thinking like a customer

thinking like a customer

Context is a Big Advantage (Part I)

By on May 27, 2009

We have all experienced the paradox that "the more successful a company becomes, the more likely it is to become removed from customer segments." (The Open-Empathy Organization, Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen, from Rotman Magazine, Spring 2009). If the phrase "taken out of context" has negative overtones (as it should) of misquoting, bad information and wrong direction, then you can appreciate the positive impact that context has for your business. The context that you need is grounded in thinking like a customer

In his book, Wired to Care, Dev Patnaik observes that over-simplified data and lack of context lead to a disconnection from customers. Executives have gotten used to operating from maps which are expeditious, but too narrowly focused. Patnaik uses the example of Harry Beck's famous map of the London Underground. This map was brilliant in its visual illustration of the subway lines, but failed to point out important details, such as the fact that people could walk between certain stations faster than they could take the train.

The "maps" that businesses use are also abstractions, however, and companies can take actions that seem sensible (based on their models) but which are "unsuited to the real world." Shortcuts and overly simplified information cause organizations to begin to lose touch with reality, which can lead to bad decisions.

He advocates incorporating the most important factor that is left off the maps—customers. Leaders must transcend abstractions and "imagine themselves in the shoes of the people they serve." Patnaik describes a classroom exercise that he uses at Stanford which he calls Needfinding. It uses role-play to demonstrate how to find customer needs and then to design appropriate solutions. It relies on context to give meaning to the solution based on the set of circumstances and the identification of potential improvements. Patnaik has found that students working in isolation from their partners frequently come up with unique ideas which, unfortunately, do not meet the partners' needs. Other students, who fully understand their partners, often solve a need that the partners did not even know they had.

This is training in a concept that is essential to success for every company today. Value creation depends on knowing as much as possible about customers. It can only be achieved by creative thinking, which opens itself to the world outside of your organization.


2 Responses to “Context is a Big Advantage (Part I)”

  1. Bill Self says:


    Thank you for linking and adding to my post about how empathy-driven business cultures create their own advantages, with your post on your Wired to Care blog. I appreciate it!

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