When you hear hoofbeats, do you assume you will see a horse, a commonly encountered animal, or do you think it might be a zebra, an exotic black and white striped creature that most of us read about but may never see?
Don’t worry if you assumed a horse. A pretty common reaction. But if you thought of a zebra, you bring to the table a valuable skill – the ability to look beyond the obvious. Now can you apply this ability to solving sales, product, financial, marketing, and organizational challenges brought on quite often due to assumptions.
When a product category becomes increasingly commoditized, customers assume they have to choose between bad or tolerable experiences. Building a product that is able to break assumptions and deliver an experience that customers don’t expect is often the difference between great success and also-ran status. The experience is sometimes in the form of gratifying usability, excellent performance, and reliability, or sometimes just proactive and helpful customer support. It’s not surprising to find dismay expressed by fans of T-mobile customer service at its potential acquisition by AT&T – a company that epitomizes bad customer experience on multiple fronts.
A similar situation arises when an engineering group within a company grows and finds itself being identified as a bottleneck. Business stakeholders assume that they will have to deal with missed deadlines or bad quality. Engineering leadership is then thrown the challenge of “fixing” the issue. Frequently, however, it’s more critical to challenge the assumption that product development is a linear pipe needing unclogging at only one end. Overcoming this challenge may need integrating the product and engineering functions more tightly, ensuring product managers actually understand technology, helping engineering learn to empathize with the customers, eliminating “throwing over the wall” tendencies, supporting transparency and removing the fear of disclosing mistakes.
The companies that can look past their internal assumptions and re-invent themselves are also developing the ability to look past market assumptions, discover new product opportunities, and deliver great customer value.
I admit this is a bit of a philosophical post but one addressing an issue that keeps manifesting itself. As humans we are always making assumptions and dealing with the outcomes everyday. One way to deal with this is to take a step back now and then and draw inspiration from unexpected sources. In case you were wondering, one of the sources that I go back to repeatedly to catch myself spiraling too far down the path of misleading assumptions is a classic book called “When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra” by Shems Friedlander. This is book of teaching stories written by a practitioner of a tariqa (mystical order), urging readers to examine the lens through which they observe this world and to seek that which is beyond the mundane.