How Not To Involve Customers

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In 1985 one of the biggest brands in the world nearly destroyed itself – by listening to what customers said.

Coca-Cola developed a product dubbed “New Coke” that was slightly sweeter than the original. Almost 200,000 blind taste tests were conducted and most participants said that they favoured New Coke over both the original formula and the companies bitter rival, Pepsi.

Hundreds of thousands of people can’t be wrong, right?

New Coke tanked – costing the company millions, with the CEO later commenting that they had “drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

There were two main lessons learned:

1: The research was flawed as it was based almost entirely on sip tests—a comparison of sips, not someone enjoying an entire drink. A blind test in a lab type environment was out of context compared to the experience of , say, drinking a Coke in the garden on a summer’s day

2: No-one realised the symbolic value and emotional involvement people had with the original Coke.  What customers said was “yes, this tastes a lot nicer” but when the product hit the market they behaved entirely differently. Influenced by their emotions and a status quo bias to keep things the same, they demanded the old Coke back.

Many of our organisations are still making these same mistakes – assembling focus groups and panels and involving users in ways that are wholly artificial compared to an actual customers lived experience.

In my last post I argued that we should know our customers, just never ask them what they want.  It drew quite a lot of comment and challenge with some points that merit further debate.

The top three charges were these:

1 – You’re saying professionals know best

No I’m not – but I do think the ‘customer knows best’ argument needs some challenge.

Whilst I agree that users are almost always closer to the problem than the average senior manager or executive, proximity to the problem doesn’t automatically make you the best person to solve it.

‘How can staff know the customer experience better than they do themselves?’ was a typical comment.

I think we are in danger of conflating two things here.  Experience of the problem and the creation of a potential solution.

As a road user I can sit in a traffic jam and moan about it all day long , but I can no more design you a solution than I can build a rocket to Mars.

Solutions require subject matter experts who have a deep knowledge of the root cause of the problem and can look through multiple lenses to craft a response.

The idea that a customer can provide that based on fairly limited knowledge (or interest) is naive.

2 – You’re saying customers are irrational

No – I’m saying we are all irrational and often make decisions accordingly.

At least three of my friends have chosen to holiday in the UK this summer citing concerns over terrorism. Statistically you’re 10 times more likely to die by falling down the stairs than you are in a terrorist attack – but none of them, as far as I know, are moving to bungalows.

Designing the right solution means testing for irrational behaviours.

And that can only come by observing what people actually do rather than basing decisions on what you think , or what they say, they’d do.

3 – You’re saying don’t listen to customers.

No – I’m saying just don’t let that be your only basis for decision making.

The research of Clayton Christensen found that companies that fail often listen to their customers too much.

As users we struggle to envisage the future. Indeed, asking someone to consider the future is a bit like saying, “Tell me how you will behave in five years time when I’ve rolled out the service I’ve just asked you about.”

At Bromford we are considering how we maximise customer input where it really adds value.

For us it’s the feed into the problem definition – and then at every stage through iterative testing, pilot and subsequent release (or shelving).

It’s balanced by robust internal insight measures as well. As this graphic by Tom Hartland shows – just because a customer likes something doesn’t mean it’s good business sense.

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You’ll see that customers are generally not involved at the initial design stage – where we see that it’s our job to find out what they need, without directly asking them.

It’s useful to frame this in three steps:

  1. Know your customer. What are their likes and dislikes?
  2. Know your product. What are you offering and what problem does it solve for them?
  3. Know the thing. What is the ONE thing that the customer wants that makes what you’re providing special?

Saying “don’t ask customers what they want” isn’t anti-customer – it’s saying you need to work much harder at really knowing them.

Muhtar Kent, the outgoing CEO at Coca Cola said this recently:

“We’re still talking about New Coke and its lessons, which become clearer with each passing anniversary. We no longer control—if we ever did—the conversation about our brands. But we must be part of it. We listen, we analyse, we respond.”

Right now I’ll bet your organisation is developing services, transforming existing ones or getting hugely excited about new product launches – based upon what people say they want.

One of them could be your New Coke.

Question is, which one?

Why We Solve The Wrong Problems

untitled-presentation-2Everywhere I look I see organisations and people investing heavily in new initiatives, transformation, and change programmes.  And in almost every case the goals will never be met.

One of the most crucial causes of the failure? The right questions were never asked at the outset.

We default to ideas and plans. Too many of which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.  We get wrapped up in solutions.

It’s no surprise: we are conditioned to find solutions rather than define problems from an early age.

  • We start off being very good at it. Kids ask about LOTS. Annoyingly so. We tell them to stop asking so many questions.
  • In school we start to be assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating.
  • As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Indeed, great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

So we become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

Here’s a few things to watch out for when considering if your organisation is leaning towards solution rather than problem. And some questions you could ask.

Management is becoming excited by transformation as an end in itself.

Question: What exactly are we being transformed into and who asked for it in the first place?

People start talking a lot about what Apple would do. Or Netflix. Or Uber.

Question: We aren’t Apple, Netflix, or Uber. How are the problems our customers face similar to theirs and if they are, are we the best people to solve them?

Getting excited about building a new app or website

Question: What’s the unique benefit of your solution compared to what’s already available on the market?

Fancy PowerPoint business case pitches at corporate away days and Board meetings

Question: Before you tell us what Google did  can you explain what the impact of your last project was, what failed, and what you’ll do differently this time?

You see – ideas people are regarded as sexy. They are positive, optimistic and the people you want to be around.

The person who keeps asking the difficult questions is often regarded as an obsessive – a detail person -a procrastinator. A complete pain in the arse.

This is the very problem we face – and why we see so much innovation theatre rather than genuine impact.

  • Initiatives and projects come with an over simplification of the problem statement. If indeed such a statement exists at all.
  • There’s a lack of penetration into the root causes of problems. We don’t understand our world half as well as we think we do.
  • Most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. We simply want to get the product on the street. Even if it’s the wrong product (or the wrong street).

Not so long back Tom Hartland , our Lab Designer, was sitting evaluating a new concept. A senior leader walked past and asked him what he was working on. Tom told them there was a problem with the data, the impact was inconclusive and it needed lots more work.

The response came back – “Well, don’t spend too much time on it – we’ll probably do it anyway.”

I share that anecdote not to embarrass anyone but to illustrate the point.

We are hardwired to doing things rather than purposeful contemplation and questioning.

Innovation , as Philippa Jones said, is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

To have the most impact, it’s simple. Just ask the right questions.


 

Hey – we have a great job going as Design Lead in the Lab. You need to ask a LOT of questions before you go near designing though. Take a look here or message me if you want a chat. paul.taylor@bromford.co.uk or DM me on Twitter @paulbromford

 

Using Weak Signals To Determine Your Future Organisation

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“Weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics.  Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear” – Vijay Govindarajan.

Luckily for us the future doesn’t arrive in an instant – but unfolds seconds at a time.

Despite our organisational 2025 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead.

We are making, as Jason Fried has said, business guesses rather than business plans.

Launching a service or developing a new product against this ever shifting background is fraught with difficulty. What’s good for 2016 could be surplus to requirements a year later.

Today all our new services must be iterative and capable of scaling for mergers, growth and indeed for retraction and redundancy.  Designing for obsolescence is more important than ever. 

At Bromford Lab we’ve worked with our Insight team to give a tentative green light to a new service – and I think there are some lessons to learn. Tom Hartland gives an overview of our thinking here with an excellent slide deck showing the design process.

The concept is simple. Switch from being a reactive service (waiting for basic repairs requests) – and move to offering proactive coaching so people can do things for themselves. It’s aiming to tackle exactly the same things as many of our public services are: reducing demand by focusing on prevention rather than cure.

Lesson One: The test has been beset by implementation problems. 

As it should be. 

If you are launching anything new against the background of what could be legacy services and systems – it should be plagued by problems.

Expect lots of tiny failures. The worst thing you can do is to give up. Unfortunately many of our organisations, and certainly most of the media, do not think like this.  This is part of the re-education journey we need to take people on.

Lesson Two: The test hasn’t delivered tangible business benefits. Yet. 

So why are we recommending that it proceeds to pilot?

The answer to that is a mix of art and science. We have some evidence of potential success but we need a more detailed and longer term evaluation.

However not all insight can be gained through evaluation alone – but by picking up what futurists term ‘weak signals’.

Generally organisations are poor at picking up these signals. Arguably the fact that we are still talking about digital transformation demonstrates that the weak signals from the 1990’s onwards were largely unheard.

There are a number of signals that we are picking up at Bromford that – if correct- means our concept could have a very positive future. With time there’s a possibility of substantial financial returns – alongside fulfilling our strategic objective of growing customer skills and aspirations.

Here are a few of the things that we do, and don’t know about the future:

  • We have an ageing population with more people living on their own. We don’t know if this will have a positive or detrimental effect on future demand.
  • We know that driverless cars will soon be on the roads – drastically reducing transportation costs to get parts to our residents homes. We don’t know the speed of adoption.
  • We know the maker community – people using 3D printing and other self manufacture tools – is growing. We don’t know whether this will ever move beyond a niche and into the mainstream.
  • We know artificial intelligence – think Siri and Amazon Alexa – is rapidly advancing. We don’t know whether AI advice and coaching delivered through technology or a robot will ever be a good enough alternative to physical delivery.
  • We know housing associations are unlikely to be flooded with lots of public money in the future. We don’t know what future welfare reforms look like.

Putting all of these things together alongside the evidence we do have is persuasive enough to take the test to a next level.

None of us can predict the future – but we can attempt to second guess it. And the best way to do that is by low-cost experiments to test the unknowns, before gambling any big money.

Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.

The only choice is whether to be an active participant in what the future looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around you.

12 Months of Failure: Lessons Learned in Year One of Bromford Lab

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Guest post by Tom Hartland

One year ago the Bromford Lab was established as a way of accelerating new ideas, driving innovation in the business and building our external networks.

‘Failing fast’ was a founding principle, any idea was a good idea and our 12 week window to complete work was the target to aim for.

It’s good to see that we’ve failed to realise each of these ideals at least once – failing slow, watching good ideas turn bad and blowing our 12 week window to pieces… technically I’m still involved in a concept that went live in October!

These failings have helped us build, test and rebuild the processes that guide us, but only because we’re willing to learn from them. What we’re left with is a better way to frame potential concepts, a robust and flexible process to test new ideas and a separate, more defined pipeline for service pilots.

We’ve helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems/opportunities from themed areas and getting things to test quickly – particularly the tests that require significant resourcing (i.e. a designated colleague). This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

We use the word ‘test’ more and more nowadays because we’re constructing them as safe environments to fail – typically time-limited, minimal resource and therefore low risk. The impetus is on testing more and piloting less, and where pilots are launched they’re supported by a raft of pre-testing to prove their value.

We’ve recognised that we need to be more ruthless – killing potential zombie projects and burying bad ideas in the innovation graveyard.

Working out loud, sharing everything we do on our website and trello board, we’ve become one of the most transparent teams in Bromford. In the same breath we’ve been reasonably useless at publishing updates on our internal network, yammer, something we’re going to get much better at in the coming year.

It’s hoped that by sharing our progress we can keep building our external networks – cross-pollenating ideas and sharing learning from similar concepts. We’re also working on an offer for potential partners to share our innovation-addled brains, toolkits and processes, negating much of the difficulty establishing a lab from scratch.

For now, have leisurely flick through our slide deck and enjoy our imaginary Bromford Lab birthday cake.

Here’s to year two!

TOM

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