All individuals and groups have finite attentional resources.
These attentional limits constrain what organizations can do, including their efficiency, ambitiousness, insightfulness, and success. As I’ve said elsewhere:
“In his wonderful and occasionally heady book The Ecology of Attention, Yves Citton writes that ‘we never have the means to pay enough attention’ and so we end up paying attention to what preoccupies others. Limited attention leads to groupthink: we pay attention to what others in the group pay attention to, reacting to and in the context of other people’s priorities, in an endless feedback loop. Attention, in other words, is ‘an essentially collective phenomenon: “I” am only attentive to what we pay attention to collectively.'”
When I work with businesses as a consultant, coach, or embedded team member, my implicit task is often to expand or redirect the group’s attentional resources. Typically the biggest blind spots and opportunities reveal themselves within marketing or in any related functions that live within an organization’s relationships and revenue engine (e.g., sales, brand, customer success, donor management, etc.).
Inattention or misdirected attention internally makes effective relationship-building externally that much more difficult.
How “customer centricity” falls short
The phrase “customer centricity” has become very popular these days, and one might think I’d be all for it. As a marketer who believes in connecting all functions of the business in a deep and intentional way, I fully support having a clear view of the customer across multiple systems and touchpoints, with optimized experiences, journeys, and stories to engage and deepen the relationship at every step.
That said, I’m not a big fan of “customer centricity.”
My first issue with “customer centricity” is that it appears to be a utopian ideal rather than a proven best practice. Empirical observation will quickly show that all organizations regularly do things that are at odds, sometimes flagrantly, with what their customers actually want. Netflix recently canceled Luke Cage. American Airlines and United have both gutted their customer loyalty programs. SaaS platforms regularly kill features and raise prices. Capital One in a cheery, dissociated way, drives its customers into poverty.
The idea that an upwelling of empathy or a belief that “the customer is always right” will lead to a healthier financial position is a just-so story: true sometimes, in some contexts, to some extent… but in no way an objective reality or proven best practice.
I’ve shared this Art Kleiner quote before, and it bears repeating:
“‘The customer comes first’ is one of the three great lies of the modern corporation. The other two are: ‘We make decisions on behalf of our shareholders’ and ‘Employees are our most important asset.’ Government agencies have their own equivalent lies: ‘We are here to serve the public interest.’ Nonprofits, associations, and labor unions have theirs: ‘Above all else, we represent the needs of our members.’” (Kleiner, Who Really Matters?)
My second issue with “customer centricity” as a term is that it ignores the fact that all organizations have multiple “centers” that compete for priority and attentional focus, like warring families in Game of Thrones, or the various guilds and factions in the early Dune novels. The existence of multiple centers is a feature of human organizations in a capitalist system, not a bug. Customer centricity is never the complete answer.
My third issue with “customer centricity” as a term is the self-serving intentions and agendas of those who are promoting the meme. It’s notable that many design firms and enterprises pitching “customer centricity” these days are also pitching products and services. Selling “customer centricity” is not part of their selfless mission to make the world a better place: it’s a mediasphere hack to earn more revenue themselves.
CMO.com magazine, for example, is an enthusiastic popularizer of customer centricity… and it’s owned by Adobe, a self-proclaimed Customer Experience company that sells high-cost “CX” solutions that regularly leap up further in price beyond the means of legacy customers.
Adobe isn’t the only guilty party here. Many consultancies sell “customer centricity” solutions (sometimes with that moniker, or with “brand,” “experience design” or some equivalent) with no conscience or parameters as to how, or to what extent, their offerings will actually help a business. Not everyone needs ethnographic research, a highly finessed and beautiful cross-platform design system, an award-winning logo, buckets of Big Data with AI bots sorting through it day and night, combined with dynamically personalized landing pages and automated marketing follow-up. Those things are necessary or not, monetizable or not, to different degrees, depending on the context.
“Customer centricity” in other words is often a principle (in this case, a believable lie) connected to a specific tool (an organization’s products and services) that supposedly but not really will lead to a predictable result. Before any organization makes the leap from principle to tool—say, by hiring a big name UX firm for an expensive waterfall project—it would be good risk insurance to have a super solid methodology first. In other words, be sure you’re asking the right questions in the right order and only giving attention to customer centricity to the extent that it makes sense.
I said above that “customers” is one of several centers.
In fact, it is one of six:
External — Strategic — Growth Centers
- Investors (constraint + object)
- Goals (telos)
- Customers (object)
Internal — Cultural — Static Centers
- Homeostasis (inertia)
- Core Group (object + strange attractor)
- Shadow (strange attractor)
Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as they say, so it’s helpful to think of the three external “centers” as an organization’s steering wheel and the three internal “centers” as the brakes or backseat driving. Attention is the fuel.
Note: I’m going to ignore for now some additional levels of epigenetic complexity that kick in at enterprise scale, including issues related to internal bureaucracy, corporate strategy, and cross-sector collaboration and interdependence. Those are real and important, but they build on the foundation above.
Let’s look at each of these six centers one by one.
The external centers
1. Investors (constraint + object)
All enterprises, small businesses, startups, and nonprofits in a capitalist system run on money, so the will and intentions of the investors will determine the context for the organization’s overall business goals. For example, a solo designer running a lifestyle business will work within their personal financial limits, while Jay-Z will dump millions into Tidal and hope for the best. A startup will accept the steroid-driven growth requirements and milestone evaluation criteria of its VC investors, while a SMB will keep its books very clean for its next loan application. Public enterprises will take dramatic action to secure the good graces and ongoing financial contributions of their shareholders, even if these actions endanger the long-term health of the company.
Tip: Follow the money. Think outside-in.
2. Goals (telos)
As I’ve discussed previously, goal-setting and goal-tracking create efficiency within a business. Clear, defined goals optimize internal attention, making sure everyone is paying attention to the same thing and the right thing. Appropriate goals are constrained by investor realities, and they prioritize external achievements over internal ones. Appropriate goals help organizations optimize (i.e., balance) long- and short-term revenue, not maximize either one.
Clear, measurable, and appropriately ambitious external goals provoke change, and for complex systems (including human individuals and groups), change is always resisted. Thus, many organizations rationalize getting by without concrete goals, which reduces short-term stress… until the stress of the work avoided becomes overwhelming.
Tip: Ask every business what its goals are. The (often incomplete) answers will be illuminating and will constrain and create context for any customer relationship-building activities or communication efforts.
3. Customers (object)
Customers (including nonprofit donors and anyone else who contributes to revenue) are the last of the three external centers. Asking a business “what do you want?” (the second center above) is often paralyzing. Asking them “who is your customer?” can be even more stressful. Clear customer segmentation is mandatory for any sustainable, scalable business, yet the competing pull of the other five centers can make the “who is our customer?” question a challenging one, and sometimes even a job-endangering one, to ask aloud.
Investor constraints, business goals, and customer goals are often in conflict with each other—a Business 101 reality that is sometimes lost in all the hype around “customer centricity.”
Tip: Ask every business who its customers are. Apply the four lenses of (1) demographics, (2) psychographics, (3) occasions and (4) categories.
The internal centers
The internal centers are more powerful and harder to work with because human beings are incredibly social, and social dynamics can quickly override what we see and how we see.
4. Homeostasis (inertia)
The first of the three internal centers is self-preservation… which by definition is in dynamic conflict with growth—i.e., all three external centers. Organizations must cultivate stability, sustainability, and repeatability to survive, but inertia in any complex system unavoidably becomes an end in itself due to positive feedback loops, which can endanger the health of the system. Though many organizational consultants won’t or don’t say this, equilibrium is achieved not (only) by cultivating peaceful stability but by continually confronting new challenges and threats. Equilibrium is dynamic.
Excessive internal focus prevents organizations from seeing or understanding their customers: the internal dramas and realities become all-consuming, and the view of the customer, to the extent that it exists at all, becomes a projection of the internal reality onto the outside world.
Per Pournelle’s Law, this Homeostasis center is always stronger than the Goals center. (H/t to Venkat Rao for making me aware of Pournelle’s Law.)
Tip: Advocates of homeostasis will furiously defend their position and ignore calls to change, even if it endangers the overall health of the business.
5. Core Group (strange attractor)
In his book Who Really Matters?, Art Kleiner coined the term “Core Group” to refer to the clique who is secretly in control, no matter what the org chart or objective, external goals might say. A give-away feature of the Core Group is that it cannot be discussed plainly within the organization. Employees who successfully align themselves to the Core Group may say things like “Charlie really gets it” or “Jo doesn’t understand how things work around here.” But “it” can never be defined aloud, and how-things-work-around-here can never be spelled out and evaluated.
Examples of Core Groups include:
- Deceased former members of the company or board set up systems long ago that are now treated as sacred for no reason.
- Only men or white people at a given organization succeed, because the leadership team is guilty of systematic and unconscious bias.
- There is a clique that unites several powerful positions across functions or levels of the organization: e.g., a group of friends, family members, or people who share an outside affiliation or allegiance.
- A CEO runs important decisions by their spouse, and whatever the spouse says goes. The “spouse” card beats all other cards, including core values, RACI matrices, previous public commitments, etc.
Savvy consultants and other outsiders can sense these dynamics almost instantly. They reveal themselves in how people breathe, hold their bodies, congregate in physical spaces, what they don’t say, and where and how important communications happen (e.g., in public meetings vs. 1-on-1 vs. Slack). There will be clear patterns of deference and omission that siphon attention away from some of the other centers.
That said, the Core Group always has allies. The Core Group always acts in service to one or more of the other centers, which strengthens its invisible influence. To this extent, the Core Group functions like the Bene Gesserit in the Avalon Hill board game version of Dune:
“The Bene Gesserit player may coexist with other players’ units without causing a confrontation, and may command other players to use or not to use certain cards during combat (representing their use of ‘the Voice’). At the beginning of the game the Bene Gesserit player secretly records the name of another player and the turn at which they think that other player will win the game. If the Bene Gesserit correctly guesses who will win and when, they win the game instead.” (Wikipedia)
Incidentally, this is an obnoxious and boring rule in an otherwise excellent game. Core Group dynamics can likewise feel ridiculous or inconvenient, but like it or not, they are encoded in the rules of play.
Tip: The Core Group, like the other internal centers, cannot be confronted directly; its defenses—and defensiveness—are too strong. However, a savvy advisor or new internal leader can shine a light on whichever external centers the Core Group is currently de-prioritizing (Investors, Goals, Customers) and use this as a forcing mechanism to get the Core Group to adapt to a new attentional ecosystem. Also, the Core Group can be forced to evolve when its allegiance to Homeostasis or the Shadow is exposed, or when an organization is in crisis and self-preservation (Homeostasis) is in jeopardy.
6. The Shadow (strange attractor)
The Shadow, like the Core Group, is undiscussable and its undiscussability is undiscussable. The Shadow and the Core Group might seem like the same thing, but they are actually distinct. An organization’s Shadow, in the Jungian sense, is whatever emotional energy the organization has failed to recognize or confront and, in fact, is always actively suppressing, at high cost. The Shadow is different from the Core Group in that there isn’t necessarily a group one can point to, only a group dynamic or emotional contagion.
The Shadow can be interpreted, but it can’t be isolated or proven, which makes it a wily beast. It can also never be fully eradicated: most thoughts and feelings are unconscious and our neurobiology is inherently interpersonal. There will always be a Shadow.
Here are some examples of organizational Shadow:
- A CEO with an active addiction or addictive tendencies will provoke codependent relationships around them.
- A CEO with a specific personality will force unconscious emulation of, or reaction to, that personality throughout the organization.
- The physical working environment will warp and create culture in ways that are taken for granted.
- Emotions that the CEO is not comfortable feeling will be projected onto others or dramatized in relationships with others.
- The likely or imminent failure of the business, or its external destructive impact, are unacceptable realities and are therefore never discussed in a forthright, manageable way.
The Shadow feels like vitality for those who tap into it and try to align to it, but it is in fact depleting: it stretches an organization’s attention away from all its other centers. (The collapse-in-progress of the WeWork IPO this month is one example of Shadow run amok.)
Strongly empathetic individuals who join or visit an organization for the first time will intuitively pick up on the Shadow center quickly. They will start feeling emotions that they recognize as “not their own” and can then backwards-engineer what secrets and patterns would lead to those emotions having free reign.
“The underlying assumption here is that the patient who cannot (or will not) articulate his own dissociated and disavowed experience will evoke it in others, enact it, or embody it.” – David J. Wallins, Attachment in Psychotherapy
Unlike the Core Group, which supplies a secret battery pack to one or more other centers, the Shadow supplies only lip service: it only exists to serve itself. Also, importantly, the Shadow is by definition hidden from view: many organizational dysfunctions might seem like the Shadow, but anything an internal employee is able to see and discuss is by definition not Shadow: the real Shadow is always hidden.
When the Shadow is named by an external observer, the reaction is usually silence followed by an abrupt topic change, an angry attack, or a wave of sadness and stress as unconscious incompetence shifts into conscious incompetence. Working with Shadow is delicate work but also very powerful in expanding organizational attention capacity.
As Raphael Cushnir said: “You’re only able to proceed successfully as fast as the slowest part of you can go.”
Shadow is every organization’s slowest part.
Some bad news and good news here.
The bad news: The Six Centers exist for every business, from a single individual to a multi-national corporation. They are intrinsic wherever human social nature and capitalist macroeconomic constraints intersect. They cannot be eradicated.
The good news: Because the Six Centers are a universal phenomenon, they can also be predicted in advance and used as a framework to forward organizational growth. An organization can see its external centers by looking outward, and it can see its internal centers by bringing in skilled outsiders to look within.
I was recently reading Jean Baudrillard’s Fragments and stumbled across the following phrase:
“There are two-way mirrors which allow you innocently to spy on people. This is one of the finest metaphors for consciousness. There is no two-way screen because there is nothing to see on the other side of the screen, nothing to see without being seen.”
Shortly after starting the Baudrillard book, I watched the great mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato interview Dame Janet Baker about her craft. Baker used a very similar metaphor to describe her work:
“A glass is not a mirror. It’s something you do not see yourself in. You look through it—at something else, either the audience or at the responsibility which you have to the composer and the liberettist. You’ve got to keep the glass clean. You’ve got to be able to see out to that purpose, which is bigger than you are. And you’ve also got to allow people to look in. There is a sense of nakedness, actually. It’s a very brave thing to do, to stand up in front of other people isn’t it, and bare your soul. It’s not the sort of [thing] that’s usually done, and yet that is what we are required to do. That kind of responsibility is enormous, and one can’t expect it to be perfect. We can’t keep the glass clean all the time, but that’s what I think performing is about: you’re serving something much, much, much more important and bigger than you are, and yet you have an important role to play. So, we have to keep the glass clean.”- Dame Janet Baker
To organizations everywhere: The best way to nurture, respect, and understand all six centers is to keep the glass clean.
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