4 customer-centric traits your company should adopt in the next 5 years

In today’s rapidly changing environment, disruptive thinking transforms business models across the spectrum. From Hudl’s use of real-time technology to help sports teams perfect their game to Uber’s overnight evolution from brash upstart to a potential $60-plus billion valuation, innovation is thriving in every industry.

It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between organizations that employ disruptive thinking and those that are just playing catch-up. What does seem clear, however, is that groundbreaking ideas may find their most fertile fields in middle market companies, where organic change is often easier to effect.

Businesses of all shapes and sizes are learning to marry innovative culture and a more effective framework for execution with an improved focus on customer service and satisfaction. Here are four traits that characterize those highly disruptive companies and offer some signals for how organizations may position themselves for transformative change.


1. Shift your focus from “inside out” to “outside in”

Seeking inspiration outside your organization is a healthy impulse, but you may already have planted some seeds of creative disruption. All that’s needed is a fresh, customer-centric perspective. The solution? Become your own customer. “No idea is completely original,” said Debra Kaye, CEO of Lucule, an innovation consultancy. “When we work with clients, we ask them to give us their old concepts. Products they tested where something went wrong. Or maybe the idea was just before its time.”

Cloud-based collaboration app Slack wasn’t the first chat service aimed specifically at business, but since its February 2014 launch, user numbers have ballooned to 4 million per day. The company’s seamless integration of multiple services answered an unfulfilled customer need and, in the process, raised $340 million in funding.

Combining the best of Facebook, Twitter, iMessage and Dropbox, Slack created a chatty bot that could be custom coded and programmed to interact with users and facilitate tasks, turning it into a platform where employees wanted to hang out at work.


2. Innovative cultures start with innovative values

Risk-taking needs to be contextualized as a process for learning from mistakes and making missteps in the service of improvement. The potential advantages of private middle market companies in this climate are clear. If working with discretionary capital, they have more leeway to take calculated risks. They are often more agile than their larger, public rivals, and can effect the sort of end-to-end transformation to which the best forms of disruptive thinking often lead.

There is a storied history of failures that later have turned into transformative innovations. The ubiquitous Post-it note evolved from the failed attempt by a chemist at 3M to develop a super strong adhesive for the aerospace industry. The inadequately sticky substance had the ability to re-stick a number of times, and facilitated the handy little yellow squares.

There is also Apple’s Newton tablet, which was simply a flop that never went anywhere. The key difference is a corporate culture that not only can move on from such disappointments, but has as well the vision to see the wider field of possibilities.

Employees increasingly prize work environments where their ideas are valued and they aren’t sanctioned for coloring outside the lines. A culture that promotes failure as a healthy signpost on the road to innovation is considered essential in the majority of today’s leading tech companies.


3. Explode your view of “the company”

In an era of steadily increasing customer expectations, looking for extensions of your business is a must. Businesses that break out of conventional bounds tend to see themselves as bigger than they are. Taking an extended view of what constitutes the “company” opens the door to innovations from unexpected quarters.

An exploded company view can mean drawing on suppliers to cultivate innovative ways of improving business and serving customers better. It can also mean using supply chain optimization, improved supplier and contract logistics and streamlined management to scale up or down more cost-effectively.

Unilever followed this plan when it launched a website to gather and assess ideas from outside the company. The project enhanced receptiveness to customer needs and bolstered sales from new products. Unilever queried universities, engineering and design companies and environmental groups for new ideas. Since its so-called open innovation unit began to connect with outside partners in 2012, the company’s business units adopted 60 percent of the external ideas submitted within just the first two years, up from 25 percent.


4. Think ahead. Way ahead.

Business may be a hard-nosed affair, but giving your company free rein to dream about the future may end up to be a great brainpower investment. Home delivery of goods has, for example, gotten faster and faster, but same day delivery was a threshold that wasn’t crossed until recently. While big names have gotten major attention for getting into the same-day business, smaller companies were early pioneers in this concept. For example, in the early 1990s, Peapod transformed a family-owned delivery service in the Midwest into a national operation that now services a number of large regional grocery chains.

Highly disruptive companies never stand still, and they share more than these four traits. Above all, they are also relentlessly inventive. Uber, Apple, Slack, Unilever, and every other company that has made a point of reframing a category or creating a business see continued innovation as the way to stay ahead of the competition. Remarkably, they even managed to anticipate unexpressed customer expectations. That’s where the greatest potential is to be found.


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