Strategy stories for businesses – ‘The Reality Test’ by Robert Rowland Smith
Who are you? What’s your organisation for? Are you sure you’re adding any value? Would you buy what you sell? Do you even know what the market is? How much dead wood should you carry? Are your decisions a science or an art?
These are some of the 48 questions that are the titles of chapters in ‘The Reality Test’ by Robert Rowland Smith, a book urging business leaders to go beyond the typical strategy questions such as, ‘What is our revenue target?’ or ‘What is our market proposition?’ Macroeconomic factors aside, the real reason businesses fail is that they run out of energy, or they don’t believe in their product, or their leaders are too vain to heed advice, or they treat their customers like idiots, or they are sabotaged from within, the author notes. Such are the realities, he adds, that ‘strategy’ is too rational to account for.
The book opens with the story of business identity, narrated from the author’s experience as a rookie consultant at a high-street drugstore, which ‘featured everything from underwater cameras to umbrellas, sunglasses to sandwiches,’ even as custom was dwindling. Then, there is the tale of Japan’s Kongo Gumi, a temple construction company that existed ‘from the jaw-dropping early date of 578 until 2006,’ for 1,428 years; why the company died is something you would read in the book.
How do you connect with customers? A common answer is, ‘Through customer service.’ Instead, why not stand in the customers’ shoes, the author asks. He talks about a workshop he ran for about twenty senior managers from a retail bank, who were part of a project to drive up customer service. When the question came up, about what it would be like to stand in the customers’ shoes, the senior managers readily acknowledged that their customers were much less well off than they were, and struggling with debt, the author recounts.
Shifting the discussion from a rational level to a more emotional one, the workshop required the participants to imagine what it would actually feel like to be paid much less than they were, to be struggling with debt. Before long, the language changed from a purely analytical to a more emotional one, the author writes. “They began talking about being in debt as ‘trying to keep your head above water,’ ‘feeling like you’re drowning in debt,’ ‘being in it up to my eyes,’ ‘being in over my head.’ Debt, it seemed, was like being in water and out of control.”
Taking the discussion out of the workshop room, the senior managers were required to live on the average salary of their customers for a week, so that they could feel what it was like. More interestingly, as the book chronicles, the managers were taken to a swimming pool and made to experience their own metaphors. They were made to tread water in the deep end until they started to get the sense of not quite being in control, of being inundated with ‘debt.’
This, the author observes, made the managers move from thinking about their customers to feeling what it was like to be them. What happened, thereafter, you may wonder. The managers went back to redesign the customer service program from the ground up, with far greater emphasis on real customer experience, the author concludes.
A book worth missing your flight for.
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