Your memory is lousy – yes *YOUR* memory – so do this …

“That customer meeting was awesome!”  My colleague, a mid-level manager, sat across from me at lunch.  He was clearly invigorated, adding, “Nothing beats hearing straight from the customer!” He slapped the table, punctuating his excitement.

I said, “Cool! I’d love to know more.” Then I braced myself and asked, “Where can I find the notes?”

He looked at me and blinked.  Enthusiasm drained from his face.  ”Well,” he said, “I assume someone else took notes.”

Bingo!  His was one of three common and delusional beliefs I’ve grown accustomed to hearing.

Three delusional beliefs among attendees in customer meetings:

  • “Surely someone else is taking notes”
  • “My memory is reliable” aka “I keep it all in my head”
  • “I’ll type up my notes later”

Let’s review each erroneous belief, starting with my colleague’s response.

“Surely someone else is taking notes”

My colleague may as well have said, “I believe magical minion  secretaries take notes in every meeting.”

In my experience, everyone assumes someone else is taking notes, but in the absence of clear role-assignments, no one is taking notes. Perhaps such people suffer from ‘it is beneath me syndrome‘, or ‘its not my problem syndrome‘. Whatever the reason, chances are, if you don’t know who the note-taker is, no one is.

It hasn’t been since the era of Mad Men, when creative executives had their girls in every meeting, that one could safely assume notes were being taken.  I’ve worked in the semiconductor industry since 1996, and in all that time, I’ve not once seen someone’s aid taking notes in a meeting.   So, the idea that magical minions or secretaries are taking notes, in the modern day, is delusional.

Next up is my personal favorite of the three common delusions.

“I keep it all in my head”

Imagine our friend pointing to his head while saying,  “I keep it all in my head,”  all while his expression belies the fact that he doesn’t believe what the words falling from his mouth. He believes that his mind is a reliable and searchable storage device. And he’s wrong.

Science demonstrates that not only do our memories lose information over time, but our brain actively distorts that information over time as well.  Furthermore, and most disturbingly, our brains can fabricate memories!

Information loss or distortion is bad enough, but it’s only part of the problem. Perhaps our friend heard some bits of information that are trivial to him.  He quickly forgets them.  But, in some corner of the corporation those bits of info may be highly valued.  If they are not written down, they can’t benefit anyone.

Lastly, if the data is in one’s brain,  there is only one way for it to be shared: through that person’s personal time and effort.  Think about yourself in this position.  Do you really want to be the on-demand server for distributing customer comments to the wider organization?  You may be able to act on the information.  But when you ‘keep it all in your head’, no one else benefits.

Pro-tip: write it down and place in a searchable and centralized repository.   It will save you time and bolster corporate knowledge all at once.

That brings us to the third most common answer.

 “Oh, I’ll type up my notes later”  

Ah, the procrastinators!  They delude themselves into thinking that the task of typing up notes will stay atop their to-do lists.

Every day, the ‘type up customer notes’ line item drops down to-do lists everywhere like car-keys into a gutter; once they’ve dropped a few inches, they’re gone forever.  Herculean effort is needed to bring the task back into the fore-front of our minds.  This task drops so fast because, while important, typing up notes is rarely urgent.  As time passes, other, seemingly more urgent tasks push ‘file notes’ down the list.  It’s akin to living in Quadrant 1 of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, forever handling urgent issues, and never getting to the important long-term improvement stuff … like typing up notes from a customer meeting.

So what to do? It’s simple:

If people refuse to take verbatim, accurate notes, don’t invite them talk with customers.

If people in your organization think someone else will type up customer notes, that they can keep it all in their heads, or that they’ll (forever) get to it later, it may be best to not invite them to talk with customers at all.  For, if no record is made of what is said, what’s the point in having the meeting at all? Besides, if no notes are taken, it’s hard to take traceable actions, and over time,  customers may feel they are talking into a black hole, and stop talking to your company altogether.

Develop a Change Plan

If your corporate culture doesn’t value note-taking, and you feel people don’t understand the importance of accurately recording verbatim customer comments, you may need to develop a change-plan. Consider drawing from Heath Brothers’ advice in Switch. If you work with people who genuinely feel that note-taking is important, but just don’t know where to start, you may be able to change behavior by ‘shaping the path‘.

Shape the Path: Provide specific guidelines for note-taking.  Here are some to consider.

1. When invited to a customer meeting, ask the host what their strategy is for capturing the notes.  If they haven’t come up with one yet, direct them to this post.

2. If you’re hosting a customer meeting (did someone point you here?), assign a note-taker for every session.

  • Tell each presenter/discussion leader/speaker to bring a trusted colleague to take notes during his/her session.
    • Suggest speakers consider enlisting other presenters to be their trusted colleague note-taker.  E.g have them swap roles “I’ll take notes during your presentation, if you’ll take notes during my presentation”.
  • Tell each presenter that verbatim notes are to be filed within two days of the meeting.
  • Tell each presenter how to take notes and how to file notes. (see next tips)

2. Teach note-takers how to take notes. Start with these instructions:

  • Avoid bullet point sentence fragments (like this one, heh)
  • Include date, meeting title, customer names and session title.
  • Notes should be verbatim dialog reflecting what the customer actually said.
  • Denote non-customer comments with parenthesis or brackets.
  • Notes should be in a form that’s ready to cut-n-paste into a copy to send directly to the customer.  The host should send a copy to the customer within a week or two of the meeting, so the best policy is to stick with the facts of what was actually said in the meeting.
  • Opinion & commentary should be presented in internal notes – not included in the raw notes.

3. Teach note-takers best practices:

  • Consider using a tablet or paper.  These are quiet and less physically divisive than a laptop.  The customer can see that you are actually taking notes (vs emailing or marveling over a life hack on pinterest, or who knows what else).
  • If laptops are deemed necessary…
    • Position to mitigate the screen becoming a physical barrier (it can hinder the discussion).
    • Make sure laptop keys are quiet.
    • Limit # of laptop users.
    • Clarify to the customer that laptops are are open strictly for the purpose of note-taking.
  • If you type up notes on an iPad or tablet, ask the customer if he would be comfortable if the conversation is recorded using an app such as SoundNote.   This app magically synchronizes the audio recording to your typed-up notes. Later, you can tap on a word and the corresponding portion of the audio recording plays. Be careful.  SoundNote is a great note-taking aide that comes in handy when you can’t make out what you’ve written.  However, audio recordings are not adequate notes on their own.  For one thing, an audio file is not reliably searchable.  But even more-so, no one is going to sit through listening to two hours of grainy and poorly equalized audio of people talking about analog to digital converters or the cost per layer of PCBs.

4. Teach note-takers how to submit notes. Create a repository to which they can easily send their notes (more to be posted on this later).  The alignment director should think this process through carefully.  Things to consider are

  • how to best facilitate distribution of notes internally
  • what form the notes should be in to make it as easy as possible to clean up
  • what format facilitates sending to the customer within a week or two of the meeting.
  • how to store so that they are searchable
  • permissions and access

In the end, unless meeting notes are captured, you would be better off not having alignment meetings at all.   After months elapse, memories of meeting details erode, and story retellings warp like half-baked shrinky dinks.  Worse still, corporate knowledge stagnates, and (though beyond the scope of this post -but for now trust me on this…), confirmation bias can flourish.

Training Training Training

In the absence of training, mass delusion makes customer meetings counter productive. With training, a culture of note-taking culture can take root.  Then, next time you ask an excited colleague, “where are the notes?” he can point you to the repository without batting an eye. “They’re in there!”

Stop Asking Customers What They Want

Aligning entails kindly listening to what customers say they want from you, and then not building the product they ask for.  You read that right.  Customers have all sorts of ideas of what they want you to create for them.  They may feel very strongly that they need a speedy widget with hovering capabilities.   Or, they may tell you they require an FPGA that closes timing at 1GHz on a 1024 bit data path with hundreds of 50Gbps transceivers and an enormous amount of random access memory.  Oh, and that FPGA must meet a power budget of under 10Watts.

>> Don’t ask customers for product specifications.  (These are not customer areas of expertise)

So, why don’t you go and build what the customer says they want?  Well, for one thing, it may be impossible to build.  More likely, it will be extremely expensive to implement.  Down this fool’s path, you may commit a tremendous amount of time, resources and materials only to deliver a product that the customer cannot afford.  Most of all, you kindly listen and then shelve customer product implementation recommendations because product definition is YOUR area of expertise, NOT the customer’s.

>> Do discover customer goals and challenges.  (These are customer areas of expertise).

Why even consult with customers? Because your expertise ends where theirs begins.  You may know how to specify or build a widget, but customers are the ultimate experts in what they want to do with such a widget.  They are intimately aware of their current experience with the widgets available today.  They can painstakingly describe the flurry of challenges they are trying to overcome.  Most importantly, they can tell you, better than any ‘expert’, just what it is they are trying to achieve in the future.  When aligning, uncover the topics in which customers are the experts: their goals and challenges.  You can  fill in the rest.

Heed the lesson of Homer.

Sometimes I hear a colleague ask a customer something like, “So, what do you want us to build for you?”  Immediately, my mind conjures up an image of ‘The Homer‘.

In Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (episode 15,season 2 of the Simpsons), Homer J. Simpson discovers he has a half-brother named Herb, who owns a Detroit car company.  Herb decides that Homer perfectly encapsulates his target customer: the everyday-man.

Herb is sick and tired of turning out tired derivatives of the same car over and over.  He introduces Homer to his design team and tells them to come up with a car for the everyday-man.

Upon meeting, the design lead asks Homer, “So, uh, what kind of car would you like, Mr. Simpson?”  Homer knows nothing of on-board computers or what Homer calls rack and peanut steering.  Realizing Homer’s ineptness, the design team bulldozes ahead, totally ignoring Homer’s input. Exasperated, Herb puts Homer in charge, telling the designers to build exactly what Homer asks for.  (Doh!)

The car they produce is, of course, a hideous mess.  With a bubble cabin hood and enormous tail fins, the sticker price of $138,000 (in 2013 dollars), ‘The Homer’ is far too expensive for the everyday-man target customer.

What went wrong?   First of all, the design team missed a valuable opportunity to ask Homer about what he knows best: what he wants to do with the car (aka his goals and challenges) such as where he drives, what image he wants to project and whether he eats or drinks while driving.   Unfortunately, their hubris led them to turn a deaf ear. They presumed to know what Homer wanted and failed to ask any open-ended and Homer-focused questions.  The team failed to recognize where their expertise left off and where Homer’s began. They failed to discover goals and challenges from Homer, the customer, the expert. 

Next, when Homer was put in charge, the team blindly designed exactly what he specified, even though he clearly had no idea what he was asking for.  Homer had no expertise in car design nor in manufacturing, and yet, they implemented product designs from this non-expert.   The design team should have probed further.  By taking Homer so literally, the team failed to uncover why he wanted each item.  For example, when Homer said he wanted a bubble hood, perhaps what he was really asking for was better visibility in all directions.  When he said he wanted giant tail-fins, perhaps he was yearning for classic but edgy styling.   (Actually, this being Homer Simpson, I think he did literally want a bubble hood and tail fins, but you get the point).

If you are a product planner or design engineer, heed the Homer cautionary tale.  By the end of the story, Herb finds himself bankrupt and homeless.  Homer is disowned by the only half-brother he never knew.   Don’t let this happen to you!

For any topic, always remember who the expert is.   Don’t ask to hear what you know, or fish for confirmation of what you suspect.  Instead, put aside what you know and ask questions that probe the customer for what they are experts in: their roadmap, their goals and their challenges.   Only after gaining a very solid understanding of what the customer is trying to achieve should you ask specific questions about the bits and bytes of what they want.  Begin with uncovering goals & challenges and you’ll both be likely to stick to your areas of expertise and share reliable and useful information.

RECOMMENDATION: stay tuned for more posts on how to skillfully align with customers and,  check out ‘The Homer‘.

Trite, Predictable, and yet trying to be Clever

“Trite, predictable, and yet trying to be clever.” My husband used much kinder words, of course. His reaction to the first few paragraphs of my book, however, distilled down to “TPC”.

He shared these thoughts two months ago. Until then I’d been writing nearly every morning, before the house awoke. My writing log reveals that, after hearing his feedback, writing ceased for a week. After that, output was fitful and sporadic.    My editor tried to console me by observing, “one man’s feast is another man’s poison.”  So I thought, “my writing is like poison?”  I grew more dejected.  These two months have been an extended trek through manic depression; before the feedback I was on a high high.  After, I crashed to a low low.

When I started writing my book, ALIGN, I set a goal: 500 words per day, 300 words minimum. An audiobook ‘Daily Rituals‘ inspired routine:

  • Wake up 5 am, put coffee on
  • drink lemon water, do 5 minutes yoga
  • sit down with cup of coffee
  • review the previous few days of writing, write

Morning after morning, I slipped into the zone. Fully focused, I tapped away on my laptop. By the time my son would climb into my lap, eyes heavy with sleep, I’d discover I’d written about 1000 words. On other mornings, when it was time to call into a meeting for work, I’d see I’d written at least 500.  Satisfied, I’d stop writing and move on to other responsibilities.  I enjoyed those days more fully than any that I’ve ever lived, for I’d created something that came from my heart and my brain.  I’d gotten my #1 task finished and was getting my story into words.

Writing everyday was a mantra and a priority. Writing everyday felt wonderful.  Of course, I wanted to write well.  Rather than hand-crafting every sentence to the standards of Hemingway, however, I simply got my thoughts down, no matter how they fell out.  I determined to worry about sentence structure and artistic flair later.

My motivation is to share the aligning skills I’ve learned over years directing the Altera Customer Advisory Board. I truly believe these skills are useful beyond planning products. These skills are about connecting with people, working together and prioritizing activities to get to a common goal. They are about recognizing the competition for what it is: a worthy opponent who challenges us to become our better selves. These skills are about being authentic. They are about striving to genuinely understand the customer perspective and then doubling-down to learn more still. They are about getting to a point where we can hear the right combination of customer voices in our heads as we make decisions both large and small. They are about being gentle yet strong, open yet steadfast, curious yet confident.  At least, that’s how I felt before my husband read my opening pages.

Post-TPC, the joy of writing has morphed into tepid torture. No longer able to grant myself the freedom to just go with my thoughts, my desire to write well squashes sentences before they form. My ego has risen, and it doesn’t tolerate TPC writing.

An aside: I’m a 41 year old woman. In my time on this earth so far, I’ve learned to cultivate an inner voice that is gentle and caring. As such, this ego of mine isn’t berating or belittling. It isn’t calling me a lousy writer or saying I’m stupid. But this ego is now ever-present and it is getting in my way.

On one hand, this opinionated ego pushes me to consider what I’m really trying to say. It challenges me to go deeper for meaning rather than write gimmicky prose.   But ultimately it is counterproductive because this ego has summoned fear.

The TV mini-series Serangoon Road takes place in 1960s Singapore. I watched it because my brother and sister-in-law, who live in Singapore, were cast as extras. As much as I wanted to see them on the small screen, I couldn’t bear to watch more than two episodes; the dialog and plot structure were trite and predictable.  I could imagine the screenwriter sitting at his desk trying to come up with something clever at every turn.  The thing is, this HBO/ABC mini series looked good. Some scenes were breathtaking and hit a powerfully nostalgic chord.  But the high quality veneer gave way to a bad story. The window dressing, though visually artistic, couldn’t make up for TPC dialog.

Now when I sit down to write, it hurts to think I’m pouring out pablum on par with Serangoon Road.

“Get over yourself!”  my inner voice gently and repeatedly urges.  So, lately, when work hasn’t gotten in the way, I’ve been back at writing.  During  the day I jot down ideas about character development, plot structure, and how to teach alignment skills.

The trick now is to return to that earlier mindset and accept that I’m writing at Serangoon Road caliber. Maybe my editor is right in saying, “one man’s food is another’s poison”.  After all, someone must like that mini-series.  It ran a full ten episodes and received a score of 7.2 on IMDB.  So I’m not Hemingway. So what?  I’ve something to say and I’m going to say it.  I just hope the end product is at least edible.   Yes, I want my book to be good. But I need to put my ego aside for now. It can sit on the bench until I get into the heavy editing phase. For now I just have to get the story written.