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Customer-centricity is dangerously easy to buy. After all, who wouldn’t want to make things their customers want?

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Whether in greenfield innovation projects or in core transformation, customers are only part of the problem. Just like technology is only part of the problem. A customer-centric approach, just like the technology-centric approach of traditional systems integrators, will only address the needs of a fraction of the total stakeholder group for a new or improved proposition.

The forgotten component in all of the rhetoric about customer research, prototyping and co-design is the business itself. So much energy now goes into looking outside – ‘talking to customers’ – that everyone ends up on brainstorm island and forgets about the reality of running and growing a business.

Looking inside

A good first step is to start treating internal users of a new product or service – journalists at a news organisation; checkout staff at a store – as customers too. We’ve done this with our media and retail clients around the world. Matt Edgar wrote about the more typical outcome a while back, and Made by Many’s Tim Malbon said some more about how we build internal tools in his recent post about digital transformation.

Executives employ management consultancies to spend months putting together process models and business cases unchecked by exposure to the realities up on the shop floor.

Matt Edgar

So if this is ‘downstairs’, it’s also crucial to look ‘upstairs’. What are the business goals that are motivating the need to innovate? A desire to capture a new market or shore up an existing one? A need to reduce costs or a need to improve morale?

Some of these will and should be driven by the needs of employees, but many will be determined by external influences – the market context; the emergence of new competitors; or shareholder pressure. And some may simply come from the top. A visionary CEO and their desire to effect change (or not) can be a powerful determinant of the success of any project that isn’t business as usual.

In saying all of this, it’s vital that businesses don’t end up finding themselves paralysed by the idea that they need to evaluate everything before taking action – or immobilised by the assumption that only massive change is worth pursuing.

We believe that there’s a third way.

Full stack design thinking

Over the last few years, this ‘third way’ has emerged as fundamental to the way we work at Made by Many. We’ve learnt that product innovation in isolation – no matter how brilliant the execution – isn’t enough to change our clients’ businesses for the better.

What Tim describes as full stack design thinking is an expression of this:

It’s an approach that gets further, faster – because it looks at technology, data analytics, operational capabilities, talent and staffing, commercial models and pricing, measurement and KPIs, product lifecycle management and capital, structure and geography.

Tim Malbon on full stack design thinking

This is underpinned by a pragmatic philosophy around innovation strategy. One that recognises the need to look inside as well as out, but one that also knows how to work around bureaucracy and structure in a smart way to get things done.

It’s important to realise that not all of the ‘inside’ problems need to be solved at once, just as not all of the customer’s problems need to be solved in Version 1 – but they need to be acknowledged and considered as part of the solution space.

Asking the right questions

There are six areas we believe need to be considered as part of a full stack innovation process:

  • Marketing and CRM: How do we acquire and retain customers? (Or internal users in the case of an intranet, for example)
  • UI, UX and brand: How does the proposition work? What does it look and feel like?
  • Proposition: What does the product do? What value does it create and for whom?
  • Technology and infrastructure: What makes the product work?
  • Organisation and operations: What people and processes do we need to support the product?
  • Venture, commercial and regulatory: How is the business structured? Where is it located and what compliance overheads, if any, does it have?

This approach is fundamentally predicated on doing and making – much like traditional product innovation – but looks well beyond the product itself to consider what might turn a new proposition into a success for the business.

In this context, customer-centric product innovation begins to seem a little naïve. Those days (or weeks or months) spent on brainstorm island seem frivolous.

For many organisations, the process of beginning to look outside is absolutely imperative, but it’s what happens inside that will ultimately determine whether or not a new initiative succeeds beyond that brief flurry of Post-It notes.

That’s why we’re not customer-centric. We’ve never been technology-centric or business-centric either. All of these tropes lead to dangerous conclusions – each with plenty of surface appeal – that fail to deliver material results.

Peter Parkes

Peter Parkes Strategy Director

Peter was Strategy Director at Made by Many from 2012–2018.

Peter’s career has spanned corporate communications, product marketing and business strategy, with a focus on mass-market consumer technology products.

He holds an MA in Economics from the University of Cambridge, where he specialised in the intersection of economics and psychology, writing about economic modelling of human behaviour and decision-making processes.


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