Customer-Centricity: why engineers are not enough and poets are essential

Where is the enthusiasm born of imagination and passion?

In my 25+ years of walking the corridors of business organisations I have come across the mind/intellect in many guises: as strategy; as planning; as process; as metrics; as technology; as standardisation; as the pursuit of ‘best practice’ and ‘benchmarking’……  What I have rarely experienced is enthusiasm born of imagination and passion.  Yes, I have come face to face with fear, with greed, with pressure, with determination.  And that is not the same as imagination, passion, enthusiasm.  In this post I want to deal with imagination.

Does imagination matter?

Is business simple a game of mind?   Is it simply a case of putting in place the right mix of ‘resources’ – people, processes, technology, metrics – based on analysis and then configuring and deploying these resources in the correct configuration?  I say that this is the traditional assumption and narrative. And that it is not a surprise given the backgrounds of the people who read and write these narratives.

It occurs to me that imagination and passion do matter.  It occurs to me that they play a pivotal role in the game of business, to customer service, to customer experience, to customer-centricity. And it occurs to me that these two dimension are neglected – pushed out to the background or paid lip service.  I see tactics (VoC, data mining, CRM systems, process redesign….) devoid of strategy and where I do encounter strategy it shows up as being devoid of imagination.  It is as if just about everyone is playing the same game (make the P&L numbers) to the same rules and each players is expecting to differentiate himself from his competitors!

Why is imagination so critical?

I say imagination does not just matter, it is critical for any industry that is not immune from change in customer preferences, in competitors and competition, and in technological disruptions.  Why?  Let me share with you the insight of a particularly insightful philosopher:

” An animal has not enough imagination to draw up a project of life other than the mere monotonous repetitions of previous actions ….  

If life is not realisation of a program, intelligence becomes a purely mechanical function without discipline and orientation.  One forgets too easily that intelligence, however keen, cannot furnish its own direction and therefore is unable to attain to actual technical discoveries.  It does not know by itself what to prefer among countless “inventable” things and is lost in their unlimited possibilities.  Technical capacity can arise only in an entity whose intelligence functions in the service of an imagination pregnant not with technical, but vital projects.”  Jose Ortega Y Gasset

Put differently, there are limitations to reason.  Reason is limited by reason. Reason keeps one restricted to the comfort zone.  And it is great for as long as the environment does not change.  Imagination is needed to create/shape new environments and to deal with environments that are in the process of change.

Take Amazon.  Was it not borne out of the imagination of Jeff Bezos?  Take Starbucks.  Was it not borne out of the imagination of Howard Schultz?  Take Zappos?  Was it not borne out of Nick Swinmurn?  And was it not imagination (of being the company known for great service across the world) that enabled the Zappos leadership team to put Zappos’ existence at stake to reach for that which was imagined?  Think Vodafone. Was it not borne out of the imagination of mobile telecommunications?  The list is endless.

What has this got to excelling at the game of becoming customer-centric, at being a customer experience master?  

Everything.  In my travels what shows up for me?  Obsession with the technology of customer service, of customer experience, of customer-centricity.  When I speak ‘technology’ I am not just pointing at IT systems.  I am pointing at obsession with the means/methods/tools – the rational domain of the engineer.  What does not show up for me, what do I not encounter?  An imagination pregnant with possibilities and vital projects to which customer service, the customer experience, and customer-centricity can contribute.

Imagination is critical to making the shift.  Why?  Because that is what is needed to move out of the prison of the ‘making the numbers’ and sticking to the comfort of the ‘known and best practice’.  What made Steve Jobs great?  At the technical level Steve Wozniak was supreme. Why is he simply a footnote?  Because he lacked the imagination of Steve Jobs.  Put differently, Jobs was the poet, philosopher and the founder of a new religion around the user experience.  Allow me to illustrate this through the insight of Jose Ortega Y Gasset:

The vital program is pretechnical. Mans’ technical capacity – that is, the technician – is in charge of inventing the simplest and safest way to meet man’s necessities.  But these …. are in their turn inventions. They are what man in each epoch, nation, or individual aspires to be. Hence there exists a first, pre technical invention par excellence, the original desire…  which part of man is it, or rather what sort of men are they, that are in special charge of the vital program?  Poets, philosophers, politicians, founders of religions, discoverers of new values…. the engineer is dependent on them all. Which explains why they all rank higher than he…”

Summing up

Put simply, without poets and philosophers like Jobs your engineers like Wozniak are not going to get you far in the game of customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.

What does it take to generate ’employee engagement’? (Part IV)

Let’s recap. ‘Employee engagement’ is sought after because engaged employees generate a multitude of benefits that translate into higher revenues and profits.  And I can categorically say that the road to great customer experience travels through the gate of employee engagement.  Yet research shows that only 20% of employees report being engaged the rest are alienated.  This is despite all the talk of empowerment and social business.  What I have argued so far is that the for employee engagement to show up organisational leaders need to create organisational contexts which call forth employee engagement.  And that means letting go of the dominant/ubiquitous ‘concept of persons’ as primarily economic objects and resources and adopting a fuller/richer ‘concept of persons’.  To illustrate kind of results show up when one adopts such a fuller/richer ‘concept of persons’ I shared with you the example of Maria Montessori.

The purpose of this post is to come up with a fuller/richer ‘concept of persons’, one that provides access to generating contexts that allow employee engagement to show up.  If you and I are going to arrive at such a concept, and you are to get value out of this post, then I suggest pondering the following insightful statement:

“To ignore the fact that each thing has a character of its own and not what we wish to demand of it, is in my opinion the real capital sin, which I call the sin of the heart because it derives its nature from lack of love.  There is nothing so illicit as to dwarf the world by means of our manias and blindness, to minimise reality, to suppress mentally fragments of what exists.  This happens when one demands that what is deep should appear in the same way as what is superficial…”  Ortega Y Gasset

‘Concept of persons’: what kind of being is a human being?

I say the being of human being is shaped by the kind of answer that you and I come up with and act on to the question “What kind of a being is a human being?”  Pascal summed it up well when he wrote in his Pensees:

  • “Custom is our nature..” (89)
  • “What are our natural principles but principles of custom?” (92)
  • “Custom is a second nature which destroys the former. But what is nature?  For is custom not natural?” (93)

Ortega Y Gasset said the same thing differently “I am I and my circumstance”.   If you find this goes against the grain of your taken for granted ‘concept of persons’ then I invite you to take a look at the 10 modern cases of feral children.

Why is it the case that the being of human being is so plastic?   Because of a truth that the modern ‘concept of persons’ as rational, autonomous, self-willed individuals does not wish to face:

“..individual selfhood is meaningfully related to others from the beginning.  At the deepest level, human being is relational…… the human spirit arises and develops via the nurture of empathic relationships”  John Firman  and Ann Gila, The Primal Wound

I want to emphasise the central/critical importance of empathic relationships.  There is so much talk about relationships and so little real understanding of the power of relationships – in particular the positive power of empathic relationships and the destructive power of non-empathic relationships.  Think back to the story of the millwright and the question that the folks at Herman Miller ask themselves “Was he a poet who did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?”

I say that the millwright showed up as poet for those who related to him as a poet and thus called him forth as a poet.  And he showed up as a millwright who related to him as a millwright and called him forth as a millwright.  If you have a background in physics you may know of the issue of wave-particle duality:  when the experiment is set up to detect electrons as waves then electrons show up as exhibiting the properties of waves; and when the experiment is set-up to show electrons as being particles, they show up as particles!

What kind of a context calls forth engagement from employees?

Let me be blunt:  command and control or employee engagement? choose!   Yes, I know a whole bunch of ‘charlatans’ have promised you the silver bullet – that you can generate employee engagement in the context of command and control.  How is that working for you?   Not great, if my experience and the research provides an accurate picture of what is so.  Bradford and Cohen have even written a book that indirectly deals with the matter of engagement.  It is called Power Up and its fundamental assertion is that leaders/followers/organisations have to move from a taken for granted ‘heroic leadership model’ to a ‘shared leadership model’ if organisations are to access and make breakthroughs in organisational performance.  That’s right: leadership-power-responsibility-accountability of the whole is shared by all, at all levels in the organisation, in all functions and teams.

If you are to generate the kind of context that calls forth engagement from employees then you need to get, really get, the following:

“Throughout his life a person will experience himself as a cohesive harmonious firm unit in time and space, connected with his past and pointing meaningfully into a creative-productive future, but only as long as, at each stage of his life, he experiences certain representatives of his human surrounding as joyfully responding to him, as available to him as sources of idealised strength and calmness, as being silently present but in essence like him, and, at any rate, able to grasp his inner life more or less accurately so that their responses are attuned to his needs and allow him to grasp their inner life when his is in need of such sustenance.” Kohut

Now compare that with the reality of organisational life which is best summed up by the following statement: “empowerment and trust are the rhetoric… the centralisation of power and control are the reality.”   That gives you an idea of the scale of the challenge and why none of the silver bullets have worked despite empowerment coming on the scene back in the 1990s.  Incidentally, it also explains why organisations have put in place ‘social technologies’ and very few employees are actually using them or being social. 

 How are you doing on delivering these five fundamental human needs?

As Kohut says above, if your employee is to function effectively to make the kind of contribution that he is capable of making then s/he needs to get that you show up as a person/organization “able to grasp his inner life more or less accurately so that their responses are attuned to his need”.  Which begs the question, what are human needs above and beyond mere survival? I say that they are:

  1. The need believe in something and to have hope for the future (meaning/purpose);
  2. The need to be loved (attachment);
  3. The need to belong (home, family, organisation…);
  4. The need to be heard (empathy);
  5. The need for self-expression / achievement (fulfillment).

How many of these needs are even on your radar?  How well are you doing on delivering on these needs? And you wonder why your employees are not engaged with their jobs and the organisational goals!

The Quakers got the kind of employee engagement that we are searching for

If you still haven’t gotten it, really gotten it then I leave you with this quote by Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop:  “I am still looking for the modern equivalent of those Quakers who ran successful businesses, made money because they offered honest products and treated their people decently… This business creed, sadly, seems long forgotten.”

I throughly recommend that you check out this article on the Quaker way of doing business.  Why?  Because if you have the listening then you will get a lot of value out of it.  Once upon time the most successful businesses in the UK were run by Quakers!  Why? The Quakers got and practiced the true meaning of ‘social’: they literally saw each human being as a manifestation of God like themselves and they treated each human being decently: the kind of decency that is deserved by a human being fashioned by God in the image of God!  Which is why they got the kind of engagement they got from their employees, their suppliers, their customers…..

And finally

No human being wishes to see himself or relate to himself merely as a resource or a tool at the command of another.  Each of us has a deep need to live a life that matters.  And to be in an empathic relationship with our fellow human beings.  So the challenge for you and your organisation is to a) stand for something noble rather than being in the game to line your pockets and those of your absent/invisible/illusory shareholders; and b) to treat your people decently respecting the dignity that is so fundamental to the health of the human being.