To walk in the shoes of someone else, you first have to take off your own

Know your customer! Understand the user! Know your enemy!

walk a mile in their shoesWe’ve all heard these calls. To best be able to sell to customers what they really need and will appreciate, to design things that people will use, appreciate and rave about to their friends and acquaintances – or to best beat your enemies – you first should know and understand them. Of course. That’s pretty self evident. But, it sure is easier to say than to do, at least than to do well.

Hearing to respond or listening to understand?

It is so easy to end up just scratching the surface, creating an impression of understanding, but without depth and true insight. You “measure and label” all possible dimensions, increasingly focusing on individuals or personas instead of anonymous market segments. All good. But, too frequently, you’re preoccupied with your own next move. A bit like someone hearing, but not truly listening, since they think of what to respond instead. Hearing, but not active listening, and definitely not empathic listening.

Context, history, drivers!

Apart from this eagerness of using what you hear to meet your goal instead of truly listening to understand, there’s often another big mistake: looking at them, but in your context, the basis for understanding Their Why. What is their history, their experience? What is the culture and habits in their company, geography or religion? Or maybe their experience has left them sensitised to expressions that are perfectly innocent to you.

This is actually a case of where it can serve well for someone like me to be aware of my white privilege. Let’s use the image at the top of this blog post for example (not mine originally, but copyright-free). It’s quite a difference for white, middle aged, heterosexual family fathers to put on high heels for a charity race, compared to what it would be like for teenagers in homophobic Russia, or in any country with a strong machismo culture, or homophobic religious beliefs. Or, as I suddenly realised when talking with a colleague about standing up against xenophobia and religious prejudices; for me, he is a valued colleague, a peer, but for the xenophobes, he is just another muslim immigrant from North Africa. Even if we say exactly the same thing, the responses will be very different due to who they think we are.

So, next time you try to “know your customer/user/enemy”, dig a bit deeper. Try to understand where they come from, what is their context and what drives them. I’m sure you will have greater success (although it may take a bit longer to get there).

Do you have similar experience? Or you disagree? Please comment!


Why Knowledge Isn’t Sufficient

Almost ten years ago I came to talk with a dear colleague who I hadn’t seen for a while. I think it was in October or November. She asked me what kind of project I was working on and I told her: I’m bailing out of the project I’ve been working on for almost two years, before my CV goes stale. As a consultant in a fast-moving area of expertise, I have to ensure a constant flow of new experience and professional growth. What will you do next? She said. I have no idea what the new year will bring. It’s exciting! I replied. What about you? We’ve just lost the contract I’ve been working on for many years and I have no clue what to do after New Year. I’m devastated!

There we were, in very similar situations with opposite reactions. How could that be? It was too big a difference to be explained only by me being a stubborn optimist. We ended up talking for the better part of an hour.

After a while we started to realise that it was about Knowledge vs. Skills.

Her professional standing was (apparently) founded on Knowledge, at least in her own mind. On her expertise in a specific field – a technology used only in parts of the retail business and where she had always worked with one client, her ex-employer. She was afraid that her knowledge wouldn’t easily be applied to other customers or other types of business.

My professional standing was founded in Skills: Structured problem solving, planning and facilitating workshops, requirements elicitation and management, communication orally and in writing etc. All capacities that can easily be transferred from one context to another. From one client to another. In any business. The hallmarks of a Jack of all trades (let’s forget about the second part of the expression for now, will we?).

Recently, I discussed the episode with a couple of bright and eager students and I decided to put letters on screen (or whatever “pen to paper” should be nowadays).

It is obvious to most of us that skills and knowledge are different, but how often do we think of just how they are different? And of what the consequences are?

  • Skills are less dependent on context than knowledge is, and therefore easier to transfer – as shown in my story.
  • Knowledge can be learned, through reading and courses. Skills are different. You may be borne with them but they need practicing to reach perfection.  They are not found in any book, for sure.
  • The half-life, the “best before”, of knowledge is shorter than for skills. New circumstances, new technologies, new business practices can quickly make your knowledge obsolete, while skills more easily can be applied in new contexts

So what are the consequences of these differences?

  1. Most of us have realised that we need to be learning constantly to stay ahead in our times of frantic change, but if we only learn new knowledge, the need for learning is greater and more pressing
  2. As skills take practicing, they are usually slower to develop. They take time and patience. And allowing for imperfection along the way
  3. Skills training doesn’t transfer as easily to e-learning as knowledge learning does. It takes more interaction to perfect, maybe remotely, but hardly with a system dialogue
  4. If you’re really fed up with your job but have a hard time imagining what to do instead, you are probably focusing too much on where you can apply your knowledge. Stop for a while to identify your strong skills and try to imagine where they can serve you well instead.

What do you think? Do you agree? Any similar experience? What if we add abilities to the mix, how do they differentiate from knowledge and skills (remember that English is only my second language  😉 )

IRL, AFK – Aren’t those acronyms anachronistic?

The other morning, my wife sat tapping away intensely on her phone. (Why do we still call it a phone, by the way. Making calls is one of my least common activities on my handheld device. The German expression “Handy” is actually more adequate than either “mobile phone” or “cellphone”)

Anyway, I wanted to discuss something with her, opened my mouth to start talking, but stopped in my tracks, shut it again and returned to whatever I was doing.

The episode had me thinking though. In our connected world of today, connected both Man wearing a plastic collar (like dogs sometimes do) to prevent himself from checking his mobile phone every two minutestechnically and through umpteen online social networks, many of us get reprimanded for not “being present”, not listening or even for interrupting conversations to check our phones. (Guilty as charged.) In Real Life (IRL) is supposed to take precedence. Often I agree and try to impose a rule at home of “No phones within reach while we eat together”. In vain, I may add.

So why did I choose to save that discussion for later?

My wife was already engaged in conversation. But it was a written conversation, a chat in WhatsApp with our daughter, currently in France. I would have caused an interruption. That conversation was as “In Real Life” as a conversation in our house would have been.

What is “Real Life” really? I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has come to better know and understand the thoughts, values and actions of some acquaintances via online social networks than I ever did before though our rare interactions live or via voice conversation on the phone. Their life is more real to me via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram or WhatsApp than it has ever been before! Being a family where two daughters of three have moved out, the family group on WhatsApp is the first thing I check for updates in the morning.

Just how real and alive is a relation with acquaintances who you meet in the street once every two years, exchange a couple of phrases of courtesy only to subsequently rush off to where you were going? Compared with the old friend who you haven’t met in ten years, but whose updates offer you ongoing insight into their life events and thoughts about what’s happening around them or around us all?

So I don’t buy the IRL thing. The differentiator for me is rather about synchronous or asynchronous interaction and about keeping focus on what you do.

My wife’s conversation with our daughter was as synchronous as our discussion in our living room would have been, although through a different medium. Interrupting their conversation would have been as impolite as talking over them in the same room.  Also, some – or many, actually – of the things you write online should be written with great care, with focus and with a complete thought process before. When you’re in that mode, you’ll be as unhappy about somebody interrupting you as you would have been if sitting with a fountain pen, writing on paper. A broken chain of thought is broken in your mind, independent of which medium you use to document it.

Still, checking your phone for asynchronous updates on online social networks, interrupting an ongoing, synchronous conversation is still as impolite, irrespective of the medium used for that conversation. The only difference is that it’s less obvious if it is a chat you happen to be engaged in. Still, we should be as present and in the moment together with the people we happen to be with. What we need to consider is how we define “happen to be with”.

All in all: IRL is no longer a valid expression, since online is often as real and close as on-site.

What about AFK (Away From Keyboard, that is)? Well, some time has passed since the device we carry in our pocket took the pole position as our primary screen. And when did you last use a phone with a keyboard?

So what should it be instead? On Prem? In The Flesh? NoD (No Device)? Or what?

The virtue of saying no

I have alsways been one of those persons who are easy to get enthusiastic and keen to try new things and to help. Too keen sometimes. But, less nowadays than before. This true epoisode was a turning point for me.

Some years ago, I had reason to think of which of my colleagues I preferred to work with in projects. After some reflection I came up with a list of names… plus the insight into why I preferred to work with them specifically: they were the ones I could count on to keep their promises. When they commited to do something, I didn’t need to check or remind. I could go about my own responsibilities and trust that they would live up to theirs and in time.

Then it struck me.

They had another characteristic in common: In addition to being the ones who lived up to their commitments, they also were the ones who most frequently said no when asked for help. Obviously, by saying no to some stuff, they cleared their capacity and calendar for the commitments they had made.

And, come to think of it, I sure prefer getting some No’s if that means I can trust the Yes’s I get. Rather that, than a cheerful “sure” followed by waiting, reminders, nagging and delays.

Having come to this insight about the behaviour of others, was a good learning point for me, but not always that easy to live up to. There are too many fun and interesting things around that you want to have a shot at. Still, I hope and belive that I’ve improved.

Social is something you are, not a tool you use

We’ve got all the tools implemented, but people don’t use them! What’s wrong?

Unfortunately, this is not too uncommon a statement. Organizations buy and install software for internal collaboration, pay the bill and then pray that staff will find them and use them just because they are there.

Sure, some curious enthusiasts may find the new “cool tools” but you will not reach widespread adoption for a very long time unless you supplement the social enablement with changes to the way the organization works and with communication and motivation for the employees.

Watching several sessions from IBM Connect in January on Livestream triggered me to summarize some input from there and adding some of my own.

The mindset you should encourage carries a set of characteristics:

Show trust in others to earn trust by others (and be worthy of trusting, of course) – Guy Kawasaki

All positive, productive relations and social interactions are based on mutual trust. The fastest way to gain the trust by others is to start displaying trust in them. This goes for companies trusting their customers (generous return policies to encourage trying of products as in Guy Kawasaki’s examples) as well as executives trusting their associates with not misusing the openness of social intranets.

Default to openness  – Chris from Lowe’s (sorry, I didn’t get his family name)

Is there a good reason to keep “it” under wraps? No? Then work “out loud” as Lowe’s called it. Let others see what you’re working on and what you have achieved. Save your documents as public files, make your bookmarks public, update your status frequently. If there is no reason to keep it to yourself, you may just as well let your work speak for you. And, you never know who may stumble over it and be able to help you improve it or get unstuck. At the same time, your work may be useful to someone else, increasing efficiency and maybe inspiring to new and better ways of doing things.

Default to “yes”Guy Kawasaki

Being positive pays back. If you respond positively when others ask you for help or favours (within your capacity of course – because not delivering on promises is not good for building trust). If you help out when you can, your network will help you out when you need it. Maybe not exactly the same person you helped out the other day, but since your positive attitude has been on public display, your “karma-account” will be positive.

Dialogue, not monologue

Monologues may communicate your experience or view to others, but they aren’t great for building relations. Just how popular is the guy at parties who keeps talking about himself and listens to nobody else? Just like offline social life, being social online is a matter of listening and responding. It’s a new medium for behaviours man has cultivated for centuries.

The curse of “I’ll do it later”

As a parent, I’ll do it later seems to be an eternal and ubiquitous source of aggravation. Unfortunately at work too, sometimes. Rumours claim that it even may occur between spouses.

Usually, the result is:

  1. It does not get done by the person who promised “to do it later” since it is either forgotten or something more important (for that person, that is) or more urgent takes precedence
  2. You end up reminding (nagging, kids call it) since experience has taught you how likely it is that #1 will come to happen
  3. You end up doing it yourself since: either #1 occurs, it cannot wait any longer or you simply lose patience (lesson learned by the other person: “if I just say “later” I might not have to do it anyway”, by the way)

Translation: I’ll do it when it suits me, not when it suits you, because my priorities are more important than yours.

What I want to hear instead: now or when

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