Learn with customers

Our current customers represent our best resource for learning. By partnering with us, they help us build with customer empathy to find the best solution to their needs. They also help create a minimum viable product (MVP) solution by generating metrics from which we measure customer impact. In this article, we'll describe how to learn with and from our customer-partners.

Continuous learning

At the end of every iteration, we have an opportunity to learn from the build and measure cycles. This process of continuous learning is quite simple. The following image offers an overview of the process flow.

Continuous learning decision tree

At its most basic, continuous learning is a method for responding to learning metrics and assessing their impact on customer needs. This process consists of three primary decisions to be made at the end of each iteration:

  • Did the hypothesis prove true? When the answer is yes, celebrate for a moment and then move on. There are always more things to learn, more hypotheses to test, and more ways to help the customer in your next iteration. When a hypothesis proves true, it's often a good time for teams to decide on a new feature that will enhance the solution's utility for the customer.
  • Can you get closer to a validated hypothesis by iterating on the current solution? The answer is usually yes. Learning metrics typically suggest points in the process that lead to customer deviation. Use these data points to find the root of a failed hypothesis. At times, the metrics may also suggest a solution.
  • Is a reset of the hypothesis required? The scariest thing to learn in any iteration is that the hypothesis or underlying need was flawed. When this happens, an iteration alone isn't necessarily the right answer. When a reset is required, the hypothesis should be rewritten and the solution reviewed in light of the new hypothesis. The sooner this type of learning occurs, the easier it will be to pivot. Early hypotheses should focus on testing the riskiest aspects of the solution in service of avoiding pivots later in development.
  • Unsure? The second most common response after "iterate" is "we're not sure." Embrace this response. It represents an opportunity to engage the customer and to look beyond the data.

The answers to these questions will shape the iteration to follow. Companies that demonstrate an ability to apply continuous learning and boldly make the right decisions for their customers are more likely to emerge as leaders in their markets.

For better or worse, the practice of continuous learning is an art that requires a great deal of trial and error. It also requires some science and data-driven decision-making. Perhaps the most difficult part of adopting continuous learning concerns the cultural requirements. To effectively adopt continuous learning, your business culture must be open to a fail first, customer-focused approach. The following section provides more details about this approach.

Growth mindset

Few could deny the radical transformation within Microsoft culture that's occurred over the last several years. This multifaceted transformation, led by Satya Nadella, has been hailed as a surprising business success story. At the heart of this story is the simple belief we call the growth mindset. An entire section of this framework could be dedicated to the adoption of a growth mindset. But to simplify this guidance, we'll focus on a few key points that inform the process of learning with customers:

  • Customer first: If a hypothesis is designed to improve the experience of real customers, you have to meet real customers where they are. Don't just rely on metrics. Compare and analyze metrics based on firsthand observation of customer experiences.
  • Continuous learning: Customer focus and customer empathy stem from a learn-it-all mindset. The Innovate methodology strives to be learn-it-all, not know-it-all.
  • Beginner's mindset: Demonstrate empathy by approaching every conversation with a beginner's mindset. Whether you're new to your field or a 30-year veteran, assume you know little, and you'll learn a lot.
  • Listen more: Customers want to partner with you. Unfortunately, an ego-driven need to be right blocks that partnership. To learn beyond the metrics, speak less and listen more.
  • Encourage others: Don't just listen; use the things you do say to encourage others. In every meeting, find ways to pull in diverse perspectives from those who may not be quick to share.
  • Share the code: When we feel our obligation is to the ownership of a code base, we lose sight of the true power of innovation. Focus on owning and driving outcomes for your customers. Share your code (publicly with the world or privately within your company) to invite diverse perspectives into the solution and the code base.
  • Challenge what works: Success doesn't necessarily mean you're demonstrating true customer empathy. Avoid having a fixed mindset and a bias toward doing what's worked before. Look for learning in positive and negative metrics by engaging your customers.
  • Be inclusive: Work hard to invite diverse perspectives into the mix. There are many variables that can divide humans into segregated groups. Cultural norms, past behaviors, gender, religion, sexual preference, even physical abilities. True innovation comes when we challenge ourselves to see past our differences and consciously strive to include all customers, partners, and coworkers.

Next steps

As a next step to understanding this methodology, see Common blockers and challenges to innovation to prepare for the changes ahead.

Some of the concepts in this article build on topics first described in The Lean Startup, written by Eric Ries.