Listening for Clues to The New Economy

In 2003, when the Indian auto giant Tata Motors decided to design a new low cost car, the Nano, for lower income consumers they made a key decision: rather than starting from a traditional four wheel car and stripping it down, they would start with an auto-rickshaw (a small, three wheeled vehicle) and build it up. Also, rather than making design assumptions based on decades of auto development for the middle and upper classes, their design team researched the features their new lower income target audience – many of whom had never owned a car before – would value. One of the interesting things they discovered in their research was that their new target audience didn’t care about having a radio; they preferred having extra storage space. At this point in the evolution of car engineering and design, a radio is seen as the most basic of equipment. It’s not terribly expensive, but in the context of trying to make the lowest cost vehicle possible, it could be eliminated and simultaneously transformed into something more valuable to the target consumer: space. Tata’s efforts with the Nano were well rewarded: upon its release in 2009, the demand was so high that it instantly had an almost two-year waiting list.

We’ve entered a new economy and Tata’s development of the Nano is emblematic of at least a few of its hallmarks:

  • A complex, global playing field
  • The rapid evolution of technology
  • Sustainability as a driving force as a result of necessity and consumer interest
  • More active and proactive consumers
  • An unpredictable social and economic environment

If you stop for a minute and think about what life is like today as versus just five or seven years ago you would be hard-pressed to disagree with the relevance of these findings. In the late 1990s and early 2000’s we mostly bought things in physical stores, smart phones were a luxury rather than standard life equipment, music was purchased at Tower records, videos rented at Blockbuster, “green” products were few and far between and not very compelling, we wrote feedback about our consumer experiences on suggestion cards and dropped them in a box or in the mail, and social and economic events on the other side of the world usually took weeks or months rather than minutes or days to impact us at home and work. There was no Facebook to keep track with hundreds of friends and no LinkedIn for recruiters and job seekers around the globe to meet digitally 24/7.

The question, from a business management perspective, is how do we address these powerful forces that are shaping the global economy?

When we look at Tata’s car, the Nano, at first it doesn’t seem so remarkable: carmakers make cars, that’s their job. But, in the context of the new economy it is a telling story. This is a car designed for a group of consumers who didn’t exist even 10 years ago in India, but do exist today as a result of major global shifts in the location of labor. And, those consumers, though poor individually, collectively represent a huge market that goes far beyond the borders of India to other emerging markets, notably Brazil and China, but others as well. In addition, the Nano’s design was truly innovative; the company used today’s technology to create something that is less sophisticated from an engineering perspective, but more valuable from a human perspective.

What’s particularly interesting to me, as a consultant who helps companies boost their ability to innovate, is the sensitivity that Tata’s leadership and design team brought to the task of designing the Nano. One of the things that I talk to my clients about, and a subject that will be explored extensively in my upcoming book, The Intuitive Compass, (Jossey-Bass, October 2011) is the importance of listening in the service of innovation. What I call “listening for the unusual” is one of four tenets of Intuitive Intelligence, a set of skills that I believe are essential for success in the new economy. (The other three are: “thinking holistically”, “thinking paradoxically”, and “leading by influence”.)

When we truly are open to listening for the unusual, we empathize with our target consumer and that empathy enables us to tap into innovative ideas that can put us way ahead of our competitors. In a presentation at a conference called Serious Play, Tim, Brown, the CEO of IDEO, a world-leading design firm, talked about the different ways his company’s designers work toward the creation of design solutions. One of the approaches is role-play. Brown showed a video of a designer who was researching better ways to design hospital emergency rooms. The designer went to an actual emergency room where, in addition to being video taped by a co-worker, he held a second video camera next to his head to show what the typical patient actually sees during a visit to an emergency room. The most surprising thing according to Brown was that there were about 20 minutes of video of ceiling tile from the camera next to the designer’s head. As the “patient” lays there all they see while they wait for a doctor is ugly, boring ceiling tile with fluorescent lights! That piece of information alone could lead to design choices that probably never would have been considered with a less empathic and creative approach to research. Listening for the unusual isn’t necessarily and specifically just listening, but rather a way of being receptive and putting yourself in the shoes of another person and really feeling what they feel, looking at what they look at, and experiencing their reality for a little while, and then using that information to create something that is responsive, and, therefore, valuable.

The design of the Nano was the result of listening for the unusual. At the other end of the transportation spectrum, Virgin Airlines’ ability to listen for the unusual has doubtless contributed significantly to their having been voted the best North American airline three years in a row by readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine. In the commercial airline industry today, bad food, smelly aircraft, narrow seats, poor service, delayed flights, stern-faced flying attendants, shabby cabins, and outdated design are all too often standard fare. Virgin raised the bar on design, service, and customer experience. In addition to launching a fleet of beautifully designed aircraft with clean cabins in uplifting colors, warm and personable service, short waiting time to check in, and easy upgrades, Virgin provides an unusual food service. It gives all passengers on board the opportunity to order their own food from their own seat on a personal digital screen so they can eat on their own schedule. This last detail, enabling passengers to dictate what they will eat and when they will be served, shows how Virgin America tapped into passengers’ instinctual needs: control of one’s eating schedule is key on an instinctual level. It makes us feel safe when we control something essential to our survival. How did they come to think of these great ideas for the comfort of their passengers? There’s only one possible way. They put themselves in the shoes of a passenger and truly listened to the way they felt.

As business people trained mostly in the 20th century, we are accustomed to approaching innovation from a logical framework within which we strategize for the future based on our experiences from the past. But the New Economy – with its complexity, global reach, and rapidly evolving technology and consumer behaviors – requires a different approach. This kind of business atmosphere requires high levels of creativity, flexibility, and agility. Listening for the unusual is just one of the tools we can use to tap into the innovative ideas that we need in order to succeed. When we combine it with the other skills within Intuitive Intelligence – thinking holistically, thinking paradoxically, listening for the unusual, and leading by influence – we position ourselves to succeed.

  • Intuitive Intelligence (Part 6)
  • Thinking Holistically (Part 6)
  • Thinking Paradoxically (Part 7)
  • Listening for the Unusual (Part 8)
  • Leading by Influence (Part 9)

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