Listening and not listening at the same time

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Dan Pink writes about a subject matter that I find important for every aspect of business and management (and politics). The concept of “listening to your customers”:

Give customers what they want.

It’s a sturdy principle of business, one that most of us endorse. But it’s also a principle that can carry seeds of its own demise.

Leadership and management are not a popularity contest. While listening to your clients, peers, employees etc. is not only important it is a must, knowing when to ignore them or do something they can’t even think about is just as important. As I wrote a few months ago:

I don’t know about you, but if a few years ago somebody would have asked me what do I want my cell phone to do, there is no way I would have said: “Oh, you know what, I want it to react to movements when I move it around so I can play games with it”. I don’t know it for a fact, but I think the people at apple just put that quality into the Iphone without people telling them that is what they want. And that is a one great quality for a product. That is a way to make it a purple cow.

It works with customers just as well as it works with employees. In all fields of life, the work of great change makers was first criticized, misunderstood and fought against. “Why the hell do we need that?” the critics ask. But the change makers are the ones that make an impact on our lives. This is the difference between incremental innovation and radical innovation. One improves on what you have; the other changes the rules of the game. As Henry Ford famously said: “If I have asked people what they wanted, they would have said: ‘a faster horse’”. This is how Pink summarizes it:

Enhancing a category is cool; creating a category is cooler. Providing people what they want is a smart tactic; giving people something they didn’t know they’re missing is an even smarter strategy. Listening to the customer can be helpful; listening to your own voice can be revolutionary.

Every word here can be applied to customer service, development of new products and more importantly, management of people. Listening to them is good. But giving them what they want is not always best. Like giving employees answers – they would want it, but it is not good for them. And this reminded me of what I was trying to say about effectiveness and efficiency:

What the definitions don’t tell us is the focus. Efficiency is about marginal improvements. We take the current situation and try to make it better. To make the most of what we have. To do better with what we have. And that is a very useful skill. But it rarely leads to huge leaps. And it rarely breaks the boarders and provides levels of performance we haven’t thought possible. Effectiveness, on the other hand is about change. Is about finding a better fit to our goal. It is making something work better, not in the margins, but in the core of its being. It is about finding the right solutions to the right questions. If you make something more effective, you are changing the way it works, re-inventing it (maybe a bit more similar to term Efficacious). And you are focused on the long-term effects.

Everybody will tell you that you should listen to your customers. But everybody tells you to do that, everybody else is doing it too. Why don’t you try to listen to them, but not listen to them at the same time? Now that is something special.

Elad

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