Here is a strategic riddle: What do peacock feathers, blue shoes, and mirrors have in common? What springs to your mind?
The good news is that it doesn’t matter what your answer is. Looking for the correct answer is more important than finding it. Just scanning your brain for possible answers to such an odd question opens you up to both creative and divergent thinking.
Creative and divergent thinking are essential because they allow us to take a fresh look at our customers and our marketplace and differentiate our offerings in meaningful ways. Getting your brain primed to think creatively can be a decisive first step in developing an ideal business strategy.
In many instances, that priming can be as simple as a thought exercise of asking yourself a seemingly nonsensical question and taking the time to let yourself explore possible answers.
We can also go further if we wish. We can change the associations we bring to the puzzle of meeting our customers’ needs.
For example, when I asked you how blue shoes and peacock feathers and mirrors are related, I had a specific association in mind that may not have entered your mind.
You see, in addition to being an entrepreneur, business strategist, and performance coach, I am also a theatre artist. I have spent tens of thousands of hours working as both an actor and theatrical director.
And, while there is no correct answer to my question, there is an obvious one for many theatre artists.
It is common superstition in the theatre that it is bad luck to bring these items on stage. It is thought that they will distract or derail the actors and hurt the performance. And while most actors don’t take the belief too seriously- it is still an association lurking under the surface to be brought to mind when the conditions are right. Theatre artists are a superstitious group. Our craft’s history and shared experiences have led to a host of specific habits and conscious and subconscious beliefs that drive our choices.
Just like your customers.
Your best customers probably have habits, beliefs, and ways of seeing the world you just haven’t considered. They may be making connections between things that you are missing.
This is not happening because you or your organization is lazy or indifferent. Often, we work diligently to understand our customers. We need a new approach.
We Need to Look Behind the Curtain
The challenge with traditional approaches to creating organizational strategy is that we tend to be both too broad and too shallow in our thinking. We do not dive narrowly or deeply enough when working to understand the end-users of our product or service.
Common approaches often lead us to think we are creating meaningful customer profiles and marketing messages while we are, in fact, not seeing things from the customer’s perspective.
What is evident to them is often invisible to us.
We delve into demographics and, perhaps, talk a bit about psychographics as though we are putting a few sprinkles on a cupcake.
We rarely take the time to shed our preconceptions about who we think our customers are and why we believe they want or need our offerings.
Simply put, we rarely develop a robust enough customer persona. This approach attracts bad luck to our ventures because our strategies are muddy, and our offerings are not sufficiently differentiated.
But it is bad luck, not bad intention.
We have not been given skills to use to tune into the hearts and minds of customers. To make matters more challenging, we can’t spend significant personal time with our customers to learn their viewport firsthand. In many instances, we might have never met them at all.
And because we can never fully know all our customers and potential customers, particularly if we are developing new initiatives or offering services at scale, it can be difficult to tell if we have arrived at the “right answer.”
This brings us back to the world of theatre. Actors, directors, and other theatre artists are taught to set aside “right answers” and instead look for discoveries. Even better, we are taught to discover truths about fictional people or historical characters we can never meet. We have tools to help us look for the “wow” insights and open up entirely new ways of understanding others and seeing our possibilities.
We are even frequently asked to look for discoveries about characters who we might not condone. We are asked to metaphorically listen to characters we might feel morally or emotionally distanced from but still need to understand deeply. Not every actor gets to play an admirable hero; some stories require us to look unflinchingly into the mind of a villain.
All this leads to a knack for seeing into what is obvious to others that were, at first, hidden from us.
And the process is not complex or arcane. To facilitate unexpected discoveries and explore both comfortable and uncomfortable insights, theatre artists begin by simply asking detailed questions about the characters and how they fit into the world of the play.
They don’t begin with how they, as an actor, would like to portray the character. Instead, they work to deeply understand the character’s experience and worldview and hone in on the unmet needs that may consciously or unconsciously drive the character’s actions.
I believe that most business strategists want to do a great job delving into the minds and hearts of their customers. They have not been shown how to peer into the minds of their customers effectively.
As business leaders, we must do the same.
To uncover a meaningful view of our customers and drive a higher impact strategy, we need to start by subtracting rather than adding. Instead of sitting down and trying to organize everything we think we know about our customers, we can start with the opposite.
We can start by asking ourselves if we are making assumptions about our customers which are not valid.
We can ask: how do our customers see themselves?
Often our customers see themselves and their worlds through entirely different eyes.
Taking time to look for and weed-out, assumptions can open us to new and more actionable insights.
I invite you to take some time this week to ponder what you think you know about your customer that might not be quite right. And then join me for our next blog, where we cast ourselves in the role of our customers and use the actor’s process to delve more deeply into their world.