Sometimes life goes right. With my extraordinary colleagues, we recently had a successful experience helping a large company. What most led to the success is a process that is difficult to understand. Yet the process is at the heart of the greatest successes in the history of business.
Henry Ford once uttered a statement that is of importance to both running a thriving business and living a meaningful life. He said, “If I had asked the customer what he wanted, he would have said, ‘a faster horse.’”
In business we financially live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the voice of the customer and respond by serving their deepest needs, we create love for our product and they swarm to us with their money. We live in financial abundance.
In life we psychologically live or die by how well we are serving the customer. When we hear the unspoken voice of the people in our lives and serve their deepest needs, we offer something that reflects love and they swarm to us with love. We live in relational abundance.
Serving the deepest needs of the people around us is a key to success in every aspect of life. Yet success never comes easily.
If Henry Ford had asked the customer what they wanted, they would have replied “a faster horse.” There are two ways to interpret this claim. One is that it is useless to listen to the customer because the customer cannot state something they cannot envision. The second is that the customer does not know what the customer wants but that does not mean that the deepest needs of the customer cannot be discovered. The key is approaching the customer in the state of deep learning. This means recognizing that something other than a faster horse can be envisioned when two minds join in purpose, integrity, trust, and exploration.
In an experience with a Fortune 100 company, we were to design a leadership program for 1,300 executives. We did some focus group interviews first with their bosses and then with representatives of the 1,300. These discussions were productive. As my colleagues asked conventional questions, we acquired much conventional knowledge.
The executives told us what kind of subjects we should cover. In effect, there were asking for a “faster horse.” I have been through this process many times and I am fully aware of Henry Ford’s point. Executives, like most other human beings, are quite incapable of articulating their deepest needs and how to meet those needs because they either do not know their deepest needs or cannot imagine having their needs met. They live in an organization that looks like a horse and cannot imagine living in an organization that looks like an automobile.
I was quiet during the first two focus groups. There were five minutes left in the last focus group when I asserted myself. It was only then that I knew what question to ask.
I said, “I am about to ask you an unconventional question. To answer, you will have to expose your vulnerabilities. Why would you ever do it? The answer is that you can make a difference. If you honestly answer my question, you will deeply influence the design and the success of the program. You will thus touch 1,300 hundred lives and change the future of this company. I am about to give you an opportunity that few people ever have.”
The room went very quiet. I asked, “What is your deepest, un-discussable need? What most keeps you from transforming into a great leader?”
The air went heavy. Twice I was asked to clarify the question. Finally one person began to speak and let us all see into her heart. There was a pause and then each person shared an authentic answer to a probing question by asking a question. Here they are.
- How do I come to know and own my highest priorities?
- How do I prioritize without guilt or fear and with full support from home?
- How do I create a sense of security in the face of constant uncertainty?
- How do I get out of the reactive mindset?
- Given existing constraints, how do I motivate my people?
- How do I strengthen my influence?
- How do I learn to communicate so I can inspire people?
- How do I create trust in and across my own team?
- How do I obtain more supportive leadership from above?
- When I am trying to innovate, how do I get needed feedback from above?
- How do I gain permission to fail without being criticized or penalized?
- How can I create alignment across groups, functions, and silos?
- What methods can I use to build partnerships?
By sharing these statements, they displayed vulnerability. Conventional, secular space had been transformed into unconventional, sacred space. Because their answers were real, I was fully engaged. Sacred conversations hold human attention. As we ended the session, people remained and meaningful side conversations ensued. For the next 24 hours, I reflected deeply on the questions and on the side conversations. Eventually I reduced or “squeezed” their issues to four questions and an underlying purpose:
- How do I change the beliefs that drive me?
- How do I change the beliefs that drive my people?
- How do I change the beliefs that drive my boss?
- How do I change the beliefs that drive the culture?
I concluded that there was one underlying need for the executives and for the company. The executives needed to learn how to change belief systems in themselves and in others so that the company could transform from a knowing organization into a learning organization.
Two days later, when I articulated this notion for the people at the top of the company, it was well received. With enthusiasm, the statement was endorsed. We could begin to design a program not only to their stated needs but to their actual needs. They needed to learn how to transform themselves and others so that everyone was living in a constant state of deep learning. It was an image not of faster horse but of an automobile.
A month later, we delivered the first offering. Hard scores and qualitative feedback indicated that everyone’s expectations had been exceeded. We were off to a successful start.
Now what is deep learning? And how does this story help us to understand it? When we ask a customer or some other crucial person in our lives—in fact, any person—what they really want, they can only give conventional answers. If we truly want an answer because we truly want to serve the person, we have to join them in unconventional conversations.
One of keys is to exercise empathy, to feel what they are really feeling, and then ask challenging or ennobling questions that simultaneously show love. We thus invite them into sacred space. We invite them to tell us who they really are. The responses do not produce the answer. We must savor every response and then deeply ponder the messages and continue the interaction until we see the central, underlying messages. When we do, we test them by feeding them back and looking for intense responses. As those responses come, we further co-create vision.
The point in all of this is that Mr. Ford was right. The customer, if engaged conventionally, can only tell us he or she needs a faster horse. Yet this does not mean that we should not listen to the customer. It means we have to listen so deeply and with such commitment that we create sacred space and deep learning. It is then that we can experience the co-creation of a new vision and give people what they do not know how to ask for. It is then that we make profound contributions.
- When in my life have I asked for a faster horse and received an automobile? How did I respond?
- Who are the most important customers in my life?
- When they ask for a faster horse, how do I respond?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?