It occurs to me that empowerment matters. It matters enough for me to think about this deeply and search out those who have thought about this deeply. If it matters deeply enough to you then continue reading. If it does not really matter to you then I advise you to go and do something that you care deeply about. With that said, lets start.
What difference does empowerment make?
It really matters if the people in your organisation show up empowered. Empowered to do great work, to create products which show up as ‘magic’, to touch customers in a way that leaves those customers feeling welcomed-understood-validated-helped, to generate an end to end customer experience that simplifies-enriches the lives of your customers.
It really matters, if you, show up as empowered and create a context that allows the people in your business to show up empowered. And allows your customers to show up and experience themselves as empowered. And creates a space for your suppliers to show up empowered – empowered to share their knowledge and expertise in contributing to the performance of your organisation.
It really matters, if as customers, we show up empowered. Empowered to do business with organisations that stand for purposes-values-behaviours that speak to us. And not do business with organisations that do not stand for and embody that which matters to us. Empowered to get together and apply pressure on regulators and those in government to put in place legislation that protects our interests as customers and to enforce the existing legislation. We are also empowered to do nothing. That is our choice; choice is that which comes with empowerment.
In short, empowerment or the lack of it matters. It occurs to me that empowerment is rather like sunshine in the western world (in the depths of winter) or rain in a region of cursed with drought. Empowerment creates possibilities which simply are not open-present without the existence-presence of empowerment.
Perhaps because I am so vividly present to the significance and possibility that inheres in empowerment, I chose to put my children in Montessori School. It occurs to me that it is also the reason that so much of what is written on empowerment (employees, customers) strikes me as shallow and leaves me feeling disappointed-cheated.
Why all the bleating about the lack of empowerment?
There are two particular aspects of the empowerment conversation that I particularly wish to highlight. First, there is the assumption that empowerment is a thing to be gifted from the Tops to the Middles and Bottoms. And from the Middles to the Bottoms. And from the company to customers. Second, is the assumption that empowerment is a blessing and people are yearning to be empowered.
It occurs to me that by virtue of being human you and I are always empowered. You and I are empowered because you and I are free – free to choose. It occurs to me that Sartre spelled this out rather pithily:
“Man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
What shows up for me as being a more interested enquiry is this one, given that you and I are empowered why is it that you and I evade this empowerment? Why all the bleating about empowerment – more precisely the lack of empowerment? What is it that we are evading through this bleating on the lack of empowerment? Why this supplication at the feet of ‘leaders’? And why is it that so few ‘leaders’ actually show us as being empowered to chart their own course, and thus lead?
Werner Erhard’s profound insight on empowerment
I share with you the profound insight and wisdom of Werner Erhard. And I encourage you (and I) to listen, really listen to his speaking:
“If you are empowered, you suddenly have a lot of work to do because you have the power to do it.
If you are unempowered, you are less dominated by the opportunities in front of you. In other words, you have an excuse to not do the work. You have a way out. You have the security of being able to do what you have always done and get away.
If you are empowered, suddenly you must step out, innovate and create.
The cost, however, of being unempowered is people’s self-expression. They always have the feeling that they have something in them that they never really gave, never really expressed.
By simply revealing the payoffs and costs of being unempowered, people have a choice. They can begin to see that it is possible to make the choice to be empowered rather than to function without awareness.
Empowerment requires a breakthrough and in part that breakthrough is a kind of shift from looking for a leader to a sense of personal responsibility.
The problems we now have in communities and societies are going to be resolved only when we are brought together by a common sense that each of us is visionary. Each of us must come to the realization that we can function and live at the level of vision rather than following some great leader’s vision.
Instead of looking for a great leader, we are in an era where each of us needs to find the great leader in ourselves.”
– Werner Erhard
So what does it take for empowerment to show up?
It occurs to me that it takes the following for empowerment to show up in our way of being-in-the-world:
a) Getting that we are always-already empowered as spelled out by Sartre and so vividly illustrated by Viktor Frankl in his recounting of his concentration camp experiences (Man in Search of Meaning);
b) Caring deeply enough about our being-in-the-world to see-invent possibilities. Possibilities for putting our own ‘dent in the universe’.
c) Courage to put ourselves at risk and act – to live from and into the possibilities that speak to us, to give up comfort and embrace work, to let go of our existing identity and invent-create-embrace the identity that is needed to fulfil on the possibility that we have invented.
What do you say?
I am no longer a fan of customer-centricity nor customer-centric business. I am not a fan of the way many are going about customer focus, customer-centricity, or customer obsession. It occurs to me that the approach taken by many towards arriving at customer focus, customer-centricity, and customer obsession is not gold, it is fools gold.
Why? Because it occurs to me that an organisation that shows up as customer-centric does not centre itself on its customers. At least not in the simplistic sense that is being written-talked about, promoted and acted upon by many.
I get that I make a bold, even controversial statement, and it highly unlikely to win me applause. That is OK, given that my commitment is to write my truth and take a skeptical stance towards the dominant ideologies and practices.
I get that you might want to better understand why it is that I assert that which I assert here. Allow me to point at, illustrate, and unconceal that which I am getting at here by sharing with you some quotes. Let’s start with Emmy Van Deurzen, chartered counselling psychologist and registered existential psychotherapist:
…. one can never ignore the needs of others when making personal decisions but neither can one allow others to entirely determine oneself even when alone. This is a paradox.
Yes, you do need to consider customers – their needs, their desired outcomes, their ‘jobs-to-be-done’, their preferences etc. And you cannot run a successful business just by focussing on your customers. The game of business involves other players whose needs have to be considered. For example, a facet of business life caught my attention whilst working with smaller businesses, which had not so gripped me for most of my life working in big businesses. What facet? The critical importance of finding, hiring, organising, enabling, inspiring, channeling, and retaining the people who actually work inside the business to do that which is necessary to create value for customers. It occurs to me that this is just as important for big businesses, it is not so evident because the dysfunctions of a demotivated workforce don’t show up as vividly in a huge organisation. Or take a look at Zappos, its success is partly built on the way the founders and management team treated suppliers (as a valuable part of Zappos) and thus called forth co-operation from them.
Furthermore, if you simply follow what customers are telling you then you leave yourself open to the disruption caused by those who can see beyond what customers are saying in market research and customer surveys. Here, I share a passage from Matt Watkinson, the author of The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences:
It is not only consumers who have shifted towards other-directedness and ended up struggling: businesses have too. The dominant obsession with market intelligence, competitor analysis, and customer research is all about developing a more powerful radar, and the endless hand-wringing and strategising over social media betrays the kind of anxieties that are most often found in those eager for the approval of others.
In contrast, we most admire those businesses with a strong inner direction – a clear set of values, integrity and sense of purpose – and tend to lionise celebrity CEOs who bring that ethos to life…….. Customers churn between suppliers to find the best deal, not because we are all extremely price sensitive, but because there is nothing to be loyal to.
What Matt is pointing at here is that we are not simply the kind of beings that economics says we are. Nor are we the kind of beings that rationalist philosophy, behavioural psychology, and scientific management assumes that we are. The human being is a richer human being. A human being that strives for meaning and connection, open to being loyal to ideals, values, missions that elevate human life.
Finally, I want to leave you with wisdom from John Kay, an British economist:
If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of ‘obliquity’: paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows that oblique approaches are the most successful, especially in difficult terrain.
Obliquity is necessary because we live in an world of uncertainty and complexity; the problems we encounter aren’t always clear – and we often can’t pinpoint what our goals are anyway; circumstances change; people change – and are infuriatingly hard to predict; and direct approaches are often arrogant and unimaginative.
So let me remind you of my central assertion:
A customer-centric organisation does not centre itself on its customers. It is a paradox. And I say that it occurs to me that the way that many organisations are going about customer focus and customer-centricity, will not get them there. The path heavily promoted, and commonly taken, is fools gold.
Whilst I abhor combat, I do welcome conflict: conflict is simply the showing up of difference. And if difference is approached through the spirit of dialogue then it unconceals aspects of the world that are hidden from each of us. So if you disagree with that which I have written then please speak your mind, educate me, share that which you see and which I do not see. I wish you a great day and thank you for making the time to listen to my speaking.
I have been reflecting over 20+ years of experience centred on enabling, effecting, facilitating business change and improving business performance. During this time I have been involved with a whole range of management panaceas:
- business process re-engineering;
- management information systems;
- ERP systems;
- shared services
- knowledge management systems;
- kaizen, lean and six sigma;
- the internet;
- database marketing;
- permission marketing;
- relationship marketing;
- 1:1 marketing;
- customer relationship management;
- data mining and predictive analytics;
- organisational development;
- change management;
- leadership development;
- strategy and strategic planning;
- scenario planning;
- balanced scorecard;
- zero based budgeting;
- matrix organisations;
- customer experience;
- customer loyalty schemes;
- employee engagement;
- corporate social responsibility;
- social business;
- digital transformation …
What shoes up for me when I reflect on this experience?
I am present to the gulf between the promise of each of these ‘tools’ and the reality of that which showed up when these tools were introduced-applied in business settings. Rarely did the reality match up to the promise of these ‘tools’. Why? Were these ‘tools’ defective?
It occurs to me that few of these ‘tools’ are fundamentally flawed in themselves. The one that comes to mind is the area of knowledge management. There a huge gulf between information and knowledge. Knowledge management systems are great at holding information. They cannot ever hold-distribute knowledge. Knowledge is contextual, largely tacit and embodied. If you get this then you get that the premise of knowledge management systems is fundamentally flawed.
If most of these tools are sound then why has there been such a gap between the promise and the reality?
Take just one example: CRM. Why is it that whilst CRM systems have become essential part of the corporate infrastructure, they have not fulfilled on their promise: to drive marketing, sales and service effectiveness; and generate sound relationships thus contributing to higher revenues and profit margins?
Before I provide my answer to this question, I pose another question. Why is it that whilst so much is known about Steve Jobs (the way he went about doing what he did at Apple) there will never be another Steve Jobs? Why is it that you can copy Steve Jobs’ techniques and not generate the results that Steve Jobs generated? Why is it that pretty much all one needs to know about Zappos is widely available yet there is only one Zappos? For that matter, why is it that USAA is still in a league of its own?
Here’s my pointer to solving this riddle:
All we have is who we ‘are’, and this in turn shapes what we do. Being is sometimes though of as something intangible, abstract, or even ineffable, but it is actually quite real ….. Being is the context from which all of our thinking and actions spring, as opposed to doing, which is just a content that flows from the context.
Robert Hargrove, Masterful Coaching
The access to empowerment, customer-centricity, and innovation lies in being
Let me put this bluntly, the access to customer-centric organisations lies in being. Not in the ‘tools and techniques’ (the doing, the content). The same applies to cultivating a loyal, motivated, engaged, high performing workforce. And it is no different when it comes to innovation.
If empowerment, customer-centricity and innovation is not your being then all the ‘tools and techniques’ will make little difference. On the other hand if empowerment, customer-centricity, and innovation are your being then you will find or create all the ‘tools and techniques’ that you need as you need them.
There are people in leadership positions whose being is in tune with talk of enlightened leadership, customer focus, and empowerment. I dedicate this post to my friend Lonnie Mayne. I am clear that Lonnie’s being is a clearing for the best of our humanity and our greatness to show up. And as such I find Lonnie to be a source of inspiration.
What Is The Achilles Heel of Strategy?
My colleague and I put our whole selves into our work talking with folks in the business, listening to customer conversations, reviewing research, looking at competitors and trends, looking at various approaches, evaluating these approaches and coming up with optimal course of action for our client and our client’s customers.
To our delight the strategy was accepted-approved by management. A month or so later we got busy on implementation planning. It was during the implementation planning when hard decisions had to be made that the commitment to the digital strategy unravelled. Our clients got the value of pursuing the digital strategy and they found themselves in a particular situation which called forth and drove a different set of choice and actions.
This is the Achilles Heel of strategy, every executive finds himself in a particular situation. And every situation has its own ‘logic’ and a momentum. As such it really it takes something to alter course and make any significant headway. It takes resolve – fierce resolve, the kind of resolve that grabs you and keeps hold of you. It is not the kind of resolve that is created through the intellect.
Why Don’t We Do What We Know We Should Do?
Have you wondered why your organisation sucks at being authentically customer-centric: practicing relationship marketing, client centred selling, pleasing customer service? Have you wondered why it is that your organisation sucks at calling forth the best from your people?
Now and then someone speaks and their speaking is wisdom. Today, I share with you the wisdom of David Maister as articulated in his great book ‘Strategy and the Fat Smoker‘:
“In business, strategic plans are also stuffed with familiar goals: build client relationships, act like team players, and provide fulfilling motivating careers. We want the benefits of these things. We know what to do, we know why we should do it, and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don’t do what’s good for them….
The primary reason we do not work at behaviours which we know we need to improve is that the rewards … are in the future; the disruption, discomfort and discipline needed to get their are immediate…..
Our default pattern and why it doesn’t work
When it comes to improving performance at the individual, team or organisational level we tend to follow a self-defeating pattern. I have seen this pattern played out again and again over the last 10+ years as organisations have grappled with relationship marketing, CRM, customer experience, employee engagement, digital. Here’s what David Maister says:
We start self-improvement programs with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off immediately, or if a temptation to depart from the program arises, we abandon our efforts completely – until the next time we pretend to be on the program.
That’s our pattern. Try a little, succumb to temptation, and give up. Repeat until totally frustrated. Unfortunately, there is rarely, if ever, a benefit from dabbling or trying only a little. You can’t get half the benefits of a better marriage by cutting out half your affairs, cure half the problems of alcoholism by cutting out half the drinks or reduce the risks of lung cancer by cutting out half the cigarettes.
You can’t achieve competitive differentiation through things you do “reasonably well most of the time.” You not only cannot dabble, but you also cannot have short-term strategies ….. The pursuit of short-term goals is inherently anti-strategic and self-defeating.
You are either seriously on the program, really living what you have chosen, or you are wasting your time.
Why strategic analysis and listening to customers is not the answer
I worked in an organisation which expended considerably time-effort-cost in doing NPS quarterly. We had access to the voice of the customer. And the voice tended to speak the same tune quarter after quarter. Why? Because the people in the organisation were not willing to change behaviour in any significant way.
Is it possible that setting up VoC listening programs are a ruse? A way of saying to yourself and others that you are serious about improving the customer experience so that you hide your unwillingness to change your behaviour, the behaviour of your team, your organisation? What does David Maister say?
Improving the quality of the analysis is not where the problem lies. The necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve.
What are the essential questions of strategy?
If we know the why-what-how of employee engagement, meaningful customer relationships, and customer loyalty then what are the strategic question? Here’s what David Maister says:
The essential questions of strategy are these:
 Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever?
 Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make?
 What issues are we really ready to tackle?
Now that’s a different tone of conversation and discussion (and the reason that real debate is so often avoided).
What am I getting at here?
To come up with products that enrich the lives of customers requires resolve, analysis is insufficient. To create-deliver truly personalised-relevent marketing requires resolve, analysis and marketing technology are insufficient. To call forth the kind of service that generates gratitude from customers and makes them feel good about doing business with your organisation requires resolve, analysis-outsourcing-technology are insufficient. To orchestrate an end to end customer experience that calls forth customer loyalty requires formidable resolve, VoC and customer journey mapping are insufficient. Put different, dabbling won’t do; it occurs to me that most are merely dabbling.
I say, it is worth listening to David Maister once more:
There is no shame in aiming for competence if you are unwilling to pay the price for excellence. But don’t try to mislead clients, staff, colleagues or yourself with time-wasting, demoralising attempts to convince them that you are actually committed to pursuing the goal.
Relax, it’s ok to be just ok
As I get present to the world of business as it is and as it is not, I get present to the following and contradicts all the evangelising about customer focus, customer service, customer experience, customer relationships and customer-centricity:
1. Almost all businesses are unexceptional. They provide ok products (that do the job well enough). They provide OK digital real estate (websites, social media, apps, mobile). They provide OK stores. They hire OK people. They provide OK customer service – whether in stores or via the call-centres. And they generate an OK end to end customer experience, by default. As a result they do OK – they survive and make OK profits.
2. It is only against this background of OKness that the exceptional can and does show up. It is because almost all banks and insurance companies are ok that USAA glow so brig and htly. It is because most digital retailers are OK that Amazon shines brightly. It is because most high street retailers are OK that John Lewis and Waitrose (part of the John Lewis Partnership) shine brightly. It is because most organisations provide OK customer service that Zappos and Zane’s Cycles shine brightly.