You know those picky and demanding customers who drive you nuts? Or, those employees who endlessly complain that things could be done better?
Instead of running away from those you may consider annoying, it’s time to start listening to them, says Amanda Setili, a strategy consultant who has worked with Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and Home Depot.
That’s because those who complain – whether employees or customers – are doing so because they have ideas about how things can be done better. It’s just those idea, she says, that may keep a company afloat in a rapidly changing marketplace.
“When change is happening so fast, then whoever is fast on their feet will gain the advantage,” says Setili, author of “Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation and Dominate Your Markets.” “So, embrace the problem customers. Listen to the skeptical naysayers in your company because they can help you be fast and agile and innovative.”
Unfortunately, many companies do exactly the opposite and tune out diverse opinions. They hunker down in their uncertainty, blocking out dissenting views and embracing the status quo as a way to ride out the unknown.
But Setili, who has been an executive with two successful disruptive technology startups in the U.S. and Malaysia, says that companies need to learn to be adaptable and “ready for anything.” One way to better prepare, she says, is to develop multiple ways to tap into customer creativity and forward-thinking ideas that help companies react faster to changing customer needs and desires.
Another way to foster better ideas is to give the employees “who are constantly saying things could be better or faster” in a company the time to develop some of their ideas, she says.
“You put the right people on such a team – cross-functional and experienced – and let them do some exploring,” she suggests. “Give them a little freedom and funding to experiment, but hold them accountable.”
Among her other recommendations to become faster and more competitive:
- Embrace uncertainty. When markets are uncertain, many companies will try to survive by luring away the competition’s customers or by cutting prices. That’s a strategy that squeezes margins and “is okay for everyone, but great for no one,” she says. Instead, company leaders need to think about how they can exploit the marketplace changes before the competition. She suggests having honest conversations about how to best prepare for upheaval, how to identify early warning signs and developing a responsive plan of action. Debate should be encouraged to help new ideas emerge and to avoid confirmation bias.
- Partner, borrow and share. Customers and employees can be good sources for new ideas, but also consider working with partners or freelancers. Crowdsourcing can also spur more input. Even if you’re not a tech company you can hold hackathons that are aimed at finding ways to better serve customers or clients. “If you have a law firm, for example, that may not typically be thought of as an innovative place,” she says. “But you have some really smart people working there that are solving really difficult problems for clients. Why not ask them how pricing for clients could be changed? Or how you can gain new clients? Or make better hires?”
- Connect and strengthen your ecosystem. Consider hosting events, making introductions and creating technology platforms to connect customers, suppliers, channel partners and content providers. By helping them interact, you’re providing value.
- Unleash employee creativity. Employees are often an untapped source for identifying problems and solving them quickly before they cause a bottleneck in the entire organization. They also may already have ideas about how to use existing resources in new ways, or how to tap into new markets or products. Another way to spark new ways of thinking is to use games and other competitive activities that can “free people to take more risk.” At the same time, don’t forget about new employees, who often can have the freshest ideas and break up patterns of stagnation.
- Be aggressive learners. While your organization may be tempted to take a step back after a period of intense change or innovation, Setili says such inaction makes your organization “a sitting duck – easy to copy and vulnerable to commoditization.” Without ongoing innovation and change, “you quickly lose your edge,” she says. Employers can spur learning by sending employees to seminars or conferences to gain new insights and encourage them to have conversations with diverse thinkers inside and outside the organization.
- Go with the flow. Managers should be encouraged to move employees to jobs or projects that best suit their strengths, and not let them remain in stagnant roles that don’t make best use of their potential. “Think of employees as independent contractors. The boss asks the employee what he or she is good at, and then tries to help find a close match to those skills. Always be thinking about a state of flow – people who are able to move between functions,” she says.
While some organizations may believe their culture may not support continuous and rapid change and innovation, Setili says that attitude will eventually lead to the death of the organization. “You need to be constantly learning and innovating,” she says. “If you feel like you’re doing just fine and living on easy street, it’s probably too late for you already.”