Customer-Centricity: why engineers are not enough and poets are essential


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Where is the enthusiasm born of imagination and passion?

In my 25+ years of walking the corridors of business organisations I have come across the mind/intellect in many guises: as strategy; as planning; as process; as metrics; as technology; as standardisation; as the pursuit of ‘best practice’ and ‘benchmarking’…… What I have rarely experienced is enthusiasm born of imagination and passion. Yes, I have come face to face with fear, with greed, with pressure, with determination. And that is not the same as imagination, passion, enthusiasm. In this post I want to deal with imagination.

Does imagination matter?

Is business simple a game of mind? Is it simply a case of putting in place the right mix of ‘resources’ – people, processes, technology, metrics – based on analysis and then configuring and deploying these resources in the correct configuration? I say that this is the traditional assumption and narrative. And that it is not a surprise given the backgrounds of the people who read and write these narratives.

It occurs to me that imagination and passion do matter. It occurs to me that they play a pivotal role in the game of business, to customer service, to customer experience, to customer-centricity. And it occurs to me that these two dimension are neglected – pushed out to the background or paid lip service. I see tactics (VoC, data mining, CRM systems, process redesign….) devoid of strategy and where I do encounter strategy it shows up as being devoid of imagination. It is as if just about everyone is playing the same game (make the P&L numbers) to the same rules and each players is expecting to differentiate himself from his competitors!

Why is imagination so critical?

I say imagination does not just matter, it is critical for any industry that is not immune from change in customer preferences, in competitors and competition, and in technological disruptions. Why? Let me share with you the insight of a particularly insightful philosopher:

” An animal has not enough imagination to draw up a project of life other than the mere monotonous repetitions of previous actions ….

If life is not realisation of a program, intelligence becomes a purely mechanical function without discipline and orientation. One forgets too easily that intelligence, however keen, cannot furnish its own direction and therefore is unable to attain to actual technical discoveries. It does not know by itself what to prefer among countless “inventable” things and is lost in their unlimited possibilities. Technical capacity can arise only in an entity whose intelligence functions in the service of an imagination pregnant not with technical, but vital projects.” Jose Ortega Y Gasset

Put differently, there are limitations to reason. Reason is limited by reason. Reason keeps one restricted to the comfort zone. And it is great for as long as the environment does not change. Imagination is needed to create/shape new environments and to deal with environments that are in the process of change.

Take Amazon. Was it not borne out of the imagination of Jeff Bezos? Take Starbucks. Was it not borne out of the imagination of Howard Schultz? Take Zappos? Was it not borne out of Nick Swinmurn? And was it not imagination (of being the company known for great service across the world) that enabled the Zappos leadership team to put Zappos’ existence at stake to reach for that which was imagined? Think Vodafone. Was it not borne out of the imagination of mobile telecommunications? The list is endless.

What has this got to excelling at the game of becoming customer-centric, at being a customer experience master?

Everything. In my travels what shows up for me? Obsession with the technology of customer service, of customer experience, of customer-centricity. When I speak ‘technology’ I am not just pointing at IT systems. I am pointing at obsession with the means/methods/tools – the rational domain of the engineer. What does not show up for me, what do I not encounter? An imagination pregnant with possibilities and vital projects to which customer service, the customer experience, and customer-centricity can contribute.

Imagination is critical to making the shift. Why? Because that is what is needed to move out of the prison of the ‘making the numbers’ and sticking to the comfort of the ‘known and best practice’. What made Steve Jobs great? At the technical level Steve Wozniak was supreme. Why is he simply a footnote? Because he lacked the imagination of Steve Jobs. Put differently, Jobs was the poet, philosopher and the founder of a new religion around the user experience. Allow me to illustrate this through the insight of Jose Ortega Y Gasset:

The vital program is pretechnical. Mans’ technical capacity – that is, the technician – is in charge of inventing the simplest and safest way to meet man’s necessities. But these …. are in their turn inventions. They are what man in each epoch, nation, or individual aspires to be. Hence there exists a first, pre technical invention par excellence, the original desire… which part of man is it, or rather what sort of men are they, that are in special charge of the vital program? Poets, philosophers, politicians, founders of religions, discoverers of new values…. the engineer is dependent on them all. Which explains why they all rank higher than he…”

Summing up

Put simply, without poets and philosophers like Jobs your engineers like Wozniak are not going to get you far in the game of customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


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