Idea generation, organizational logic, and general numnuttery
I am a Very Organized Person™. I am Very Organized about a lot of things: meal planning, book club, personal goals, Christmas preparations. Indeed, when you are a Very Organized Person, even the smallest of life’s administrative burdens get treated with military precision approaching that of the D-Day landings.
For instance: When, as a Very Organized Person, your driver’s license and healthcare card expire, you are on top of it. You avail yourself of the government’s online services well in advance, so that your new cards can be sent to you with minimal fuss and schedule disruption. When those cards arrive in the mail, you carefully scan the new cards, front and back, so as to have digital copies. You then securely store those digital copies in your password manager, so that they’re encrypted and available from all your devices. Next, you shred the old cards so as to prevent identity theft. Finally, you congratulate yourself on a job well done before moving on to organizing the next thing on your list. (There is always a next thing.)
So you can imagine my surprise when I was at the bank for a routine transaction this month and they informed me my driver’s license was expired. Inconceivable!1 But true. A rummage through the shredder bin told the tale. This numnuts right here managed to shred her new ID cards instead of the old ones. 🤦♀️
The reward for this particular act of numnuttery was getting to make a second trip to the bank with passport in hand, plus a morning wasted lining up in person to get another set of cards. It was a fitting punishment, because truly, there is nothing a Very Organized Person loathes more than needless interactions with officialdom.
Anyway. I don’t know if this is a story about hubris or human frailty or the perils of being overly organized. I do suspect that it’s the sort of story that is quite funny when it happens to someone else (namely me).
Organizational Logic and Customer Experience
Customer experience — delivering holistic, well-orchestrated interactions that anticipate customer needs and exceed their expectations — typically focuses on, well, the customer. Makes sense. It’s right there in the name. So organizations that want to ‘do’ customer experience invest in things like customer research, customer journey maps, UX capabilities. These are all helpful tools, but often they don’t end up changing much about how customers actually experience a product or service. And that’s because the hard part of customer experience isn’t really the customer side. It’s the organizational logic.
I think of organizational logic2 as the set of norms, assumptions, processes, and shared vocabulary that help people in an organization get work done. It overlaps with organizational culture, but is both a bit more specific and a bit more expansive3. In essence, organizational logic is the collective mental model that allows dozens or hundreds or thousands of people to work together and get something out into the world.
When you first join a new organization, you feel its logic very acutely, because you haven’t internalized it. Hour by hour, in ways large and small, you encounter differences between the norms and definitions you’ve accumulated in your past life, and the ones that permeate in this new place. The process of onboarding is really about you assimilating, so that you can operate with the same logic as everyone else. Once you do that, you stop noticing the organizational logic — it’s just your default. You become a fish and the organizational logic is the water you’re swimming in.
Organizational logic is essential to getting work done. You couldn’t have a company without it, any more than fish can flourish out of water. But when it comes to customer experience, that organizational logic is problematic. We make decisions about the customer experience we offer, and we take the water for granted — we forget it’s even there. Meanwhile, our customers are on the outside needing to get into full scuba gear, because they aren’t fish and they don’t live in the water.
And this is why customer experience initiatives can struggle to see results. It doesn't matter how much you talk to your customers or how many journey maps you make, if you can’t recognize when your organizational logic is getting in your customers’ way.
When customer experience gets reduced to customer research and customer journey maps, you can end up jumping through a series of ostensibly customer-centric hoops without actually addressing the customers’ core needs. Customer research only look for solutions that fit within the existing organizational logic. Journey maps end up buttressing an organization-centric worldview that says customers are somehow intrinsically interested in following your tidy process, rather than hiring a product or service to do a job. The end result is customers end up putting on scuba gear and dealing with something janky and watery because the organization is prioritizing its own logic over customer needs.
But organizations need organizational logic as surely as fish need water, so it’s not something you can eliminate. Meanwhile, your customers will never be swimming in your fishbowl. That ongoing tension is what makes customer experience hard — the need to take something necessary and pervasive to internal employees, and figure out how to make it invisible to external customers.
Customer experience, then, is about helping everyone in the organization:
Be aware of the water;
Notice when it the water negatively affecting the customer experience; and
Make different decisions so the customer doesn't have to deal with the water.
That means individuals need to build new intuitions about their role and develop the skill of switching between customer and organizational perspectives, so they can make different trade-offs and different decisions. That’s step one.
Step two is coordinating those different decisions and trade-offs cross-functionally. In all but the smallest organizations, it takes collaboration across multiple teams and silos to deliver a customer experience. By definition, these more customer-centric decisions depart from the existing organizational logic. Without coordination, different teams will make different trade-offs, creating a customer experience that is even more disjointed and watery. Instead of making organizational logic invisible to customers, you’ll be highlighting its dysfunction.
It takes a lot of discipline and perseverance to do this kind of cross-functional intuition-building. At almost every turn, people tend to default to the path of least organizational resistance. It’s an awful lot easier for a team to tackle some customer research or make a journey map. But the core work of customer experience is much more mundane, and thankless: stakeholdering and communicating (and communicating again); setting up task forces and cross-functional forums that add enough value that people actually want to show up; doing the work while giving others the credit; and sustaining that effort over months and years, until the new ways of working are truly established in the organizational logic.
It’s not very sexy and it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s the only thing I’ve found that can deliver sustained customer experience excellence over the long run.
What I’m Working On
I’ve spent a good chunk of April facilitating virtual workshops with a client’s customers. It’s been fun, but it’s a whole different ballgame than virtual workshops with internal teams (maybe it’s the lack of organizational logic…).
To combat zoom fatigue, the workshop has been split into 90-minute chunks across multiple days. That approach has been effective for keeping people engaged while they’re on the video call, but it’s been much harder to maintain momentum and continuity between sessions. And don’t get me started on the logistics of coordinating all those different dates and times between people who don’t have a shared calendar. There aren’t enough Doodle polls in the world.
Once we’re actually in the session, conversation has been flowing pretty smoothly. In addition to my facilitator login, I join from my iPad, so I can see what the participants are seeing. That has been super helpful for keeping the digital whiteboards legible for participants. I’ve also noticed that the back-and-forth improves when people keep their microphones on, instead of trying to toggle the mute button. I’ll try setting “microphones on” as a ground rule next time.
But the hardest thing by far has been getting participants to move beyond the pixels on the screen and contribute new ideas. They interpret everything so much more literally than is typical in in-person sessions! So I was quite intrigued to see some new research published in Nature on that very topic.
The researchers asked groups to generate new ideas, communicating either in-person or virtually. Virtual collaborators generated fewer ideas, and those ideas were less divergent than the ones generated by in-person teams. The hypothesis is that virtual communication narrows your visual focus so you spend much more time staring at the screen, which in turn hinders generating ideas. The narrowing of attention was not a problem for other types of work (like making decisions), where they found some evidence that virtual interactions might be better than in-person.
My takeaway is that as effective and efficient as virtual can be in some contexts, when the goal is creativity there will always be a role for getting people into the same room for an in-person jam.
You keep using that word — I don’t think it means what you think it means.
This is a term I’m using to label a phenomenon inside organizations. Relatedly, there is a robust academic literature on “institutional logics,” which speaks to how key institutions like capitalism, families, and religion, shape how people make meaning in the world. It’s clearly related to what I’m talking about here, but more of a theoretical construct.
Organizational logic wouldn’t include elements of culture that aren’t central to how the work gets done, like dress code and after-work drinks. Conversely, organizational logic does include those arcane procedural details that aren’t about culture, like ‘system x only accepts data in format y,’ or ‘only people with job category z can authorize that transaction.’