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A faster horse? When not to listen to your customers

Last Wed I had the privilege of giving a talk at IBM to about 250 software professional. The topic was fostering innovation.  If there is a mantra of the modern corporate workplace it’s probably “Listen to your customers”.  We’ve all seen how companies falter when they try to dictate to their markets rather than listen to them.  However, I truly believe that listening to customers is a cataclysmic error.  By cataclysmic I mean an error so profound it can put you out of business.  Ok, I’m being provocative, to get your attention.  More truthfully, there are times you really need to pay attention to what your customers ar telling you (failure to do so may put you out of business), and there are times when you shouldn’t (because doing so may put you out of business).

Here’s why. Markets are all about supply and demand. They demand products and services to solve their needs.  When people need food they create demand for groceries. When companies need data management they create a need for database software.  Companies need to listen to their customers to understand those needs, so we can supply solutions they’ll be interested in consuming.  The problem, and it’s a serious one, comes when we extend that listening solutions.  The market provides demand, it is not designed to provide innovation. That’s our job as engineering companies.  When we listen to our customers’ ideas about how their problem should be solved it often cripples our potential for dreaming up a more creative and potentially superior solution.  Henry Ford was the founder of the Ford Motor Company and the father of the modern assembly line and industrial automation. He famously said “If I’d have listened to my customers, I’d have given them a faster horse!”.  Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once made a similar point, saying:   “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” 

After my IBM talk someone asked me if I really meant we shouldn’t listen to customer ideas about how to solve their problems. Of course it’s always worth listening, and sometimes what customer think they want really is the ideal solution.  But if you stop at listening, and never get to dreaming, you’ll deprive yourself of all the real moments of innovation that can help change the world and drive successful new business.  Although there are exceptions, as a rule if you are only building and doing what the market suggests you do, you’re going to be a follower, not an innovator.

So, my advice is this: Listen to your customers o and requirements. Do that with a passion.  When it comes to finding solutions, consider their input as just that – input.


A whole new look for

Our web site got a major facelift last week.  Check out our new online digs here:

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Alone in a crowded room (and other email addiction problems)

Avoid the urge to do email during meetings. Laptops and BlackBerries have made it possible to do email almost anywhere and anytime. While it may seem like an efficient use of time, doing email (obviously) distracts you from what brought you into the room in the first place: the meeting! All too often, hard-working people schedule meetings to present important updates or proposals, or to review and discuss key issues, while the audience is clearly heads down in their laptops doing email. The speaker is literally alone in a crowded room. 
Not only is this extremely rude, but from a business process model, if you consistently do email during meetings, you will effectively not be present in most of the meetings you attend. As a senior person in an organization (or one aspiring to be), your attention at meetings is, believe it or not, frequently required.  


The optics on this kind of behavior are also pretty bad. To build an image of yourself as a person who is informed, engaged, and engaging, keep yourself focused on the meeting, not on the email.   

What really motivates workers? Don’t believe the Harvard Business Review

After a recent talk on “Making it Big in software”, one of the attendees sent me a link to an article by the Harvard Business Review about breakthrough ideas for 2010. The top idea was an article by Amabile and Kramer about what really motivates workers. Their thesis was that people are motivated by “progress” more than “incentives”.  To support their claim they studied the correlation between “good days at work” and “progress”, showing, not surprisingly,that the two are indeed highly correlated. (Here’s the article: Here’s a direct quote:
“A close analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries, together with the writers’ daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, shows that making progress in one’s work—even incremental progress—is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event.”

A similar presentation by Daniel Pink goes further to suggest that rewards and incentives actually inhibit productivity.

What Pink, Amabile and Kramer are suggesting is that incentives in the traditional sense (financial rewards, public recognition, etc) are not only secondary they are actually counter productive. That is to say, these kinds of “incentives” have a negative effect and that what really gets a team excited and driven is a feeling of progress.

There’s no question that people are happy when they make progress. But is it fair to say that happiness and positive feelings are really the same as successfully motivating a team towards a goal? I’m sure they are important, desperately important. But a happy day at work isnt;t the same as a motivated goal driven day.

In fact the key effect of incentives is not to motivate people, and I agree with Pink, Amabile and Kramer in that (to work harder and hopefully receive the reward) but rather to provide clarity to employees on what an organization really values. In short, you get what you reward: not predominantly because you have motivated employees with the potential of reward (that helps, but only slightly), but overwhelmingly because the rewards remove ambiguity.

If you tell your staff that eating ice cream is unhealthy for them, but give out free ice cream at lunch every day will the consumption of ice cream increase or decrease? There’s no question consumption will rise. That’s because although you’ve really sent a mixed message (one that encourages eating ice cream and another that discourages it) the message to eat ice cream was more compelling – because that’s where you invested cold hard cash. The message that ice cream was unhealthy was jus a message, while the free ice cream was something more – it was an incentive.  This is a powerful idea in Making it Big in Software – incentives clarify intentions. They identify for people what an organization really values. In so doing, within the morass of mixed corporate messages, incentives filter the chaff from the wheat.

Pink, Amabile and Kramer are probably bang-on that progress is a dominant factor in job satisfaction. But to really keep a team passionate and focussed you need more than a satisfied team, you also need a team that’s completely focussed on its goals. Clarity of purpose. That’s where good ol’ fashioned incentives can work wonders.