Why Innovation Is Rare: The Problem of Knowledge & The Curse Of Expertise

Do We Know It All?

I’d like to start this conversation by getting us mindful to a definition:




lack of knowledge or information.

“he acted in ignorance of basic procedures”

I say that our ignorance is vast.  And we are not present to our ignorance because we are convinced that we have an accurate grasp of the world: we know it all!  Our hubris blinds us that which history makes vividly clear: each age is deluded in its conviction that it has accessed the truth of what is so.  Does this remind you of Socrates? The Oracle claimed that Socrates was the wisest man because he knew that he knew nothing.  On that basis we are not wise – nowhere near close to wise.

Do You Remember This Starbucks/’Milk’ Story?

Why have I launched into this conversation?  If you read this blog then you may remember this post and this narrative:

Last week, while on an average holiday shopping trip, my mother and I decided to stop by Starbucks to get a quick snack…..

When we got up to the counter, my mother placed our simple order, at which point she asked for a “tall” cup of two percent white milk. This is how the conversation played out:

“Mocha,” said the barista.

“No. Milk,” my mother repeated.


“No. Two percent white milk.”

“Oh… Milk!”

….. I attempted to withhold my personal thoughts. Milk. You know, that white stuff you pour in the coffee? Yes, well, we want an entire cup full of that. Minus the coffee, of course.

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out, but not without a few stifled giggles.

Making Sense Of This Story Through The Insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein

You may also remember the follow up post where I made use of the insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein. And in so doing attempted to point out that:

  • every human being is always a being-in-the-world  – which is to say that the human being and the world are so interwoven that they are one not two;
  • every human being finds himself, at every moment, situated-embedded in a particular world e.g. the business world, the academic world, the public world, the world of home etc and that world ‘takes over’ the human beings working-living in that world;
  • a word such as ‘milk’ does not point at a specific object rather it, and every word-utterance, is a social tool for coordinating social action in a specific world – think for a moment what ‘milk’ means to a woman that has just given birth and compare that to what ‘milk’ means to a supermarket;
  • that the confusion that occurred at Starbucks and with the barista was due to the narrator’s mother turning up in the Starbucks world of coffee and using the word ‘milk’ inappropriately – akin to you turning up at your friend’s home for a meal, enjoying the meal and then asking for the bill; and
  • to really understand a world (e.g. the advertising world) one needs to live in that world by taking up a role in that world and doing that which goes with the role taken up.

After reading this follow up post, Adrian Swinscoe commented (bolding is my work):

I really like your exploration of this issue from a philosophical angle and learnt a lot from it…. 

However, at the end of the post I found myself wondering if the heart of the problem was something quite humdrum and that the barista just didn’t listen. She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

As you point out, if we don’t get out of our way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.

Now I want to address the points that Adrian is making. And that means grappling with the problem of knowledge and the curse of expertise.  Let’s start with Adrian’s statement “if we don’t get out of our own way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.”

Is It Possible To Get Out Of Our ‘Heads’?

If I was to get out of my own ‘head’ then whose ‘head’ would I use to be able to make sense of the world in which I find myself? Besides we are almost never in our heads, we are mostly on automatic pilot immersed in cultural practices and taken over by our habits.  If this was not the case then thinking, genuine thinking, would not be so effortful for us.  Let’s listen to Charles Guignon:

If all our practices take place within a horizon of vague and inexplicit everyday understanding , then even the possibility of something obtruding as intelligible is determined in advance by this understanding …….. the questions that I can ask and the kind of answers that would make sense are always guided by my attuned understanding of “ordinary” interpretations …. Without this understanding, nothing could strike me as familiar or strange.

For this reason Heidegger says that all explanation presupposes understanding…… The legitimate task of seeking explanations is always conducting within a horizon of understanding that guides our questioning and establishes procedures for attaining clarity and elucidation. Through our mastery of the shared language of the Anyone, we have developed specific habits and expectations that enable us to see things as obvious or puzzling...

A detective trying to make sense of how a crime was committed …. might take even the most mundane item in the room and ask how it came to be there ….. great advances have come about in the sciences through the ability of individuals to step back and question what had been taken as obvious and self-evident. But such cases of departing from established habits and expectations make sense only against a background of shared understanding which remains constant through such shifts. In other words, we can make sense of unintelligibility and a demand for explanation only within a horizon of intelligibility which is not itself thrown into question …..

– Charles B. Guignon, Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge

To sum up we are always in our ‘head’ and that head arises and is kept in existence through our shared cultural practices. A particular potent cultural practices is language.  Notice that to operate in society we must speak the language of that society – everyday language.  And to operate in particular world (e.g. world of business, world of finance, world of advertising, world of healthcare ….) we must be fluent in the language of that world.

Adjustments can be made to our ‘head’ and it is not easy to make these adjustments. Why?  Adjustments are not made through thinking – not made through cognitive means.  As ‘head’ is given by roles, habits and cultural practices it is necessary to make a shift in these. How? By moving into and inhabiting-living new worlds. This is what occurs when the CEO leaves the world of the CEO and takes on-lives the role of the frontline employee for five days; Undercover Boss is all about this shift.  If you find yourself interested in that which I am speaking about here then I recommend watching the movie The Doctor (starring William Hurt) – it is instructive in a way that my words cannot instruct.

The Curse Of Expertise

How does Adrian interpret the Starbucks/’Milk’ story?  The same way that many of us interpret it:

She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

Why this conviction that ‘that which occurred’ is the fault of the barista? Why this insistence on the incompetence of the barista?  I say that this explanation is so easily forthcoming and attracting (rather like a magnet) because it is the cultural practice to see fault in front line staff, especially as these jobs are low paid, and thus lay blame on them.

What if the barista was not fatigued, not tired, speaks the language well, has no agenda?  What if, on the contrary, the barista is highly skilled in her role of serving coffee to Starbucks customers?  Is it possible expertise, not ignorance, is the cause of the snafus?  Let’s listen to a zen master and see what we can learn:

In Japan we have the phrase “shoshin” which means “beginner’s mind”. The goal of practice is to always keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose your recite the Prajna Paramitra Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it….

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The curse of expertise is that the expert only sees that which s/he has been conditioned to see; hears that which s/he has been conditioned to listen to; makes sense of that which shows up through her already given horizon of understanding (see Guignon above). Put differently, the expert is stuck in a rut: all that shows up, including the anomaly, is interpreted in times of the taken for granted.  Which is why altruistic acts are made sense of in terms of selfishness given the Darwinian frame. Or the necessity to postulate ‘dark matter’ given the need to keep the existing model of the universe intact. Or the collapsing of Customer Experience with Customer Service in the business world.  Or the insistence of seeing CRM as technology and business process change rather than a fundamental change in the ‘way we do things around here’.

As a consultant/coach/facilitator what do I bring to the table?  At my best I bring to the table a beginner’s mind where everyone on the ‘inside’ is an expert. Which is why I am often able to see that which my clients cannot see.  The challenge always is to convey that which I have seen to my clients such that they do not reinterpret it into their existing way of seeing-doing things.  Often I fail: despite my best efforts to ‘ask for milk’ I find that my clients interpret as ‘mocha’.  And when I say “No, milk!”, they respond “Surely, you are asking for Mocha!”.  And even if I strike up the courage to insist that ‘milk’ is not the same as ‘Mocha’ I find that they often confuse ‘Two percent white milk” with ‘steamed milk’.  They are not at fault, it is the curse of expertise. And it inflicts us all!

And Finally A Quote

I leave you with a quote that sums up the situation and the challenge beautifully:

Create your future from your future not your past.

– Werner Erhard

“Oh … milk!”: Is This The Solution To The Customer Interaction Puzzle?

What Occurred and the Experience of What Occurred

In the last post I shared with a customer interaction that took place at Starbucks. If you are to get value out of this conversation it is necessary for you to go and read that last post. Before we proceed, I feel compelled to issue a warning: this post is not for those whose attention span is limited to 30 seconds.

How are we to make sense of what occurred?  Let’s start with how the author (Anna Papachristos) makes sense of the interaction between her mother and the Starbuck’s barista

I’m not sure what was more baffling–the fact that no one in the coffee shop listened, or that they’ve become blissfully unaware of the basics. I understand that Starbucks stands as a status symbol more than anything, but have we really distanced ourselves from the simple things in life that badly? This barista’s mistake may have been the result of a random miscommunication, but her confusion was nothing short of hilarious.

Making Sense of This Customer Interaction: Multiple Perspectives

Two people took up my invitation, in the last post, to put intellect-expertise into action and generate-share an explanation of what occurred.  First, lets listen to Gord Demers:

I can’t help but wonder if this could be an English as a Second Language (ESL) situation were one of the parties didn’t have English as their first language…… Maybe the music was too loud and the customer spoke softly and the employee never truly heard the correct order?

James Lawther shares a different take on what occurred:

My guess, though difficult as I wasn’t there…  The barista was bored out of her mind, waiting for her shift to end and was in a world of her own. How’s that?

Finally, lets just remind ourselves as to how Don Peppers choose to interpret this interaction:

Starbucks, like the roadside diner and any other business, tries to maintain quality and control costs by standardizing processes and operations. Routine tasks, if they can’t be automated, are at least handled in the same way by every employee.

My Take On What Occurred

It occurs to me another way to look at the situation and what occurred is to make use of the insights of two philosophers: Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

Wittgenstein on Language

Let’s start with Wittgenstein and his insight into language.  Wittgenstein starts his book, Philosophical Investigations, by sharing a quotation from St Augustine in order to put on the table our taken for granted understanding of language.  This is what Wittgenstein says about this account of language:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language.  It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.

Wittgenstein does not see language in this way.  Wittgenstein sees words and language as tools.  What kind of tools?  Social tools for social purposes in specific domains of social life:

A common summary of his argument is that meaning is use—words are not defined by reference to the objects they designate, nor by the mental representations one might associate with them, but by how they are used……

He shows how, in each case, the meaning of the word presupposes our ability to use it….

Wittgenstein’s point is not that it is impossible to define “game”, but that we don’t have a definition, and we don’t need one, because even without the definition, we use the word successfully. Everybody understands what we mean when we talk about playing a game……

Wittgenstein argues that definitions emerge from what he termed “forms of life”, roughly the culture and society in which they are used. Wittgenstein stresses the social aspects of cognition; to see how language works for most cases, we have to see how it functions in a specific social situation. It is this emphasis on becoming attentive to the social backdrop against which language is rendered intelligible that explains Wittgenstein’s elliptical comment that “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

Source: Wikipedia/Philosophical Investigations

Heidegger: human being as being-in-the-world

In grappling with the question of being Heidegger chooses to look at the being who has an understanding of being: human being.  In so looking, Heidegger asserts that a human being is a being-in-the-world. It is tempting to interpret this as meaning that the world is a container, say a glass, and the human being is in the world, as water is in a glass. Wrong!  A more accurate representation is to see a tapestry and a human being is one thread in the tapestry. Notice, there is not a thread isolated from the tapestry – the two are one!

Not only is a human being a being-in-the-world, it is also so that a human being is situated within specific worlds. What kind of ‘worlds’?  The world of academia.  The world of business. The world of politics. The world of education-schooling. The world of Christianity.  The world of Islam. The world of the high-tech start up. The VC world. The world of finance …… 

What constitutes a world?  A world consists of human beings, their concerns, roles, interactions between human beings, tasks and equipment (stuff). 

“Oh … milk!”: the solution to the riddle?

In our average everydayness what is closest to us is our environment (Umwelt) in which we are caught up in our concerns and activities.

– Heidegger

Situated in a world, busy with the concerns-activities-equipment, we approach each encounter from a particular understanding. What kind of understanding?  The automatic-default understanding of a particular world.  For example, in the world of dining at restaurants you automatically ask for the bill, pay, leave a tip. Do you do the same after enjoying a delicious meal at a friends house when you have been invited as a guest?  What would happen if you did ask your hostess for a bill? Or insist on paying for the meal?  

It occurs to me that the author (Anna Papachristos) committed the same kind of blunder (asking your host for a bill at the end of the meal) when the authors mother walked into Starbucks and asked for “Milk”.  In the world of Starbucks, the world of coffee and coffee drinkers, one does not walk into a Starbucks, stand in line, get to the barista and ask for milk.

The barista is in the world of coffee and in a dance with customers who show up and ask for a coffee. In this world the request for milk is puzzling. It is nonsensical in the sense that one cannot automatically make sense of it.  How does the barista make sense of it?  Probably by looking for the coffee word that sounds closest to milk: “Mocha?”  Notice, that the barista did not get milk until the authors mother said: “No. Two percent white milk.”. What was the barista’s response? “Oh … milk!” Finally, the barista has made sense of the nonsensical request for “milk”.

What makes me confident of my interpretation?  The author writes (the bolding is my work):

This barista’s mistake may have been the result of a random miscommunication, but her confusion was nothing short of hilarious.

Yes, the barista was confused. She was as confused by the request for milk as a hostess would be by a guest’s request for a bill!

Let’s move on and consider why it is that even when the barista got the demand for milk, Starbucks delivered steamed milk and not cold milk:

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out.

Think back to Wittgenstein: the meaning of a word is the use to which it is put within a particular social world.  What is the meaning-use of the word ‘milk’ in Starbucks?  Milk that goes into coffee. What kind of milk is that? Steamed milk.  Put differently, in a game of chess ‘castle’ does not mean a castle as in a castle where a lord lives. Nor does castling in chess mean moving between castles in real life!

Why Have I Made Such An Effort With This Challenge?

Think research: how can you be sure that the question that you asked is the question that the customer answered?

Think Voice of the Customer feedback: how can you be sure that what you took the customer’s feedback to mean is what the customer meant?

Think requirements gathering: how can you be sure that you have understand the requirement that the customer is actual communicating?

Think experience design: how can you be sure that you have gotten the experience of the customer that you talking to, right now?


To truly understand our fellow human beings we have to immerse ourselves in them. How? By living in their worlds. Which is why it takes a nurse to understand a nurse, a doctor to understand a doctor, a CEO to understand a CEO, a woman to understand a woman, a person with back pain to understand a person with back pain, an immigrant to understand an immigrant.

If you do want to understand another then learn from Undercover Boss.  Get out of your office.  Dive into a particular world by fulfilling a particular role in that world.  Dress for that role, train for that role. Dive into the activities that go with that role by actually doing the activities – not as a simulation but for real. And spend enough time, at least five days, living that role.

It takes a woman to understand a woman, a CEO to understand a CEO, an immigrant to understand an immigrant, a teenager to understand a teenager, a person with back pain to understand another person with back pain …….. How do you know when you have arrived at this level of understanding?  You live-breathe-speak the same language! And it speaks you.  Enough for today ..

Can You Solve This Customer Interaction Puzzle?

Q: What Is The Cause Of This Customer Interaction Turning Out As It Turned Out?

Do you have an avid interest in designing-conducting research, eliciting-capturing requirements, listening to the voice of the customer, or designing customer experiences?  If you have this interest then I invite you to help me solve the following customer experience puzzle:

Last week, while on an average holiday shopping trip, my mother and I decided to stop by Starbucks to get a quick snack…..

When we got up to the counter, my mother placed our simple order, at which point she asked for a “tall” cup of two percent white milk. This is how the conversation played out:

“Mocha,” said the barista.

“No. Milk,” my mother repeated.


“No. Two percent white milk.”

“Oh… Milk!”

….. I attempted to withhold my personal thoughts. Milk. You know, that white stuff you pour in the coffee? Yes, well, we want an entire cup full of that. Minus the coffee, of course.

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out, but not without a few stifled giggles.

– See more at: http://www.1to1media.com/weblog/2013/12/milkin_it_a_starbucks_story.html#sthash.q04UKrYT.dpuf

I ask you to put your intellect and expertise into action. Please consider the situation and give an answer to the following question: What is the cause of the mismatch between the customer’s request for “milk” and how Starbucks responded to the customer’s request?  

Why it is worth spending time on this puzzle?  Because we are grappling with that which lies at the heart of making sense of the customer’s voice and sound experience design.  It is also the reason that so many systems, including CRM systems, disappoint customers even though the designers are convinced that they have listened to the customer and designed the system to meet the customers needs-requirements.

What Explanations-Interpretations Have Been Put Forth To Date?

To date, I have come across two ways of explaining-interpreting that which occurred between the customer and the Starbucks staff.  Allow me to share these with you.

The author of the story (Anna Papachristos) explains this breakdown in communication (and the resulting experience) as follows:

I’m not sure what was more baffling–the fact that no one in the coffee shop listened, or that they’ve become blissfully unaware of the basics. I understand that Starbucks stands as a status symbol more than anything, but have we really distanced ourselves from the simple things in life that badly? This barista’s mistake may have been the result of a random miscommunication, but her confusion was nothing short of hilarious. 

Don Peppers in his post (How To Deal With Customer Variability) sees the same situation in terms of variable customer needs-behaviour coming up against standardised processes and operations:

Starbucks, like the roadside diner and any other business, tries to maintain quality and control costs by standardizing processes and operations. Routine tasks, if they can’t be automated, are at least handled in the same way by every employee.

But customers are all different. They want different things – different sizes of products, different delivery dates, different specifications for services, and so forth.

Variability like this is something Frei and Morriss call “customer chaos,” and they suggest it can be managed in two basic ways: either by eliminating it, or by accommodating it. If you choose to eliminate variability, you will generate more efficiency. If you choose to accommodate it, you will generate better service.

My Take On This Interaction?


p>I do not find myself in agreement with the author (Anna Papachristos). Nor do I find myself in agreement with Don Peppers.  I propose to share my answer to this customer interaction puzzle in a follow up post – hopefully after some/many of you have put forward your answers by commenting.

What is the Kernal of a Strategy? (Part III, Guiding Policy)

This post is related to and carries on the conversation started in the following posts:

Good Strategy and Bad Strategy: What is the kernel of a strategy? (Part I)

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: What is the Kernel of a Strategy (Part II – Diagnosis)

What is a guiding policy?

Let’s start with what it is not.  A guiding policy is not concerned with ambition – the desired outcome, the end state, what you wish to accomplish. Arguably it is easy to create a picture of the kind of customer experience you want your organisation to generate say in 12 months.  Figuring out which course of action is most likely to get you there is a very different exercise and requires a different type of thinking.   Here is how Rumelt puts it in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy:

“The guiding policy outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnosis.  It is “guiding” because it channels action in certain directions without defining exactly what shall be done.…Like the guard rails on a highway, the guiding policy directs and constrains action without fully defining its content.”

I once consulted with a financial services company that had aggressive revenue and profit growth targets. Yet its growth – customer base, revenues, profits – had stagnated after a great start.   How to generate that growth?  Which guiding policy to pursue?  The options on the table included: attracting new customers for existing products; coming up with more products e.g. pension plans; moving into new geographical markets; selling more financial products to existing customer base….

The diagnosis showed that on the whole each existing customer held only one financial product.  The guiding policy chosen was that of x-selling the existing portfolio of products to the existing customer base.  Why?  Because: the company had a sizeable customer base; the customers were satisfied and loyal; and research suggested that many of these customers were not aware of the full range of products that the company offered.

A good policy seeks to create/exploit advantage

This brings me to issue of advantage – how a good guiding policy seeks to create/exploit advantage.  This is how Rumelt puts it:

“A good guiding policy tackles the obstacles identified in the diagnosis by creating and drawing upon sources of advantage.  Indeed, the heart of the matter in strategy is usually advantage.  Just as a lever uses mechanical advantage to multiply force, strategic advantage multiplies the effectiveness of resources  and/or actions.”

What guiding policy did Howard Schultz put in place to turnaround Starbucks when growth had stalled and the Starbucks brand had lost its former magic?  The first part of his guiding policy, as I understand it, was to stop the bleeding: to close stores that were unprofitable and unlikely to be profitable.  The second part of his guiding policy (once the first part had been executed) was to focus on getting back to the kind of customer experience that Starbucks generated and to be the ‘third place’ again.

Why did he go down this route?  Because many of the people in Starbucks had noticed how the original passion for coffee, the customer, the customer experience had gone out of Starbucks and were up for, even crying out for, bringing it back into Starbucks so that it could be the soul of the brand once more.  Put differently, Schultz exploited the passion of his people for the Starbucks and what it stood; when you are instigating change there is no advantage like tapping into the hearts of the people in your organisation.

A good guiding policy itself can be a source of advantage

How?  Let’s take a look at Gerstner and his turnaround of IBM.  Gerstner came up with the guiding policy of providing customer solutions instead of selling products.  This made great sense because it met customer needs and played to IBM strengths – its breadth and depth of expertise in almost all areas of IT.  Yet the policy itself “provide customer solutions” created advantage because it replaced ambiguity/uncertainty with clarity about what to do and how to do it.  It was the stimulus that got IBM going on the journey of coordinating and concentrating IBM’s vast resources on a specific challenge “provide customer solutions”.

I want to end this post with the words of Richard Rumelt:

  • “A guiding policy creates advantage by anticipating the actions and reactions of others,
  • by reducing the complexity and ambiguity in the situation,
  • by exploiting the leverage inherent in concentrating effort on a pivotal or decisive aspect of the situation, and
  • by creating policies and actions that are coherent, each building on the other rather than canceling one another out.”

If you have any interest in strategy then I recommend buying Good Strategy Bad Strategy.  Alternatively you might want to watch this speech/presentation:

What is the ‘secret sauce’ of success?

What is the ‘secret sauce’ of this company’s success?

I was at a gathering where the topic of ‘secret sauce’ came up in the context of the ‘secret sauce’ of the company’s success.  After the main forum I ended up in a conversation with two colleagues  – one of whom (D) had posed the ‘secret sauce’ question and other of whom (J) has been working with me on a recent consulting engagement.  Talking about ‘secret sauce’ J pointed out what he sees as my secret sauce: analytical skills, financial skills, workshop facilitation skills, consulting skills, being straight with clients, articulating my point of view, getting along with people……

What is my ‘secret sauce’? Is it what it seems to be?

Does my secret sauce come down to a bunch of skills, behaviour, frameworks and tools?  Is it possible that what J is pointing at are simply the visible aspects of the iceberg and the ‘secret sauce’ is hidden from view especially from those with a scientific orientation which neglects the inner dimensions of the human being? If I have a ‘secret sauce’ then it lies in my inner dimension – my being, my stance, the context from which I operate, how I see myself.

What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is CARING?  I care deeply about this client – the people who have placed their trust in me. I care deeply about the what we (the client and I) are up to – the project we have taken on, the outcome which we wish to manifest in this world. I care deeply about the impact this will have on the lives of prospects and customers who touch this business.  I care deeply about how it will impact/improve the lives of the people who work within this business;.  And I care deeply about excellence – doing great work impeccably.

What if I told you that my ‘secret sauce’ is the conscious choice to operate from a context of service and of contribution – of making a difference to the quality of our lives and the ‘workability’ of the world that we share?  Yes, I am straight with people and that includes sharing/disclosing what they do not necessarily want to hear.  What J does not see is that I can only be straight because this being straight arises out of this context of service.  What J does not see is that when it does not matter, when it does not contribute to the game I am playing, I strive to keep my mouth shut.  Furthermore, what J does not see is that in my consulting work I operate from the  educational/coaching paradigm:  I help clients see, explore and get to grips with the options that are available to them and once this is done I make it clear that the responsibility for choosing the path lies with them as it is ‘their baby’ and I am simply the ‘midwife’ – they have to live with the consequences of their choices whereas I can walk away.


Am I sharing this with you because I am on an ego trip today?  Possibly and I hope not.  I am sharing this with you to point out the following:

  • We live in a culture where the default is to look for success recipes that take away the inherent uncertainty, unpredictability, messiness of life and replace it with certainty, security, guarantees;
  • The number of explanations for anything that shows up is limited only by the number of worldviews / ideologies / perception filters that are available and used to make sense of the ‘situation/data at hand’;
  • We live in a culture where our search for these recipes is often only on the outside – that which is visible to the naked eye;
  • Often the recipes don’ work out because we only looked at the surface and did not dig deeper to get at the true ‘secret sauce’.

This probably occurs as ‘abstract and intellectual’ to you so let me share some example with you to make it more concrete.  Lets start with Honda to show how smart people can come up with multiple interpretations based on their worldview or the secret-sauce they want to promote (because they have a vested interest in promoting it).

Honda: what was the secret sauce behind Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike market?

What accounts for Honda’s successful entry into the US motorbike industry back in the 60s/70s?  The answer depends on the worldview that you hold, the lens that you use to pose that question and dig around for answers.  Here are three different answers due to three different lenses:

“The first is the BCG Report [1975] story of Honda’s cost advantage, developed (the story goes) by the successful exploitation of scale and learning, and of the “segment retreat” response of British and American competitors. Anyone who received an MBA between 1979 and 1985 was almost certainly exposed to this version of history.

The second, explicated by Pascale [1984], offers a revisionist account of Honda’s motorcycle success.’ According to Pascale’s interview with six Honda executives, the company’s early scale in Japan came from its having a better product, flowing from design skills. Furthermore, Honda did not “target” specific market segments in the U.S., but rather showed an ability to experiment, to learn quickly from mistakes, to rapidly revise design problems, and thereby to discover opportunities.

The third, described by Prahalad & Hamel [1989, 1990], couples Honda’s success in motorcycles with its successful entry into the U.S. automobile market. Here the center of the story is Honda’s remarkable ability to go from “nowhere” to prominence despite the earlier entry of very efficient competitors like Toyota and Nissan. Prahalad and Hamel have given the names “intent” and “stretch” to the processes which underlay this success and the name “core competence” to the central skills and abilities that Honda built upon.”

If you want to read more then check out / download the following:  HONDA Enters Into US

Zappos: what is the secret sauce?

If you read about Zappos the taken for granted answers are: culture and wow service.  One or more astute observers have also noted logistics – Zappos wow service is enabled in part because Zappos has a finely tuned logistics operation that can get goods quickly to customers.   So is that the secret sauce?

I say that these are simply the visible manifestations of the secret sauce.  I say that if you read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh you will find that the secret sauce is Tony Hsieh.  Tony has a particular philosophy: living a meaningful life, an affinity for people, an affinity for fun, strongly family ethos, a desire to get into and be a part of the nuts and bolts of business, getting that when you create happiness you are the first one to be lifted by this happiness.  And everything that is visible at Zappos is a manifestation of Tony Hsieh.

Starbucks: what is the secret sauce?

Is it the quality of the coffee?  Is it the location of the stores?  Is it the layout / feel of the stores?  Perhaps it is the baristas that serve customers?  Maybe it is the machinery and the processes?

From where I stand I am clear that the secret sauce is Howard Schultz.  Go read “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup At a Time” and “Onward: How Starbucks Fought For Its Life Without Losing Its Soul”.  Read deeply enough and you are likely to find that Starbucks is simply the manifestation of Shultz’s love of coffee, the coffee experience and his stance/relationship towards ordinary people.

Schultz knows first hand what happens to people and families when people are not treated well, recognised, acknowledged, not given an opportunity to develop, to progress, to shine.  So is it a surprise that he fought so hard to give the barista’s – part time employees – pay and rights (including medical coverage) that were unheard of in the retail industry?

What happened when he handed over the reins?  Starbucks did lose its soul – the person who replaced Shultz was not Schultz and did not live Shultz’s philosophy  when it came to the quality of the coffee, the coffee experience, how people should be treated…..  Incidentally, I do know that Howard Behar and is philosophy about people and relationships complemented and made a big impact on Schultz and how he ran Starbucks.

Final thought

Be skeptical of any and all ‘secret sauces’ that are put forward.  Why?  For any phenomenon a multiplicity of stories can be constructed to explain and give meaning to that phenomenon.  The number of stories is limited only by the imagination and the number of voices that get to speak and be heard.  Furthermore, perhaps the challenge is to come up with, create, construct ‘secret sauces’ rather than find existing ones.  Where would Apple be if it had looked for the ‘secret sauce’ rather than invented it?  Where would Starbucks be?  Where would Facebook be?  Where would Google be (remember that Yahoo was the master of the online universe then)?

Customer Experience: what you need to get to make a success of your CX initiatives

What Forrester has to say on CX in 2012

I have been reading  Forrester’s 2012 Customer Experience predictions.  Forrester is making three predictions: C-level execs will officially name customer experience as a top strategic priority; companies will focus on delivering unified customer experiences; and consultants of every shape and size will develop educational programs.  Does that sound great?  Well it could be great for CX professionals and for the army of consultants, service designers and training providers.

What I say about what Forrester says

I predict that the bulk of the money and effort spent on Customer Experience will be ‘wasted’.  What do I mean by ‘wasted’?  I mean that it will not generate the kind of customer advocacy and loyalty that the Tops are looking for.  Why is that?  Because many companies will fail to create the kind of value that customers are looking for.  Why is that?  Because the people in these organisations will go about Customer Experience in a way which has failure already built in.  Before I explain the trap and point towards the door that lets you escape from the trap I need to share a couple of concepts with you.

Distinguishing between context and content

Context shapes content (phenomena including thoughts, feelings, behaviours) and yet it is invisible to us most of the time.  We only tend to see the hidden context when things break down dramatically – think of the financial crisis (before, after).   One of the best visual illustrations of context and how it ‘shapes’ content is this advert aired by the Guardian newspaper. Did you watch this 30 second ad?  No, then please do watch it as it is central to the rest of this post.  I remember that this ad made a huge impact on me when I was growing up.  Why?  Because when I saw the skinhead I jumped to an unkind interpretation – most people did because at the time there was a certain kind of context around skinheads.  The beauty of the ad was that it destroyed that context and through deploying a radically different context the content of the ad (what the skinhead does) showed up, occurred, in a very different manner.

“Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying”  Emerson

A product company doing Customer Experience is still a product company.  A short term financials focussed company doing Customer Experience is still a short-term financial focussed company.  An internally riven company doing Customer Experience is still internally riven.  A company that does not genuinely care for nor connect with customers doing Customer Experience is still a company that does not genuinely care for nor connect with customers.  A value extractor doing Customer Experience is still a value extractor.

“The context is decisive” Werner Erhard

What does Werner Erhard mean when he says that “The context is decisive”?  One way (and it is only one way) of thinking about context is to think of it as ‘playing field’ rather like a soccer pitch (complete with all that goes with it including the goals, line markings etc), a rugby pitch, an ice hockey rink…..   By saying “The context is decisive” Werner is pointing us towards the fact that a soccer pitch calls ‘a game of soccer’ into being.  A rugby pitch calls ‘a game of rugby’ into being.  A chessboard calls a ‘game of chess into being’.  Yet he is saying more than that and to convey that I need to dive into a real life example so please bear with me.

Imagine centre-court at Wimbledon during the annual June championships.  The semi-finals are complete, there are only two players left in the tournament and it is the afternoon of the final – to decide who become champion.  On the day of the final there is a particular context (‘playing field’ ) that is in play – it both calls some stuff into being automatically AND at the same time this context rules out a whole bunch of stuff.  For example, given the context which gives rise to the final we can say:

  • The context calls the finalists to prepare thoroughly to be worth players on centre court and co-create a great match;
  • The spectators (sitting in the stands) have high expectations regarding the match they expect to see – they expect a thrilling battle between two masters of the game of Tennis, they expect twists and turn, they expect to be thoroughly engagement in an enthralling drama;
  • Amongst the spectators are members of royalty, heads of states, captains of commerce, celebrities of many kinds and past champions – the context has called them to be present another context (an ordinary tennis match) would not bring these people to be present and watch the match;
  • The umpire, the linesman and the ball boys and girls are carefully selected to ensure only the best end up on the court – anything less is simply not appropriate, it lacks Integrity as regards the context that is giving rise to the play;
  • The context rules out all kind of stuff like replacing one or both of the two remaining contestants. It excludes the possibility that there will not be a reserve umpire, reserve linesmen, reserve ball boys and ball girls.  It also excludes the possibility that all the equipment (needed for the match to take part in a way that works) will not be checked and probably double checked. It also rules out the possibility that the sports media elite will not turn up to record and make commentary on the final.  And so forth.

I hope that you now have a good enough grasp of context and content and in particular the relationship between context and content.  If you have not then allow me to make one last effort to convey what I wish to convey. Imagine that two men go to battle – they are on opposite sides and both are equally capable.  Yet one man is absolutely convinced that he is going into battle to safeguard the future of his wife, children, community – their lives, their future is at stake.  The other man is going to battle because he has been conscripted against his well and he is totally convinced that the other side is ‘good’ and his side is ‘bad’.  Do you get that these two men will behave differently as the contexts which give them being and shape their thoughts, feelings and actions are so radically different.   If you life was at stake on betting on the right man which man would you bet on?

Let’s back to my assertion that the bulk of CX efforts will fail because they will fall into a trap.  I also stated that I’d share the way out of the trap with you.

Making a success of your Customer Experience efforts: context is everything!

The trap is simple and even though I am going to share it with you most of the people who matter (in companies) will ignore what I have to say.  Which is kind of great for those of you who are in a place to get what I have to share and then act on it.  What is the trap?   The following from a recent post on Zappos points in the direction of the trap:

“One definite challenge is that we are still seen as a shoe retailer when in fact we sell much more than that! Our product catalog spans from clothing to footwear to house wares to beauty to accessories and even sporting goods! Perceptions are not easy to change overnight unless you’re willing to be bold. The one constant is that we are a service company that happens to sell __________ (fill in the blank). Our biggest efforts revolve around building likeability around our brand so that consumers turn to a brand that they trust, find reliable, and have an emotional connection with. That’s where service comes in!

Do you see the trap? The trap is to come from the context of ‘business as usual’ and do Customer Experience – that is to say that Customer Experience occurs as another technique for winning the game of ‘business as usual’.  If we use the analogy of a game of chess then Customer Experience is simply either a chess piece or it is a move or combination of moves in the game of chess.   If that is abstract then think of it this way.  Within the context of a desert pine trees do not grow no matter how much effort you make to grow pine trees. And even if they do grow they will be a feeble version of the real thing!

What is the way out of the trap?  Put in place the context that calls for Customer Experience, welcomes it and actively helps it to flower in abundance and yield the fruits.  Then whatever you do as regards Customer Experience will occur and take hold through effortless effort.  Look carefully and you will see that the context underpinning Zappos is “Delivering Happiness” and “The one constant is that we are a service company that happens to sell __________ (fill in the blank). Our biggest efforts revolve around building likeability around our brand so that consumers turn to a brand that they trust, find reliable, and have an emotional connection with. That’s where service comes in!”  How did Howard Schultz turn around Starbucks?  By changing the context from “breakneck growth no matter what it takes” to “the customer experience one cup at a time”.  Look at Amazon and the context is “the earth’s most customer-centric company”.  And if you turn towards Apple (and Steve Jobs) the context was a combination of “making a dent in the universe”, “humanizing technology” and the “customer experience”.

Summing it all up

If you want to make a success of your Customer Experience efforts then start with the context not the content.  If you have round hole (in a wooden board) then no matter which shapes you try the one that will fit with the least effort and with the best fit is a round block. You can try fitting the other shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, star…)- it is likely to occur as hard work, the result will not look great and when the board is shaken hard enough the other shapes will fall out.  Ever wondered why organisational change does not last?  Now you have your answer.

What do you think?  Have I missed something?  Do you have a different experience (notice I did not say point of view)?

Service Providers: why trust matters and what you can do to cultivate it (Part II)

In the previous post I set out the importance of trust  especially for services businesses like travel, insurance, banking, media, telecommunications.  In this post I want to share with you the insights that come of the research that Prof. Chris Haliburton and  Adine Poenaru carried out in 201o on the banking, insurance and mobile telecommunications industries – USA and UK.

What matters to customers?

According to the research customers are looking for service providers to level with them by providing high quality, clear, simple to understand communications that provide useful information that avoids unpleasant surprises and enriches the customers lives.  Examples include: keeping policies simple and easy to understand; clear language in policy documents so that customers are not mislead; keep me up to date with all the changes that save customers money; making the pricing more straightforward – easier to understand; letting the customer know as and when there is unusual activity on the customer’s account etc. In my book, customers are asking for service providers to be honest with them – to act with integrity (in the moral sense).

Second, customers are also looking for service providers to make them feel that the company cares for them.  Examples that show this kind of caring include: offering existing customers the same kind of deals that the companies offer new customers; putting customers before profits; doing what they said they would do; providing accurate truthful answers to questions; making customers feel valued etc.  In my book this second dimension is showing benevolence through action rather than lofty mission statements and fine sounding values that are not put into practice.

Third, customers are a looking for courteous conduct and high level of competency from the front-line employees that interact with and serve them.  The kind of things that customers want include: knows my policy inside out; sales people to be honest; dedicated account managers; all front-line staff trained to a high level and knowledgeable about and up-to-date with new plan; courteous and customer focused service etc.  To my mind this need speaks to the rational dimension of trust: credibility, competence and reliability.

How you can cultivate trust: 10 lessons

What can you do to cultivate trust between your organisation and your customers?   Prof. Chris Haliburton and  Adine Poenaru make the following recommendations (paraphrased, added, amended by me):

Deliver the core service right. As previous experience + word of mouth + corporate reputation are the drivers of loyalty then it follows that you must deliver the core service right.  Specifically, it means: meet (perfectly) the basic and core customer needs; actively search for, listen to and act on the voice of your customers (including social media); and manage your corporate reputation.

Get it right when it really matters.  Find out what events and points in the customer journey matter most to customers and get these right.  The literature refers to these as moments of truth.  In the insurance field that is likely to include checking if you are covered, getting treatment pre-authorised, making a claim and getting reimbursed quickly.

Make customer feel that you are looking after them.  A great way of doing this, as mentioned earlier, is to provide information, advice, product and offers that leaves them feeling enriched (better off).  Another way is to provide customers with a choice of channels that they can use to get through to you.  It also means having enough human beings on hand to deal with customer enquires as opposed to putting self-service technology between you and your customers and forcing them to use it.  I had a horrible experience with the Santander IVR today and could not get through to a human being – I do not feel cared for at all.

Ensure your front-line staff embody high standards of competence and ethics (honesty, acting in the customers best interests).

Customise the customer experience.  This means being a ‘sense and respond’ organisation rather than a ‘make customers fit into our standard policies and processees’. It is more than ‘treat different customers differently’ – it includes treating the same customer differently depending on the particular circumstances and emotional needs of the organisation.

Act the best of human: admit mistakes, apologise (genuinely) and fix them.  Whilst compensation is OK it is not enough it falls short of what we expect from considerate human beings (and organisations) – this point is spelt out clearly by James Watson in one of his latest posts and I recommend that you read it.

Improve communications (from the customers perspective) across the board.  Your communications need to bear in mind the needs (and interests) of your customers.  In particular the communications must be speak the language of your customers, be relevant, be concise and above all they must not mislead.  Customers will forgive you for making honest mistakes but they will not forgive you for deceiving them.

Look after your existing customers. This means providing existing customers with the same products, offers, service and attention that you bestow on courting new customers.

Provide simple easy to understand and clear contracts.  Don’t catch your customers out with cleverly crafted contracts written in legalese that your customers will not read and cannot understand.  Do the opposite write fair contracts, spell out the benefits and cons, don’t hide stuff in the small print, and above all write contracts in a language the customers can understand.

More transparency and integrity in pricing.  The opposite of this practice is what the oil, gas and electricity companies do – ramp up prices as soon as wholesale prices go up but be glacial in cutting prices when wholesale prices go down.   A great example of transparency and integrity in pricing was shared by Howard Shultz in his book Put Your Heart Into It – coffee prices tripled almost overnight and Starbucks did not put up prices because they had plenty of coffee in stock.  Starbucks did increase prices eventually (when they had to buy coffee) and they kept these price increases to a minimum and took the time to educate customers why prices were going up. It may be the approach British Gas is taking right now to deal with customer concerns and anger over predatory pricing.

My take on this

Actually my take on the whole topic of trust and how to cultivate it is embedded in this post.  Going further here are some of my thoughts:

Complexity takes a double toll on the customer.  First, it is hard for the customer to find the right (the best) ‘product’ for himself.  Second, it is that much more likely that the customer will be given inaccurate advice by the front-line staff. Why? Because as the ‘product range’ grows and the complexity of the ‘products’ for sale grows (functions, features, terms, conditions, exclusions, excesses etc) it is hard to ensure that the front-line staff actually understand the ‘product range’ and can provide accurate advice.  Knowledgebases don’t help much. Why? How well would you perform if the customer was on the phone or right in front of you?  Would you not feel the stress – the need to respond quickly?  Yes, if you are a normal human you are likely to favour speed over accuracy – to reduce your stress and make your performance targets.

Poorly written communications including ‘product’ literature takes a toll both on the customer and on the front-line.  If it is hard for the customer to understand, is ambiguous or deliberately confusing to the customer then it is likely that it will occur similarly to the front-line especially the people who are new to the job.  That means that the front-line is that much more likely to misunderstand and provide inaccurate answers and advice to customers.  It is also likely to mean that it takes that much longer to train the front-line staff to become competent.

Now that we have the competence dimension out of the way let’s deal with the ethical dimensions of integrity and benevolence.  Is it really news to us, to anyone, that customers want us to be straight with them and treat them as if they matter?  I suspect it is not.  So the challenge is to live – embody – what we already know.  Either the issue is that our society is full of dishonest, uncaring people or there is something about many organisations that turns honest, caring people into people who come across as being dishonest and uncaring.  What do you think?