The innovation-killing habit you don't realise you have

Producer centred businesses consistently fail to treat customers like human beings, says David Landsman, former executive director of Tata Europe.

by David Landsman
Last Updated: 02 May 2019

We’ve all known the feeling when things just don’t work as we want them to. When we have to go through a series of tedious messages and options to reach the right person at the call centre. When we’re told what we can or can’t have, and then remember that we’re supposed to be the customer. Or when a product or service fails to meet the needs of significant groups in society from women to the young to the elderly, as though no one thought they were there. Or in the office when we spend time creating workarounds for (or just cursing) the system that "they" promised was the last word in productivity.

Why does it happen so often? We’re usually told that "it’s too expensive to provide the bespoke service you want. If you’re only prepared to pay the self-service price, self-service is what you’ll get." But that’s a lazy answer, because each misstep isn’t as much a crafty cost saving as a missed opportunity to capture competitive advantage.

"Savings" end up adding costs in time, frustration and loss of customer loyalty. Even when the unit cost is initially higher, a better service can increase demand and market share providing opportunity to lower costs and prices.

The real reason why we don’t get what we want is that despite claims to "put the customer first" or "put our people first", organisations are more often than not producer-centric by design. They focus strategies, systems and incentives on what seems easiest for the organisation in the short term or most interesting or career-enhancing for the professionals behind it, rather than what’s best for those actually using or delivering the product or service.

They introduce process solutions which make sense at a micro-functional level but produce a holistically worse service. They allow the experts to operate in their silos and then follow their advice rigidly. They don’t try to join up the dots.

There’s no point in blaming finance or production for setting the wrong targets. The problem starts much earlier, when the organisation creates strategies for change. You define the problem you’re trying to solve, often in producer-centric micro-functional terms - enhance throughout by x per cent, for example - "in order to make it manageable/deliverable/measurable".

Even worse, you let "experts" define it for you. It’s not surprising that the experts come up with a solution they can deliver just perfectly. This is the infamous law of the instrument "if you’re a hammer every problem is a nail". If you accept the definition of the problem, the solution follows automatically as you charge ahead with implementation. The solution will be delivered perfectly, metrics tell you what you want to hear, but nobody is happy for long, especially as people’s needs change more quickly than implementation plans.

It’s time to try a less rigid, less linear, more user-centric approach, bringing the collective genius of users into the design not only of a micro-solution to a predefined problem, but right into the organisation’s broader vision and strategy. If users come in at the outset they can help define the underlying challenges you face, enabling you to develop more holistic visions and solutions.

Experts should remain an essential part of the process, but since they tend to approach challenges from the "producer side", we need them to operate on equal terms with users. The challenge is to tease out from customers and employees what they really need but perhaps haven’t thought about yet.

Only once you’ve done that can you start to crystallise your strategy, but even then it’s not fixed. To be truly user-centric, you need effective feedback loops that keep everything relating to the original vision, and that involve users again to keep the organisation faithful to the people you’re there for.

And what better definition of competitive advantage than when the organisation serves all its users better than anyone else?

David Landsman was Executive Director of Tata Limited and before that British Ambassador to Greece. He is now a co-founder of Agora Envisioning ( and a Visiting Fellow at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

Image credit: digital buggu/Pexels


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