What is Your Pain? And other Intelligent Questions (Part 2)

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Part 1

Hypothesis: Customer needs are constants, not variables. The only variable is the perception of value as new products, services, or methods emerge. We all still need to consume nutrients to survive.

If asked, how would you describe perfection? What is the perfect vacation? Can you name every attribute that describes it? Or, would you be tempted to highlight only the positives or negatives that are top of mind from your last vacation? If I asked you how to improve your next vacation, you would likely only focus on your pain. As a result, you may find that many of your broader expectations fall short; due to your narrow focus.

If we begin to look at life as a system of processes, we can break each of them down into steps. If we frame the steps around accomplishments instead of activities, they probably won’t change much over time. Therefore, we can also assume that our needs for each of these steps will also not change much over time. What will change is the way we evaluate them over time. Take this example from Kenton Barker:

Job: Storing Information

We all need to store information; however, it is often overlooked as a need if you ever see a software consulting project executed; we just assume it’s there. Yet even something so basic is affected when things like cloud storage emerge. Why? Because while we still need to store files and information, the cloud gets specific needs related to storing files done better than other methods of storage. Just ask the traditional storage device companies how things are going for them. By ignoring all of the needs, even those we consider to be table stakes, we risk not seeing emerging threats.

What if we were to think of needs as metrics? What if business requirements became metrics that were driven by what their customers valued?

For anyone thinking that a maturity model which includes leading language paints the same complete picture of perfect execution, I would point out that there is no agreed upon structure or format to these models, and the maturity levels are never structured to be evaluated as metrics. There is certainly some commonality that can be leveraged when mapping jobs, however.

Let’s look at the job of storing a file. Over the years, we’ve gone through a few phases: Physical files, Electronic Files stored locally, and Digital Files stored in cloud services

  • Physical File – piece of paper placed in a paper folder
  • Electronic File – bit or byte file stored in a bit or byte folder on your computer or other physical electronic device
  • Digital File – data from various sources that you save, or is saved for you, as you interact within or beyond a particular device or channel

Yet, what we are trying to accomplish hasn’t changed so much. I’ve taken Kenton’s excellent comparison between Value Management and Outcome-driven Innovation (a comprehensive innovation process beginning with a new type of customer metric) and adapted his “Store Information” job map just a little bit to expand upon my scenario above:

Now, there is the converse job of “Retrieve Information” which also may have a step such as “Access the storage medium.” In both cases we may want to increase the likelihood of information being available globally or increase the likelihood of information being accessed instantly. I would argue that we have always had these needs; they just weren’t as important at a time when we didn’t travel as much, we didn’t collaborate with remote and global partners regularly, and much of the information we worked with was in physical form. Therefore, we were pretty satisfied with filing cabinets. The problem is in the way we’ve historically defined what a need is. And therefore, we are not as effective or efficient as we could be when it comes to defining business requirements collaboratively with our clients.

If you haven’t identified the needs up front, all of them, how do hope to monitor change without the massive and repeated interventions so typical in the consulting world? Well, our customers have needs to, and I’m betting that in their process of acquiring consulting services there is a need to minimize the time required to determine requirements, increase the likelihood that all needs are identified, and minimize the number of interventions required to set and execute a strategy. When I say all needs that really means that if we have this need sitting over there, ignored for decades, don’t discard it and make sure you align it to a step. One day, with the advent of a new or emerging technology, platform or method, it may suddenly become important. If you haven’t identified it in advance, you will be the last to see it.

Industrializing Requirements Gathering Requires New Questions

I spent time talking about the metrics, only so I could lead you to a simple but effective approach to asking questions. Even if you’ve spent 20 years honing your delivery of the question “What is your pain?” and maybe your unique differentiator of asking “Why?” a bunch of times, it’s worth considering what you actually learn from those questions. “Five Why’s” is a perfectly good method for getting to the root cause of a problem, but what if you’re focused on the wrong problem? Admitting this is the first step in your 12 step program!

There are also good approaches to framing questions that probe around problems, and their importance to customers as I discussed here. But none of these approaches allows you to accomplish the following three things:

  1. Gather information once, that can be used over long time horizons
  2. Convert the answers into a homogeneous catalog of measurable forward-looking indicators that focus on the way customers measure their process, versus the traditional focus of a company measuring the activities they perform or collaboratively perform.
  3. Identify language that triggers real responses from customers when discussing issues, or even selling them something

So to begin, we need a foundation to build our questions upon. To collaboratively determine what must be measured with our customers with regard to the job they are trying to get done, we must determine the speed, predictability and output that they desire. To do this you would ask questions around each job/process step like those below:

Category Question
Speed What makes a step slower than you want it to be?

What makes a step cumbersome, inconvenient, or just frustrating to execute?

Stability What causes the result of this step to be inconsistent?

What problems or challenges do you face with this step?

Output What causes the quality of the step’s output to be poor?

What is ineffective about this step?

As in the process world, it’s important to know sources and sinks. Asking a step executor may not be the right person to inform you about the quality of the output. On the flipside, if it is taking a long time to process a step, the executor may tell you that they have to fiddle with something received from a prior step.

They are very simple questions, and once you have identified and mapped a job, you can use the map and its metrics over and over to detect change in far greater detail than something so primitive as Net Promoter Score. A critical step for you, once you’ve asked the questions, is to make sure you get confirmed responses in a structured format so you can score it later. Taking the Outcome-driven Innovation approach you must convert the responses into a structured format like the example below:

[Direction of Improvement] + [Unit of Measure] + [Object of Control] + [Contextual Clarifier] + [Example of Object of Control] {Optional}

You hear: “I hate when I’m traveling and I forgot to bring a file with me”

You translate it to:

  • Direction of Improvement: Increase
  • Unit of Measure: the Likelihood
  • Object of Control: of storage being accessible
  • Contextual Clarifier: globally

I contend that the following statement is not variable, and therefore useful over time as an indicator of value perception through the lens of the customer…

Increase the likelihood of storage being accessible globally

…only the importance and satisfaction will change.

If we were to simply ask clients what’s bugging them, we might get the “I hate when I’m traveling and…”; but we might not. We also might get responses that suggest a button over there and feature over here would solve a problem within the context of a current solution. Even though the customer offered it, it’s still product-centric and the current solution may be under an emerging threat.

Now we have a single metric for a single step of the job Storing Information. All we need to do is capture more metrics for this step, as well as the metrics around the rest of the steps. When were done, we should never have to do this again for this type of job. We’ve just defined perfect execution of a job that extends beyond the bounds of our direct interaction. It’s time to score these metrics now (your stats guy will love it), and monitor them over time (he’ll love you even more).

So, what is your pain?

My pain is not being armed in advanced with valuable insights about a client, its customers, and their competitors. Sure, we have benchmark data, but that is solely focused around activities for well understood internal processes. When efficiency is the end game, then these work fine. However, more often than not, companies have a bigger problem around effectiveness; tackling the right problems and executing the right processes.

As with any emerging threat, incumbents tend to poo poo it because it’s too expensive to embrace a new model in the short-term. I ask, is it more expensive than what happens once the threat becomes real? While I’m not in the innovation game per se, and I’m not designing the disruptive business models of the future, there is a lot to be learned from the emerging threat of outcome-based innovation. What works for innovation, can certainly work for consulting in general, and business requirements in particular.

Imagine the day when customer metrics become the customer-centric benchmark of the future.

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