Better Outcomes Begin with Shared Understanding

When I came across this quote from developer John Cutler, I found it insightful both for its simplicity and the deeper questions it evokes. “Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes, then figure out how to remove that mile altogether.”  So, what exactly does he mean by “remove the mile”? One interpretation might be the distance between the process of doing and the achievement of done, and the speed at which we deliver for our clients. Another interpretation could be the distance in our understanding between what we think the customer needs and what they actually need. Or perhaps just finding more intentional ways to reduce our overall separateness – Client and vendor – us and them, getting better at aligning our shared goals. Perhaps all of these apply.    

For most, the primary measurement of progress is tangible outcomes; seeing is believing. To begin removing the mile between ourselves and our customers, it behooves us to find ways to do the groundwork first, before jumping into action, going deeper at the outset to deliver on the actual need rather than just the perceived need. Instead of Idea>Action, the goal is Idea>Plan>Action. To create a plan, we first need to feel the pain our customers feel, to internalize their hard realities, for an hour, a day, a week, whatever it takes to achieve the “I get it” moment so we can begin to chart a course that will yield the desired result. 

When we align with our customer at both a practical and emotional level, we achieve shared understanding and clarity of purpose and clarity of priority toward the desired destination. This results in a more accurate context that informs our creative problem solving. To be clear, the customer isn’t always the buyer. The customer may be our supervisor, boss, co-worker, partner, colleague or anyone else we aim to serve. The customer is the person, team, or organization that bestows their confidence and trust in us to deliver a solution to their problem. 

In Agile parlance, one tool we’ve found that works well is the user story – a short wish list item expressed as a brief human story from the customer’s perspective. Example: As a sales representative traveling to clients, I often schedule back-to-back appointments. I would like to quickly access my notes from the home screen without having to drill-down, so I can save valuable time before each appointment. ” 

The format is simple: As a <type of role>, I would like to <complete some task> so I can <achieve some goal.> 

Add User Stories to your planning process and project participants who may not have the benefit of direct customer interaction, can peer into the history, context and origin of the thing they’re tasked with building. This places everyone closer to the customer’s experience. In the story example of the sales person, compound their pain in the form of lost time over days and weeks and we have the real opportunity to create a meaningful difference for them. 

Project planning that brings us closer to the customer ultimately drives more impactful outcomes, meeting the need and saving everyone the added cost, delays, and headaches of re-design and re-work. aka “that isn’t really what we had in mind” moments.

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

User stories are effective when they’re visible. Add them to your roadmaps and sprint boards, virtual or otherwise, so they’re front and center when work actually begins. That way, the pain and desired outcome is expressed in human terms and doesn’t become a a distant abstraction. It’s no longer just a feature, it’s improving someone’s life.  

Whether it’s a new app, product, website, campaign or any other project you’re charged with delivering…consistent, accurate deployment starts with clarity of understanding at the human level, serving to eliminate the mile between us and our customer. 

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