Who Needs What?

In October of 1962, through a series of backchannel negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end when Attorney General Robert Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin to broker a deal involving the removal of US missiles in Turkey. The US had planned to decommission the missiles in Turkey anyway, but including the removal of the missiles as part of the settlement allowed Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev to privately claim to officials in the Kremlin that he had won a concession from the US. The solution worked because it satisfied a web of needs and interests.

In my last blog post I described distinctions among three groups of stakeholders that we often consider as having homogeneous needs and interests: the consumer, the client and the customer. I defined consumers as the group who ultimately adopts a solution, the client as the individual requesting a solution, and the customer as the individual or group who authorizes or pays for the solution. I suggested that those of us in the business of designing solutions would be well served by paying attention to the distinctions.

Since presenting the distinctions at a community forum for learning and development leaders, I’ve had several conversations about the differences among customers, consumers, and clients, all of which suggest to me broader applicability of the concept. For example, in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Kennedy brothers and their advisors crafted a solution. The solution worked because the customer, Khrushchev (who authorized the solution) needed the consumers of the solution (The Kremlin officials including Khrushchev) to get something they needed (a demonstration of their sovereignty). The client, Dobrynin acting on behalf of the customer, requested and helped shape the solution.

Human centered design, but which humans?

For the last several years organizations have focused attention on helping their leaders become more innovative. Design thinking has been the methodology of choice for teaching leaders how to spur innovation. Design thinking is founded on the premise that innovative solutions depend on insights about people and their needs. Until an interesting idea or new invention gets adopted by people who see it as a way to get their needs met, you may have a novel creation, but you don’t have an innovation.

I now see that one of the challenges I have encountered in translating design thinking for organizational leaders has been assuming that the customer, the client, and the consumer all want the same thing. If you’re designing a consumer product for, say a packaged goods company, the client (who asked for your help) and the customer (the functional leader whose budget will pay for your help) want you to focus on the needs of the consumer. For the most part the interests of the client, customer, and consumer are shared.

If you’re designing a new manufacturing process, the needs of the client (my boss put me in charge of this project), the needs of the customer (my bonus depends on increasing throughput by 10%) and the needs of the consumer (The company is changing the way I do my job) may create a misalignment of interests.

Design thinking means starting with people and their needs, but it’s not always obvious which people to start with. When tensions exist between needs, whose needs take priority?

Three Examples

An HR business partner asks you to coach a leader

In this case, your client is the HR business partner. The consumer is the leader getting coached. The customer may not be obvious. Maybe the leader’s manager came to the HR business partner asking for help. On the other hand, someone responsible for talent development may have identified the leader as ready for promotion and sees coaching as a tool to prepare the leader for new challenges. If you don’t consider the needs of the person authorizing the coaching request, you may be missing important context for your coaching conversations.

A leader requests a training program for her team

In this case your client and your customer are the same person. The consumers are the team members being asked to attend a training program. If you develop a training solution by assuming that the needs of the customer are aligned with the needs of the consumers, your well-crafted instructional design may fall on deaf ears.

An executive team asks for an update on a project you’re leading

Your manager requested that you put together a few slides on the project and present at the next executive team staff meeting. The manager is your client. The executive team is both customer and consumer. They authorized the solution (your presentation) and they will use (as consumers) the information you present. It would be easy in this case to ignore the needs of your manager. After all, your manager reports to one of the executives you’ll be presenting to.  On the other hand, your manager reports to one of the executive you’ll be presenting to! What are the consequences of ignoring your managers unexpressed needs when designing your presentation? In what ways does the presentation represent an opportunity for you and your manager?

Consider a challenge you’re currently working on. Who asked you to take on the challenge? Who, ultimately will authorize and/or pay for your recommended solution? Who will need to alter their behavior in order to adopt your solution? To what extent are three stakeholder groups’ needs aligned?

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