Customer value, Customer/member centricity, Leadership Challenges

Beware of the Urge to Rush to Solutions

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Why the Urge?

Have you noticed that in framing the problems facing us, most of us are already formulating a solution?

“We are not being aggressive enough in letting members know about our value. How do we get them to become aware of all our benefits?”

Instead of, for example: “why are members not renewing or renewing but not participating?”

 “What new products should we create?”

Instead of, for example: “are we delivering results that resonate with what most matters to our members? How can we make their lives easier and their problems more manageable (whether though products, solutions, increased access and speed, etc.”?

It is often hard to catch ourselves and recognize our attachments to specific results, plans and assumptions behind what we honestly believe is the framing of a problem. Yet both in business and personal lives, this gets in the way of finding fresh solutions and becoming unstuck.  

Why do we rush to solutions and why are we afraid to take the time needed to identify the real nature of a problem?  Perhaps it is the illusion of activity for its own sake. The way we are afraid, say, of silence or stillness. It is more reassuring to end a staff retreat or planning session with a list of objectives and “action steps,” even if they are shelved for posterity, than a list of what we don’t know and need to find out. And this is precisely what keeps us stuck in business as usual and a “”growth gridlock.”

Resisting the Rush to Solutions

In Design Thinking, and other human-centered, entrepreneurial business approaches, I found practical tools and processes for forcing one to restrain the urge to rush to solutions and hence, enabling them to act rather than react.. 

The goal is simple: to create the products and services that customers truly need rather than say they want.  

Design Thinking starts with two assumptions, that differ from established business assumptions:

1.    That people do not always know what they want and, hence, what they say usually differs from what really bothers them.

2.    That it is impossible to predict customers’ reactions based on research or past behavior; and that the only reliable indicator is the way they react to a prototype of an idea or product.

 Both require a reallocation of time and resources from things like product development and marketing to the front end of discovery through co-creation and repeated testing

Investing in the Front End: Empathy

Empathy means going far beyond “listening” to understanding. It requires the ability to put yourself in another’s place and see the world through their eyes. This takes time. It involves tools such as in-depth interviews; participant/observation; continuous interaction and co-creation in place of surveys or focus groups.  Yet this is what it takes to uncover needs before they are fully formed and articulated, and identify the right problem to solve.  

Case: In Denmark, thousands of seniors with reduced ability to function, receive subsidized meals from municipalities. The problem is that most of these seniors suffer from poor nutrition.  One municipality hired an innovative firm that used Design Thinking to address what they believed the problem was: a poor menu.

(The case described here and also used  by Professor Jeanne Liedtka, Darden School of Business in course).

Detailed interviews with seniors led the team to realize that the issue went beyond menu choices to the emotional needs of both seniors and food preparers. Seniors, for example, were embarrassed by the social stigma of having to receive public assistance.  They  also felt isolated from friends and family and powerless to affect menu choices. Food preparers, on the other hand, were demoralized by the perceived low social status of their job and unmotivated to prepare food for people they didn’t have a chance to get to know or communicate with.  

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Investing in the Front End: Getting to the Right Problem

Clearly the real problem was far bigger than the menu items. It involved reshaping the larger food experience and the roles of all stakeholders.

In Design Thinking and other human-centered approaches to design, the issue is not simply to solve a problem but to solve the right problem, as perceived, framed and experienced by the target customer.

Investing in the Front End: Prototyping & Testing

Instead of proving your assumptions right and persuading others of the value of your offerings, consider testing assumptions first. In Design Thinking, instead of waiting until you have the perfect product to launch you set up a learning process in which you test your hypotheses by observing the reactions of a small number of potential customers to an inexpensive, imperfect prototype of what you have in mind. You learn and improve the design through an “iterative” process of co-developments–incorporating feedback into a revised prototype which you share with your user group for additional feedback and so on until you “get it right.”  

Case: the next steps in the Danish municipality’s experiment involved numerous user workshops in which various new packaging and design solutions were presented and re-designed repeatedly, based on stakeholder feedback.

The results were far-reaching, reinventing the entire food experience– from new uniforms for the food preparers, to new menus, a new name for the service and new visual identity; new communication channels and experiences, such as giving seniors the possibility to invite guests.  Among the outcomes, there was a 500% increase in meal orders in the first week alone; increased user insight and dialogue.

Consider your Real ROI

Resist the urge to rush to solutions and impatience with empathy and front-end discovery by considering the return on your investment. Perhaps, skipping front end work to get solutions is neither faster nor more accurate after all.

Unless you take the time to uncover “the sweet spot”—the real source of the problem, and the way a person views and experiences it – you will be in the undifferentiated pool of generic service providers, unable to  hit “the nerve” that makes you indispensable to members/customers and stand apart from others.

You get more targeted results by watching how a member/customer will react to inexpensive prototypes of larger products or ideas than through extensive planning and internal deliberations. 

If your assumptions are wrong, you can correct them or pivot before making major investments and locking yourself to a course of action.

Time spent in conventional planning, product development and marketing far exceeds the time invested in gaining deep understanding of, and experimenting with,  a small sample of customers before scaling. The latter also allows you to build your customer base organically by engaging potential end-users in co-creation and spreading the word through successful results.

Rushing to solutions and building on your assumptions is like building on sand. It limits innovation and obscures the line of vision to the customer, missing the real triggers of engagement.