I recently wrote an article for my business audience that received more forwards, shares and comments than any that I can remember. It was about how, when businesses over-focus on existing customers, they tend to neglect the community of people who aren’t their customers but could be, given the right approach, the right language, the right services.
The conclusion of the article was that, for continuous improvement, for service evolution, essentially for tactical planning, listening to current customers is incredibly valuable. But for strategy development, it’s not. It’s the equivalent of breathing one’s own exhaust.
Leaning too heavily on customer insight during strategy development narrows the perspective dramatically and creates a form of mental myopia. It’s the same point attributed to Henry Ford when he supposedly suggested that, had he listened to his customers, they’d have asked for a faster horse.
There is a striking parallel between that insight and the way charities develop their strategies, one that is borderline heresy in some circles. But one that nevertheless I intend to make here because, whether controversial or not, it happens to be correct.
There are two fundamental things a charity needs to bear in mind, above all else, when developing a strategy: its purpose, and the future in which it aspires to realise that purpose.
For charities whose sole purpose is to support their current cohort of beneficiaries, those beneficiaries are the best source of knowledge. As a result, the strategy that emerges will be centred around the perceived needs of that specific group. But because of that, it will always be one of continuation and evolution, rather than transformation. Its plans will inevitably be of the faster horse variety.
But for charities whose purpose and ambition reaches beyond current service users; where its vision extends to other communities, harder to reach demographics, or a broader population with as-yet unmet needs, the views of existing users will skew its strategy away from that aspiration. Its focus will be continually drawn back to the close-at-hand; to debating what it does, not what it could do, and certainly not what it might need to become in order to fulfil a purpose beyond the mere continuation of its services.
I’d like to say there’s nothing inherently wrong with a continuation strategy. And in a steady-state, unchanging environment, that may be true. But that’s not the environment that most of us inhabit, nor is it one that’s likely to prevail over the coming decade. Times change, and so do people, their needs and expectations. Those of the future will differ from those of the present. But beyond that, there is also purpose.
Purpose is the driving force of great non-profits, demanding ambitious plans, necessitating innovation, challenging its people to be the best they can be. In the immortal words of JFK, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Strategy development is that rare opportunity for an organisation to look beyond what it is, and to consider what it could become; to reset its own North Star and nail its ambition to the mast. To look beyond the horizon of the population it directly serves today, to the wider ocean of populations in need. To think bigger and to look further than it ever can during the day-to-day melee of management action and tactical plans.
Listening to the people you serve is the cornerstone of improving what you do. But when it comes to strategy, to mission and ambition, the more important audience is the one that nobody serves. Are you listening to them?