Rock climbing is different to many sports because it is a little bit dangerous. The psychology of a successful (long-lived) climber cannot simply be “go for it”. Business is much the same—we know we need to take some risks in order to succeed, but which ones are reasonable?
Yes-fail and No-fail
The sports psychologist and climbing coach Arno Ilgner has a useful approach: climbers should consciously evaluate objective danger before deciding whether they want to attempt a move. He calls this judgement “yes-fall” versus “no-fall”.
Separating out judgements of difficulty and danger enables us to be both safer (we don’t get lulled into danger by easy climbing) and bolder (we can risk failing on a hard move if we assessed it as safe to fall before starting). If we never risked a fall, we’d never reach our full potential. I think there’s a clear parallel here with innovation, and particularly with service innovation.
Jeffrey Baumgartner writes about an innovation process he calls ACT or Anti Conventional Thinking. One of the most powerful ideas in his approach is that the risk-averse part of our brain he labels the “mental bureaucrat” is merely silenced in a traditional brainstorm.
That’s why brainstorming produces stacks of mediocre, conventional, ideas. Not bad ideas, necessarily, but almost never creative ones. Being anti conventional means not just silencing the mental bureaucrat, but actively opposing them.
The mental bureaucrat is the organisational equivalent of self-preservation. Unless we actively judge that we’re in a “yes-fail” zone (like Ilgner’s “yes-fall” zone), we’ll always tend to play it safe.
It’s easy to think of “no-fail” situations. When we’re dealing with a customer that has already been let down we cannot risk any sort of failure, so now is not the time to try something new.
But what about the rest of the time? When do we put ourselves in a “yes-fail” situation. How often to we deliberately separate out the act of thinking about customer experience versus the day to day of doing it? Do we prototype creative new experiences to see how they might make people feel?
Givens and delighters
There are aspects of the customer experience which do not lend themselves to creativity. We tend to call those “givens” or “satisfaction maintainers” – things with a high cost of failure and low reward for success. But to create a really great customer experience, I believe you have to be prepared to accept some risks.
The most important, and it really does set the best apart from the rest, is trusting your staff. Humans have an amazing ability to react flexibly to the customer in front of them and anticipate their needs. Perhaps one day computers will be as good, AI is a topic for another post, but they’re nowhere near there yet.
That creates huge opportunities to delight customers, if your staff feel empowered to act on their instincts. It requires a culture that supports them…in other words a culture that will accept appropriate risks in order to achieve its objectives.