Seek first to understand…

My second favourite of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (my most favourite is: “Begin with the end in mind.” Although he was talking mainly about communicating with others, it translates well when considering service or product development: understand the jobs, wants and needs of those you purport to serve. Then ask them to understand your offering and pay for it.

There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that not everyone gets that. There are countless examples of products that have been developed and which have flopped because their makers clearly didn’t understand their customers.

Consider the following high-profile examples:

Juicero: This company recently promised to put an industrial fruit press on everyone’s countertop, for the ultimate juicing experience. Unfortunately, the device they made couldn’t do that (there’s a reason why presses are really big and heavy) and needed expensive prepared bags of fruit to work. Moreover, it was discovered that these bags could be squeezed by hand! Juicero filed for bankruptcy in September 2017. More about Juicero…

New Coke: Doubtless one of the biggest missteps of the 1980s, Coca-Cola abandoned their long-successful formula to produce something that more closely resembled Pepsi, their arch-rival in the cola wars. Even in the era before social media, the backlash was deafening, and Coca-Cola was forced into an embarrassing and costly climb-down. They first tried to re-release the original recipe as “Coke Classic” and then, when that gambit failed, abandoned the new formula altogether. More about New Coke…

Segway: Although these are popular amongst mall cops and some tourism companies, as a new form of individual transport, the Segway never took off. Unfortunately, the cost and the size of the Segway meant that it was impractical for city-dwellers, the mostly likely people to use it, and, citing safety concerns, most cities banned it from both roads and sidewalks, sharply limiting its prospects for success. Segway is still around but at a fraction of its promised scale. More about Segway…

What’s the common element here? Companies that decided to build and fund so-called “solutions” that either didn’t solve a real problem, or solved it in a way that was no better – or was worse – than the way people were already solving it. By failing to understand their eco-system (customers, approvers and service chain) properly, and the jobs they were trying to accomplish, the makers not only let down those people, but wasted a lot of time and money that could have been more productively applied.

By failing to understand, they guaranteed that they wouldn’t be understood.