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The disruption delusion: what happens when customers aren’t included

July 24, 2014 By Mark Hurst 7 Comments

Do you like buzzwords? Over the years at Creative Good, we’ve encountered our share of them, like “synergy” and “disintermediation” and “empowerment.” Like all buzzwords, they offer vaguely exciting possibilities while delivering little or no actual meaning. Which is a description that seems increasingly apt, these days, to what is perhaps the most widely revered buzzword of them all: disruption.

The word needs little introduction to anyone who has spent any time in the business world. The startups most hotly pursued by tech journalists are those with “disruptive” products overturning their industries. Likewise, products that emerge as a success are often described as being disruptive. Even enterprise-level organizations are looking for ways to avoid being disrupted by smaller, nimbler competitors.

Even Customers Included, our recent book describing Creative Good’s worldview, has a section on disruption – but we take a different stance. Instead of blindly praising anything that can be termed “disruptive,” the book asks the key question: what about the customer?

To make the case, the book points out the fiasco suffered by Netflix a few years back, when the company made a surprise announcement that it planned to move its DVD business into a poorly-named spinoff called “Qwikster.” Despite the resounding and very public failure of the move (almost a million customers cancelled their subscriptions), a leading tech journalist actually praised the decision, calling it “disruptive.” As if responding to the obvious and deafening vocal opposition from customers, the journalist wrote, “the problem with customers is that they don’t always know what’s best for them.” In other words: make a radical decision, regardless of whether it succeeds or fails, and feel free to ignore the customer. That’s disruption.

I don’t believe disruption was originally meant in this way. Clayton Christensen, who described the concept in his popular book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” didn’t say a lot about customer experience. And as written in Customers Included, I think disruption, like any good tool or framework, can be valuable – as long as customers are included in some significant way. Instead, the problem with disruption is how it is commonly understood and practiced. The mania to pursue anything that can be called “disruptive” can tempt executives to make high-profile mistakes on par with Qwikster.

This is the case made by Jill Lepore in her recent New Yorker article, The Disruption Machine, as she explores “what the gospel of innovation gets wrong.” I’d recommend the article to anyone who is tired of the cult-like reverence paid to the twin buzzwords of “disruption” and “innovation” these days. The details of her research, which took a second look at Christensen’s original case studies, have been called into question (by John Hagel, Michael Raynor, TechCrunch, and Christensen himself, who in a fit of defensive posturing called Lepore’s piece a “criminal act of dishonesty”). To whatever extent you want to prove or disprove the theory of disruption, these may be worthwhile resources.

But the case remains that, in popular usage and practice, “disruption” has gone too far, and is understood too little, to do much good for most teams. I say this because very frequently when I hear about a “disruptive” product or strategy, I notice a key point missing. Customers aren’t included. As pointed out in our book:

Pursuing disruption by itself is not sufficient to create a winning strategy. One could propose a dozen ways to disrupt any given industry – and launch a company or initiative to try out each one – but without some thought toward the impact on customers, all those disruptive ideas are likely to fail. Companies that aim to be disruptive should include, not ignore, the customer.

I wish the acolytes of disruption would take this to heart. The “disruption delusion” is that you should ignore the customer when making strategic decisions. Anyone who has read our book knows that the truth is just the opposite.

A doctor’s thoughts on the patient experience (applicable to all teams)

June 13, 2014 By Mark Hurst 1 Comment

An emergency doctor gets hit by a car while on a business trip, receives indifferent treatment at the local hospital, and years later is still struggling to recover.

Writing in HealthAffairs about the incident (the whole column is an excellent read), Charlotte Yeh argues that the guiding principle in healthcare should be “to know the patient, hear the patient, and respond to what matters to the patient. It should make no difference where you practice; any provider can do this. [We] can’t hide behind the excuses of ‘we’re too busy’ or ‘it’s too chaotic’ to avoid connecting with every patient.” Her patient experience shows that that’s not the case today.

Replace “patient” with “customer” and this becomes applicable to any organization today.

Make the same replacement here:

We have become test-happy and technology-powered. These tools may provide us with good data on the patient, but this doesn’t mean we’re serving the good of the patient.

Sound familiar? Connecting with customers has to be more than just automated, check-the-box solutions.

For the health care industry in particular, Yeh suggests reconsidering how we define “good”:

Despite some national consensus on quality metrics, we have continued struggling to measure “the good of the patient.” Still, quality metrics cannot alone advance the good of the patient. Focusing on clinical measures in particular is not enough as long as other measures that focus on patient-desired outcomes are ignored. If we don’t understand what patients’ expectations are, we can’t engage patients effectively in their care.

Read Yeh’s story here. Also, be super-careful crossing the street.

First, the bad news: why customers still matter

June 12, 2014 By Mark Hurst 2 Comments

As I’ve been traveling around the country to deliver talks on the Creative Good message of “customers included” (hi to my friends in SF, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, and here in NYC!), I keep hearing a question that goes something like this: What if we are our own customer – do we still need to go outside for customer feedback?

In other words, if the people who work here are users of the service, or buyers of the product themselves, why take extra time to sit down with people outside the company? After all, it’s faster and cheaper to get feedback on the customer experience from coworkers who sit within the range of a “hey, d’you have a sec to take a look at this wireframe?”

While I’m a firm believer that any honest observation of the experience – even that of coworkers – is better than nothing, I don’t think it goes quite far enough. Any experienced practitioner can tick off the problems: research of users inside the company can be subject to (a) internal politics, (b) tunnelvision from having been immersed in the product for so long, and (c) a lack of objectivity and “fresh eyes” to find out what ordinary users are going through.

None of this should be a surprise. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider why some teams would rather not go outside to observe customers. Usually it springs from the difficult truth that customers bring the bad news. If you really open up research, and let customers show their unvarnished reaction to the real, authentic customer experience they’re having, it’s often not pleasant to watch. It can be dangerous to let bad news loose inside a company. This is why I say (and recently tweeted):

Before you get customers involved, first you should probably check if the boss can handle bad news.

Some leaders simply don’t want to hear bad news. I recall a middle manager at a past client who asked us, rather nervously, if we could make a change to our preparation for the upcoming listening labs: would we mind writing down and submitting for approval every question we planned to ask the customers? This way, he said, he could be sure that customers weren’t given the opportunity to say something that could be uncomfortable to the executives observing the labs. (!!)

If you want to include customers, you have to be ready to hear bad news. The best, most customer-inclusive organizations not only acknowledge and accept bad news, they actively seek it out. As pointed out in Customers Included, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger ask their direct reports to give them the bad news first. “It’s the good news that can wait.”

So next time you think of including the customer, set this expectation on the team: First, the bad news.

What to do when the customer is an entire community

May 15, 2014 By Mark Hurst

The customer experience is usually understood as an individual’s experience with a product or service. But what happens when the “customer” is actually an entire community?

We engaged this question at the most recent Gel conference, here in New York City, with the following three speakers:

• A pop-up library designed to meet the needs of a community that needs more public gathering spaces – and access to books;

• an innovative startup that sources product ideas from its community, then makes them real;

• and a choreographer who gives voices to two communities – war veterans and civilian populations – through dance.

Get the team together to watch these three videos (you can do it over lunch today) – and discuss this question: how do these presenters create an experience for their community? In particular, what patterns or commonalities do you notice that span all three presentations?

A cross between a pop-up library and a community gathering spot: seeing a need for better access to books, Sam and Leslie Davol created The Uni Project to bring these installations to underserved neighborhoods around New York City (and beyond). Watch the Gel video.

Making invention accessible to all: Quirky.com sources innovation ideas from its online community, then through a series of voting and judging processes, decides which items to put into production toward a prototype. Some community-generated ideas have become widely manufactured and distributed (in Target and other stores). Watch the Gel video.

A U.S. Marine serves in Iraq, then becomes a choreographer with his own dance company. Roman Baca has an unusual story to tell. To complete the experience at Gel, he brings dancers on stage to perform a piece inspired by his experiences in Iraq. Watch the Gel video.

(Does your team serve a community of customers? Get in touch if Creative Good can help.)

You don’t have a usability problem, you have a business problem

April 29, 2014 By Mark Hurst 4 Comments

I got a call the other day from my favorite fictional company, JustSpatulas.com. My colleague asked me what I thought of the new JustSpatulas mobile app. Perhaps I could weigh in on some of the issues?

“What do you think the issues are?” I asked. (You know how it sometimes helps to answer a question with a question.)

“There are some usability problems,” he responded, “since people aren’t getting to the features that we want them to. Our metrics show that people tap through a few screens and then leave the app.”

I reassured my friend that the spatula experience can be difficult to fully express in a smartphone app. But beyond that, I told him something that has been coming up in a lot of recent conversations:

You don’t have a usability problem, you have a business problem.

The reason people were leaving the app, I said, is because the app doesn’t give customers what they want. It was a challenge of customer experience. Improving the usability of the existing features would not, in this case, make customers happier; nor would it improve the business. Instead, finding out what customers want – and matching that to business goals in the product and service design – would create a more effective product.

Here are some questions to ask when reviewing your app, site, product, or service:

What are the business goals of the product: profit, operational savings, customer acquisition, branding, platform/ecosystem benefits, or others? Can you measure them? (And do you?)
Who are the customers you’re trying to serve: New vs. existing? Young vs. old (or other demographic splits)? Two or three basic segments are a good first pass.
What do those customers want to achieve with your product, and how do you know? It’s best to learn from direct, in-person (or at least live video) observation, combined with a review of all available metrics and analytics.
Are there competitors or comparables you can learn from, either through a best practice in their products, or a glaring mistake to avoid?

These are foundational questions that can be answered with some focused business research and some direct observation of customers. And with those answers, you can begin to map out a customer-inclusive strategy for the product.

Once the business problems are more or less resolved, it may be helpful to move on to a tactical usability review. But many teams, I’ve found, aren’t yet at that stage. They’re stuck with a “spatula app” that doesn’t give customers what they want – yet.

If you have a business problem, consider applying Creative Good’s “customers included” thinking, as described in our book.

(As always, get in touch if Creative Good can help.)