design Thinking?

Back to Basics: What is Design Thinking?

Last week, I published a post with a very simple goal – define innovation so we can stop debating what it means and start doing it.

The response was amazing.  So, I figured that this week I would tackle another buzzword – Design thinking.

We’ve all heard it and we’ve probably all said it but, like “innovation’ we probably all have a different definition for it.  In fact, in the last few months alone I’ve heard it used as a synonym for brainstorming, for customer interviews, and for sketching while talking.  Those things are all part of Design thinking but they aren’t the entirety of Design thinking.

 

What I tell my clients

When a client asks if we’re “doing Design thinking,” here’s what I say;

“Yes, because Design thinking is a way of solving problems that puts customers and stakeholders, not your organization, at the center of the process and seeks to produce solutions that create, capture, and deliver value to your customers, stakeholders, and your company.”

 

The Basics
  • What: One could consider the official definition of Design thinking to come from Tim Brown, Executive Char of IDEO, who stated that “Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”
  • Why: Useful in solving “wicked problems,” problems that are ill-defined or tricky and for which pre-existing rules and domain knowledge will be of limited or no help (or potentially detrimental)
  • How:
    • Inspiration: Understand the problem by building empathy with stakeholders (deeply understand their functional, emotional, and social Jobs to be Done) and document that understanding in a brief that outlines goals (ideal end state), bounds (elements to be avoided), and benchmarks against which progress can be measured
    • Ideation: Generate ideas using brainstorming to develop a vast quantity of ideas (divergent thinking) and then home in on the ideas at the intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability that best fit the brief (convergent thinking)
    • Implementation: Prototype ideas so that they can be tested, evaluated, iterated, and refined in partnership with customers and stakeholders, ensuring that humans remain at the center of the process.
  • When: At the start of any R&D or development process
    • Traditionally, design was involved only in the late stages of development work, primarily to improve a solution’s functionality or aesthetic. Design Thinking’s ability to pull the designer mindset into the earliest phases of development is, perhaps, one of the biggest impacts it has made on business and technical fields
  • Where: Can be done anywhere BUT, because it is a human-centered approach, it must involve multiple human beings through the process
  • Who: Anyone who is willing to adopt a “beginner’s mind,” an attitude of openness to new possibilities, curiosity about the problem and the people with it, and humility to be surprised and even wrong

 

Important Points & Fun Facts
  • Design Thinking IS a human-centered design approach. This means that it seeks to develop solutions to problems by involving the human perspective at every single step of the process
  • Design thinking is NOT synonymous with user-centered design though user-centered design could be considered a subset of Design Thinking because it gives attention to usability goals and the user experience

 

  • Design Thinking was NOT invented by IDEO, but I would argue that they have done more to popularize it and bring it into the mainstream, especially into business management practices, than any other person or firm.
  • Design Thinking IS the product of 50+ years of academic and practical study and application. Here’s some fun facts:
    • 1935: The practice of Design thinking was first established by John Dewey as the melding of aesthetics and engineering principles
    • 1959: The term “Design thinking” was coined by John E. Arnold in his book Creative Engineering
    • 1991: the first symposium on Design Thinking was held at Delft University in the Netherlands
    • 2000s: Design thinking is widely adopted as an innovation approach thanks to books by Richard Florida (2002), Daniel Pink (2006), Roger Martin (2007), Tim Brown (2009), and Thomas Lockwood (2010)
    • 2005: Stanford’s d.school begins teaching Design thinking as a general approach to innovation

 

  • Design Thinking is NOT just for radical/breakthrough/disruptive innovation
  • Design Thinking IS useful for all types of innovation (something different that creates value) resulting from wicked problems. In fact, as far back as 1959, John E. Arnold identified four types of innovation that could benefit from a Design thinking approach:
    1. Novel functionality, i.e. solutions that satisfy a novel need or solutions that satisfy an old need in an entirely new way
    2. Higher performance levels of a solution
    3. Lower production costs
    4. Increased salability

 

If you want to learn more…

As noted above, there are lots of resources available to those who are deeply curious about Design thinking.  I recommend starting with Tim Brown’s 2008 HBR article, Design Thinking, and then diving into IDEO’s extremely helpful and beautifully designed website dedicated entirely to Design thinking.

 

Here’s what I’d like to learn…
  • Was this helpful in clarifying what Design Thinking is?
  • What, if anything, surprised you?
  • What else would you like to know?

 

Drop your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email at robyn@milezero.io