Is listening to customers and employees enough?

Photo by Lepiaf.Geo


I love the movie “Big” with Tom Hanks. It is a classic. There are so many great scenes there, but this is one of the best  (this is the source):

JOSH: I don’t get it.
PAUL: What exactly don’t you get?
JOSH: It turns from a building into a robot, right?
PAUL: Precisely.
JOSH: Well, what’s fun about that?
PAUL: Well, if you had read your industry breakdown, you would see that our success in the action figure area has climbed from 27 percent to 45 percent in the last two years.  There, that might help.
PAUL: Yes?
JOSH: I still don’t get it.
PAUL: What?!
MR. M: What don’t you get Josh?
JOSH: Well, there’s a million robots that turn into something.  And this is a building that turns into a robot.  So what’s so fun about playing with a building?  That’s not any fun!
PAUL: This is a skyscraper.
JOSH: Well, couldn’t it be like a robot that turns into something like a bug or something?
PAUL: A bug?
JOSH: Yeah!  Like a big prehistoric insect with maybe like giant claws that could pick up a car and crush it like that!

I was reminded of the scene while reading Bruce Temkin’s post on the Customer Experience Matters blog titled Don’t Listen To Customers, Understand Them. He reminds all of us of a point I mentioned a number of times in this blog – listening to customers is not enough, because they cannot always tell you what they really want, because they cannot articulate it. Here is a little excerpt:

I really like this quote from Sir Denys Lasdun, the English architect, saying that the architect’s job is to give a client: “Not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time”…

Instead of looking at direct responses to questions, breakthrough innovations often require a different type of customer input: Observation.

And I was also reminded of this scene while reading a great post on the Harvard Business Review blog by Roger Martin titled Management by Imagination. In this post, Martin claims that true innovation doesn’t come from looking at the past and measuring it better, but by imagining a future that is completely different than anything that ever existed in the past. Again, a short excerpt:

We need to get away from all those old sayings about measurement and management, and in that spirit I’d like to propose a new wisdom: “If you can’t imagine it, you will never create it.” The future is about imagination, not measurement. To imagine a future, one has to look beyond the measurable variables, beyond what can be proven with past data.

I would like to take these ideas and apply the same approaches in managing our employees. It is important to ask them what they want and listen to them, but it is more important to give them things that they are not even able to think about asking, because they have been schooled to become cogs and bombarded with mistaken conventional wisdoms. It is more important to observe them in their places of work because that is the only way we can understand what they are going through. Above all, it is important to let go of the mechanisms of control and stop trying to limit them with rules that enable their measurement and instead equip them with tools that allow them (and the managers) to imagine a better future.

Do you really understand your employees?