Do you ever stop and ask if the customer is at the heart of everything you do in your business?

When most people think of design, they think of a plan or drawing which shows the appearance and layout of a building before it is produced. This is traditionally something which architects, engineers and designers do. However, the word design can also be used to describe a way of thinking which is very different to the type of scientific thinking which underpins virtually all management education and thinking, on which most managers depend for building their business strategies.

This was vividly illustrated in the 1970s by Bryan Lawson, one of the founders of design thinking, who showed in an experiment which required students to build simple structures using coloured blocks, how scientists and architects solved the problem in very different ways. In essence, the scientists solved the problem by analysis (breaking a problem down into its parts to look for core rules, formulas and principles) while the architects solved it by a process of synthesis (a reiterative process of experimentation and prototyping, feedback and refinement).

In other words, they started at opposite ends of the problem.

Design thinking involves a unique ‘solution-focused’ (rather than problem-focused) way of understanding the world and solving problems, which is increasingly being embraced in business as a way of significantly increasing productivity, efficiency, creativity and innovation. Advocates of design thinking present evidence that companies that put design thinking at the heart of their business, such as Apple and Dyson, are not only more innovative but are more productive and efficient and consistently outperform their competitors on the stock market.

Design thinking starts with your customer’s needs and problems rather than with your own business needs and problems. It challenges traditional ‘supply-push’ models of innovation which involve businesses developing new products and services in isolation and then forcing them on customers through aggressive marketing and selling strategies.

With the advance and the temptation to invest in the latest construction technology, it’s all too easy for firms to fall into this trap. All too often, we see innovation being driven by new technical capabilities to create new products and services rather than by the need for them in the marketplace.

In contrast, design-led companies engage in ‘pull-led’ innovation by actively listening to their customers and engaging with them on a day-to-day basis in understanding their needs and involving them in the co-creation of the products they consume. In essence, design thinking involves starting from the other end and intimately engaging with your customers and re-orientating your entire business, your decisions, your staff and any resources and investments you make, to make it relevant to their needs.

So how do you start on your design thinking journey?

In simple terms, design thinking involves the CEO asking whether people in their business at all levels and in all functional areas and in the supply chain have a common understanding of five simple but profound questions:

  1. Who are our customers?
  2. What are their core businesses and their needs, problems and aspirations?
  3. Do our products and services add value to our customers’ businesses by meeting those needs and aspirations?
  4. What parts of our business do not address those needs and fail to add customer value?
  5. How far are we off the mark in meeting our customers’ needs and what do we need to stop doing and start doing, to get back on track?

Most managers would be very surprised at the variety of answers they would get to these questions, even from those in their innermost circles. Many organizations have too many customers, don’t understand their needs and will have grown organically in a way which often doesn’t add value to their customers’ businesses. Their marketing and sales departments may have lots of statistics from regular customer surveys, but how often have people in your organization actually sat down with your customers and listened to their needs and aspirations for the future?

In design-led companies, the focus is very much on ‘listening’ rather than ‘selling’ – a complete different set of skills which many organizations in construction appear to have lost. This is not surprising given the adversarial, fragmented and linear way in which we procure buildings, which separates most of the supply chain from the customers they serve.

Moving to a design-led innovation model may therefore involve fundamental changes to the types of projects you engage, shifting toward projects that allow you to be closer to the customers you ultimately serve. Furthermore, the pernicious growth of managerialism in construction and in most other industries, which manifests itself in potentially dangerous management fads like lean thinking and in the constant search for profit and growth, has drastically reduced the time people once had to spend with their customers to understand and listen to their needs and future aspirations.

As your customers grow and their needs change, keeping in touch involves time and effort which most people don’t have these days. Your customers’ needs are very unlikely to be what they were 10 years ago. When was the last time you really sat and listened to their needs and future plans?

Be warned: if you do make the effort to go and listen to your customers, then you will need a whole new set of skills to make it work. Many companies have lost the art of listening. Like every human being, you are likely to ‘selectively perceive’ what they say so that it fits in with your existing beliefs. Psychologists call this process of ignoring information which involves change and discomfort ‘cognitive dissonance’ and it ensures that if you put three people in front of the same customer, they are all likely to hear different things. You may need a fresh face to go and do the listening for you.

But before you do any of this, ask yourself if you are seriously open to change, because once you have started listening again, the gap between your business and what your customers need may be surprisingly large. Furthermore, the process of bringing the business back into focus around a few core customers can often seem far too hard. Rationalizing your customer base can be scary, and so can stopping business activities which don’t meet your customer needs. You may have invested lot of energy and time in these activities and they may also be generating revenue for your business.

However, embarking on a process which focusses and clarifies your core purpose and which re-orientates and refocuses your business wholly around core customers will bring numerous benefits. It will not only increase your chance of being a successful business, but it will add significant credibility to what you do in the eyes of customers, markets, staff and external stakeholders. Furthermore, having clearer goals and outcomes will increase productivity, efficiency and profitability by rationalizing resources and avoiding wasted effort which doesn’t add value.

So start listening and keep listening. Decide who your customers are, communicate that to everyone in your business, make sure they understand it and make sure that every part of your business adds customer value.