ALIGN Chapter 2 – Goals and Mindsets

(Previous Chapter: Introduction, Part Deux – This is What Winging it Looks Like )

Goals and Mindsets

Four Points of Alignment

The customer-meeting scenarios in the prior chapter were examples that ranged from useless wastes of everyone’s time, to borderline mayhem. They resulted in biased, useless, or incomplete customer information. In this chapter, you’ll learn what it takes to convert such an ad hoc collection of behaviors into a skillful session of uncovering customer inputs that matter.

If you read through the Winging It scenarios and thought events unfolded successfully, then don’t even think of putting this book down. You need to read on. Why? Because you’ve been doing it wrong. Read this book and discover a whole new world of aligning with customers effectively.

Though the scenarios in the last chapter were fictional, they were constructed from my experiences in real meetings. In those occasional moments of mayhem, we were like untrained children in a soccer match. In order to work together as professionals, we would need to acknowledge, and agree upon, four fundamental points of alignment: Goals, Mindsets, Skills and Roles.

In the Winging It scenarios, our goals were misaligned, and often, misguided. Lacking clearly defined common goals, attendees navigated their own courses. Some tried to be genuinely helpful, but their timing was wrong. Others garishly thumped their egos, putting what they believed to be their vast wisdom on display. Whatever the individual objectives, the team was not united in achieving a common purpose. This led to chaos, miscommunication, and failure to learn what the customer was trying to do. This could leave the customer feeling bewildered, and leave us with little, if any, useful information.

Secondly, each of our mindsets were incorrect. We could be reactionary, defensive or, as is the case with many experts and highly skilled individuals, self-centered. Inadvertently, and despite the best of intentions, we discouraged customers from sharing.

Our customer facing skills were lacking as well. For example, we asked poorly structured questions, asked loaded questions, talked excessively, and jumped from one subject to another too quickly. That unskilled behavior occasionally turned customers off to us completely, as we seemed to lack diplomacy, consideration, and sometimes interest.

Lastly, our roles were not clearly defined. No one took notes, people spoke for too long about pet topics, and others randomly interjected questions whether they applied to the discussion or not. The order and flow was bumpy as our attendees took control at their whim.

It needn’t be this way. If everyone agrees on common goals, mindsets, skills and roles, CA meetings can be highly productive. The following chapters explain exactly what these goals, mindsets, skills and roles should be. Once adopted, you will begin uncovering highly useful customer information, and may find yourself looking forward to customer meetings.


The Aligning Team’s Goal: Understanding Customer Goals and Challenges

In every customer alignment meeting, the singular goal is to see the world from the customer’s perspective. It is to learn the customer’s objectives and challenges. Specifically, the team’s goal is to work together to uncover the following specific future-looking information:

  • Customer’s goals from the customer’s perspective
  • Customer’s challenges from the customer’s perspective

Your goal, when attending a CA meeting, is to uncover the customer’s goals and challenges. If you understand this one concept, and forget everything else, you’ll be at an advantage over others who have never read this book. You’ll be a key contributing member of the aligning team, since you’ll be pursing the same objectives as your teammates.

Why the aligning teams’ #1 goal is to understand customer goals and challenges

Understanding customers’ objectives are critical to planning future products. You can only do so much with a singular data point of a specific request. Without context, that request is meaningless, as it’s impossible to extract a line to the future from one data point. When you take the time to understand the customer’s view of the world as if you were in their shoes, you gain critical insights into small implementation level decisions that form an essential part of big product portfolio level decisions.

I’m reminded of many internal development planning meetings. We, in the planning department, would meet with a handful of engineers whose job was to design, develop, manufacture, test, and produce the products we were proposing to build. Engineers who accepted every line-item without pushing back were rarer than bored CEOs, indifferent to cost-cutting; they didn’t exist.

Inevitably, we’d review and scrutinize every single implementation request. It was in these meetings where I was thankful I understood the customer’s objectives as well as I did. Even better, often, I’d invited these very same engineers to CA meetings, where they’d heard first hand what customers were trying to do. By being clear on what customers were trying to achieve, we were in a position to sensibly trade off implementation options as a team.

If, on the other hand, my knowledge was limited to a simple laundry list of customer requests, and I’d never invited any product developers to meet with customers directly, we’d be lost. I wouldn’t be able to justify any of our requests, and the product definition would be watered down to a point where it might not address any markets.

By knowing the wider story of what customers were trying to achieve, I was generally able to explain whether features were must-have ‘table stakes,’ nice-to-have bonus perks, or market-changing disruptions. All of these insights that matter, when defining a product for a particular target market.

Again, consider the winging example #3, where the TME solved the customer’s problem too early, and, as a result, failed to learn what the customer was trying to accomplish. Now, imagine that soon after a CA meeting, an executive, who didn’t attend the CA meeting, says the IP patch, the one that solved the customer’s problem, should be removed from the website. From that director’s perspective, the patch has caused nothing trouble, as it’s caused a documented spike in hotline calls. The director thinks the IP should be simplified, or removed. The conventional thinking is that, by providing customers so much control, it’s causing more problems than it’s worth.

If all you knew was that the customer had a problem that the patch solved, your case might be lost. On the other hand, if you understood the story behind her need for such functionality, you could create an irrefutable, business substantiated, prospectus. The director cold then make a strategic decision, instead of merely eliminating a tactical headache, and potentially losing an important customer. You’d be in a position to tell a compelling story as to why this feature was important. Alternatively, your team might come up with another workable solution. Knowing what the customer is trying to do is significantly more valuable than knowing a specific feature requirement out of context.

Uncovering customer goals gives you the story, not just data points.

Demands for new features often come in faster than they can be dealt with. On one hand, specific feature requests were nice, in that they were quantifiable and simple to comprehend. However, when they came without context, they were at best meaningless, and at worst, fodder for bad decision making.

When you ask a customer to share goals and challenges, you are learning their hero’s journey, their story. If you collect enough of these stories, from numerous customers, you start to get an idea of what directions they are going in. You begin to put together schemas, or generalized frameworks, of what your best and most insightful customers are trying to do. Suddenly, specific feature requests can be understood in context. The reasons for pursuing a new product development are easier to get across, as you can tell the story of the market overall to decision makers within your company.

Misguided Agendas

In the absence of a clearly defined goal for the uncovering team, individuals tend to pursue their own ad hoc, even if well-intentioned agendas. They can flit from one topic to another, depending upon where the conversation is at any moment. Here are some examples of misguided agendas that have no place in CA meetings:

  • Collecting answers to specific questions, when they don’t apply to the customer in attendance.
  • Fishing for specific data.
  • Solving current technical problems.
  • Pitching current products or already established roadmaps.
  • Spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) about your competition.
  • Taking on unnecessary action items.
  • Educating customers about the market or existing products.

Problems may arise that needs solving, or, you may realize the customer is unaware of currently available technology that may help them. The first portion of a CA meeting is not the correct time to address those solutions. The right time is later. No solutions should be discussed until after you’ve uncovered all of the customer’s future goals and challenges, and ideally these discussions should be decoupled from the CA meeting. Only after you’ve learned what your customer is trying to do, and confirmed you’ve heard the entire story, is it okay go back and fill them in on missing information, or propose a solution. You could do this at the break or after the meeting in an email or short discussion. But it’s best to decouple issue resolution from a CA meeting entirely.

There are a couple reasons why this is the case. For one, if you jump on these topics too early, you rob the customer of any incentive to tell you their goals and challenges. They might think you’ve already solved every problem. If that’s the case, they’ve little incentive to share their situation. This is the last thing you want! So, don’t derail the conversation by solving current technical problem during the CA meeting.

Also, by solving tactical problems in the same meeting, you should realize that you are setting misguided expectations of customers. You’re effectively telling them that, when they attend CA meetings, they are getting a team of top technologists and executives to accelerate and prioritize their problems then and there. Not only will you subvert the normal processes for issue resolution, but your subsequent CA meetings may have the customer going through the motions of appearing to fill your CA meeting goals merely as the price to be paid for problem prioritization. This might become their only reason for attending onsite. The customer might leave happy, but you’ll likely walk away with low quality information.

Take care to stick to the objectives of the CA meeting throughout. Don’t mix in other objectives or you risk diluting your results.

Start with uncovering customer goals and challenges.

After introductions, the first order of business is to uncover customer goals and challenges. This may seem awkward, or rude. You may think you need to present your roadmap first, simply out of courtesy. After all, you reason, you don’t want to put the customer on the spot. But here’s the thing: if you fail to diagnose what the customer is trying to do, you may waste everyone’s time talking about present-day solutions that are irrelevant.

If you spend too much time talking about subject matters that customers don’t care about, they’ll lose interest. Once you’ve lost a connection with the customer, the meeting is wasted. Put aside, for now, the product or service you want to discuss. Start by learning what the customer is trying to do, as well as what obstacles the customer is trying to overcome. Only after that full story, from the customer, has been heard, restated, confirmed and understood, is it appropriate for you to discuss anything else. Only after you know what the customer cares about, is it time for you to share your roadmap, technology under development, or solutions.

This can feel awkward. Remember the technical marketing engineer (TME) in scenario #3? The customer was describing a solution she needed – a solution that you had already developed and delivered to the market. It was freely available online. So you told her about it.

Bad move. Do you remember what happened next? That’s right, she stopped talking, she stopped sharing. That was unfortunate, because the entire point of the meeting was to listen to her, not to the TME.

Instead, the TME should have ask questions to understand why the customer wanted such fine-tuned control of the interface. The TME should have sought to uncover the nature of the product the customer was building, and the function she was trying to implement. Instead, the TME provided her with a ready-wrapped solution. In doing so, the team forfeited any chance of understanding what the customer was trying to accomplish. What’s the point of a CA meeting if the team discourages the customer from talking? If the team had, instead, asked questions to deepened their understanding of what the customer was trying to do, they might have learned that she needed to be able to throttle the data flow to specific values, but in real time. A statement like, “customer needs fined tuned control of the interface” is practically useless for the purpose of planning next generation products. However, a statement such as, “customer’s goal is to be able to throttle between 100Mbps and 200Mbps in increments of 20Mbps on interface XYZ – in real time. She needs this capability ASAP and then in at least the next three generations of her product called QLP.” That’s information that could be used to inform the planning of subsequent builds of the software IP. We’ll explore this example further when we discuss how to craft good questions.

Look into the crystal ball.

Notice that what we’re after, the customer’s goals and challenges, are future-looking and aspirational. You want to know the customer’s roadmap: where they’re headed and why. It may feel awkward to start asking about the future, when you haven’t discussed the current situation yet, but start in the future – you must. Don’t worry, as you ask future-looking questions, the customer won’t be able to stop himself filling in details about their current circumstances. However, if you start with questions about the current situation, you’ll find yourself mired in the here and now. You can’t change the here and now. You want to learn what the customer is trying to achieve, so you can build products that they can use … in the future. So start in the future.

As Wayne Gretzky famously said, you want to skate to where the puck is heading, not to where it is. Remember, this meeting is called a customer alignment meeting. You want to align roadmaps. That means you need to know where the customer’s roadmap is headed.

In other words, you want to be like Captain Oveur in the movie Airplane and ask, “What’s your vector, Victor?[1]” Current issues can be noted and addressed later … after you’ve uncovered the full picture of the customer’s future goals and challenges.

Uncover goals and challenges in the realm of the customer’s expertise.

Keep the conversation in the realm of the customer’s expertise. You want to talk about what they’re trying to achieve, not to learn their opinions of how you should design your product. They’re not experts in your company’s technological trade-offs, nor in details of your operational or budgetary constraints. Those are your concerns. So don’t ask them for their opinions on such matters.

Remember scenario #1, when the customer was attacking you with that barrage of unrealistic demands? You played defense, explaining the tremendous challenges that would prevent you from implementing what they were asking for. Here’s the problem, your technology is not the customer’s area of expertise. Instead, get the customer talking about why they require such features, ask them what are they trying to accomplish. That’s their area of expertise, and that line of questioning will get you information that you can use to guide your organization’s decisions.

When you feel backed into a corner, defending your designs, it’s time to turn it around and ask questions to uncover what the customer is trying to do. Use the feeling of defensiveness as a trigger, to remind you to put the questions back on the customer, to ask what they’re trying to accomplish. It may feel like descending deeper into the abyss, but I assure you, it’s the way out.

Uncover all of the customer’s goals and challenges, not just one.

Note that the alignment team’s goals are plural. They are to uncover customer goals and customer obstacles. The customer may have three lofty goals, and five looming, pernicious, and terrifying obstacles in their way. Uncover them all.

Gauge the importance of each goal.

When customers have multiple goals, it can be overwhelming to understand which matter the most. Which do you focus on? There’s a neat, simple trick to assess this: ask them their cost of inaction. Ask what would happen if they did nothing? Ask what would happen if they failed to achieve their goal. The answer will tell you how important the goal or challenge is.

For example, the customer might answer, “If we do nothing, we’ll lose market share to our competitor.” In this case, you know it’s somewhat important but hardly dire. However, if the customer says, “We’ll be out of our jobs,” then you know this goal is of supreme importance. But don’t stop there, strive to quantify the cost. Who will they be losing their market share to? How big is that market with respect to their overall revenue? If you think these questions are too personal or will move the conversation in the wrong direction, then save them for later. But do ask.

To be fair, everything your customer tells you is important. However, that can result in a large data set. Teasing out the most important sentiments puts various insights into context and priority. Knowing the cost of inaction gives you a good idea of the relative importance of each goal and challenge.

Patience is an asset.

Often we walk into customer meetings with our heads full of questions, and we want to ask them straight away. Be patient! Your first order of business is to uncover all of your customer’s goals and challenges. Later in the day, perhaps after lunch, you’ll have your chance. Only after you’ve fully uncovered the customer’s story is it appropriate to ask any questions that do not directly elicit the customer’s goals and challenges.

For example, perhaps you are like Bob and Tom from scenario #4. You want detailed information such as whether the customer will be adopting variant A or B of a new technology, or which operating system they use. Of course you want to know these things as they directly impact your plans. But be patient. While these may be legitimate to ask, they are not appropriate to lead with.

Indeed, you may find that the customer fills in this data as you ask about future goals and challenges. In the course of uncovering, you may find that out of ten questions you had going into the meeting, you’re left with four outstanding questions that haven’t been answered. Wait for the appropriate time to ask them. Work with the host to identify a good time. At the very least, wait until the team has learned all of their goals and challenges before even thinking about asking these very detailed and somewhat self-centered questions. If you ask these too soon, the customer might stop being so forthright? Why? Because the message you’re sending is that all you care about is your narrow set of questions. It’s selfish. The customer would rather answer questions about what they’re trying to do, not what you’re trying to learn.

What success looks like

A CA meeting is successful, if, at the end, you can answer these kinds of questions from the customer’s viewpoint:

  1. What is the customer trying to achieve; what are their goals? For example: What market are they going after? What product are they attempting to develop? When you look at each feature they are developing, what market need is that feature addressing? In which features do their customers care about? In which features do their customers see value, and which features are required without question[2]?
  2. What are the challenges the customer sees that may be in their way? What obstacles will they need to overcome to deliver a winning product to their market place?

Your number one goal in a CA meeting is to see the world from the customer’s perspective, learning their objectives and obstacles.

This sounds easy enough, but beware. We all come to meetings with our own agendas and interests. Your colleague might be working on a project where an implementation decision needs to be made by the end of the day. The sheer urgency of their responsibilities might prompt them to rapid-fire questions about that specific technology at the earliest perceived opportunity in the CA meeting. If they don’t know that uncovering the customer’s story must happen first, they might take over the conversation too soon, and, as a result, fail to uncover the customer’s goals and challenges. This is why it’s critical that everyone on the team work from the same playbook, understands the goals of the team, and follows the proper order of a CA meeting.


The Aligning Team’s Mindset: Focus on the Customer’s Future

The mindset of the alignment team should be one of genuine curiosity. They should strive to be unhindered by bias, corporate constraints, or pre-conceived ideas. Every member puts aside concerns of their own projects. They focus on understanding how customers see the future from their perspectives. Remember those individual agendas that I said are not appropriate in customer alignment meetings? Each team member must leave those behind when they enter a CA meeting. Attendees must clear their minds before they enter the room.

Clear your mind.

We play a central role in our own storylines. We’ve lived them for so long, it can be difficult to assume another’s perspective. But that’s precisely what your job is in a CA meeting. Put aside your own aspirations, agenda, and corporate edicts. Then, simply strive to understand the customer’s storyline, from his or her perspective. Don’t worry, after the meeting has ended you’re welcome to pop back onto your own perspective.

This sounds easy, but it can be difficult, and even scary. Our discursive minds generate thoughts and we like to latch onto them, as if they are a part of us, as if they define us. Letting such thoughts go can feel like a loss of control or a loss of self. For many, this is not a pleasant feeling. I assure you, however, that if you develop this ability, your customer’s perspective can become much clearer.

Sure, I can advise, “put your thoughts aside before entering the CA meeting.” Intellectually, you might agree to do this. But carrying this out can be a monumental task. It takes mindfulness, training, and an ability to step away from being the center of your universe. This section provides some tricks for adopting this clear-eyed mindset.

Let go of fear, corporate edicts, technical constraints

In a chapter one scenario, you were a SME who felt uncomfortable letting the customer go on and on about what he wanted. You felt you were communicating tacit commitment to build what the customer described. Imagine that your company has been clamping down on costs. Executives have decided to halt all developments in the area the customer cares about. How could you sit there and listen to the customer talk about what’s wanted, when you know damned well that your company will not deliver what’s being asked?

My colleague, Andy Turudic, described such a situation to me. He observed, “The biggest problem in the company was fear. (Sometimes) those CA meetings turned into going through the motions. We pretended to listen but mainly, we were telling. For example, (one customer came in) begging for double precision floating point[3]. They came in to tell us about their next generation machines. Their customer had told them, The public utility won’t supply any more electrical power to the building, but we’ve gotta keep doubling the performance every two years. This statement took me by surprise. I don’t know that it was in that particular meeting where the light bulb first turned on, but that was when I first heard it. But our team ignored the comment. They had incentive to not make any mistakes in the architecture, to not do anything risky, and get their bonuses. Plus, they’d been told (by management) that we wouldn’t be doing double precision. This fear, knowledge, and a broken reward system, made them ignore the comment. Implementing (what the customer was asking for), well, we would never do it because it might affect bonuses if it didn’t work out. That was the thing with engineering: the company didn’t want to do anything super brave or new because it might fail. When I talked to the DSP engineers, I learned there were other customers who were asking for this for quite a while, but we kept hand waving and head-nodding. We pretended to listen, but then followed by telling the customers what they were going to do with the features we planned on building. It didn’t include what they needed. It was kind of sad.”

My colleague’s experience was not an isolated event. The thing is, when you’re working to develop a product, there are all kinds of constraints. You’re steeped in these realities day in and day out. It’s almost impossible to put them aside when you’re talking to a customer. But put them aside you must. Otherwise you’ll only see the customer’s perspective through your own filter of constraints, fear, and pre-conceived notions. And you want to experience the world from the customer’s perspective, not yours. I know, it’s difficult, even frustrating. The first step is acknowledging you have your own perspective. Then, do everything you can to shed it for a few hours at least. Here are some tips for getting into such a mindset.

Cultivate a compassionate nature.

The team’s objective is to learn the customer’s story straight away. Cultivating compassion is the first step in seeing the world from the customer’s perspective. Straight away, as the meeting begins, set an intention to learn what the world looks like from their vantage point.

If shifting your perspective is not a straightforward exercise, then consider reading the book, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg. (You’ll find this, and other recommended reading in the appendix). In his introduction, Mr. Rosenberg describes the first time he was bullied by a classmate. The bully was full of hate, and called him a derogatory name. Little Marshall had never encountered such venom. Despite the hurt he felt, his primary reaction was curiosity. He wondered why the bully was behaving that way. He wondered how he could maintain a compassionate nature even while feeling attacked, so that he could still regard his attacker as human.

He cites a more extreme case, that of Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who kept a journal while interned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. In that journal, she described how she maintained compassion for the German guards, even as they yelled at her. Instead of focusing on their words, or how their tone hurt her, she looked into them, deeper. With compassion, she saw human beings, struggling with frustration and anger. She wondered about their childhoods or their struggles with relationships. She saw that they were human like her. She longed to help them work through their issues.

Dang, we’re not even a quarter way through this book and I’ve already succumbed to Godwin’s law[4]. Ah, that’s fine. My point is this. In the chapter one scenario, you felt attacked by the customer. You focused on your own story – on how the customer’s requests would make your life difficult. You made the customer into a problem to be vanquished. If your mindset had, instead, been that of a curious, compassionate nature, you might have avoided taking a posture of defensiveness and self-absorbed interest. You would have taken a closer look at what the customer was really trying to do. You would have asked the customers what was motivating the requests, rather than being annoyed that they were being made.

It’s all fine and good to understand that your job is to uncover customer goals and challenges. Until you cultivate a compassionate nature, however, you may find your own thought processes will get in the way. Until you are able to put your agenda and constraints aside, and focus on those of the customer, you may find yourself in a defensive position, and deaf to what’s being said.

So when you feel yourself being ‘attacked’ by a customer who is making unrealistic demands, remember Ms. Hillesum or little Marshall Rosenberg. If they could cultivate compassion for their human abusers, so can you for a customer who cares enough about your product to travel half way around the world and dedicate an entire day to discussing it with you. Focus on customers, and let curiosity guide you in learning about their situation.

Put on your detective’s hat.

This may sound corny, but in my experience, the simple act of imagining you’re a detective, you’ll find it easier to shed your own agendas. If it helps you to get in the right mindset, imagine you’re none other than the masterful Sherlock Holmes, hot on a case to solve the greatest mystery of all: the customer’s goals and challenges. You’ll dispassionately collect clues, and ask probing questions throughout the meeting to put together this picture of truth. Who cares if this imagery is corny; if it works, use it.

Your job is simple. It’s no longer to plan products, but rather, to unearth clues. At this point it’s easier to see the world from the customer’s perspective.

For practice, or if you’re skeptical, try it out on friends and family and you’ll see it works quite well. With spouses, your mileage may vary. Buyer beware. Actually it works with spouses too, but if something goes wrong, all liability is assumed by the user (you).

Cultivate a Growth Mindset.

Another mindset complements all of the above: a growth mindset. This is an open minded attitude seeking continuous learning, and it’s key to understanding the perspective of the customer.

People with growth mindsets believe that anything can be learned. They regard failures as learning opportunities. They let curiosity lead them, whether they look foolish or not. In fact, looking a fool scarcely matters to someone with a growth mindset; their objective is to learn, and be enlightened, not to protect an image.

The book Mindset, by Carol Dweck, compares two ways of thinking: fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets. In a fixed mindset, a person believes that achievement comes from natural ability and failure is an indication of ineptitude. In this mindset, the entire world is a judge, and eyes are constantly evaluating performance. People with fixed mindsets strive to protect their reputations from such judgment. As a result, they pursue experiences that safely bolster their self-esteem. It keeps them stuck in their own perspectives, and renders them unable to shift perspectives to that of the customer.

Whatever mindset you tend toward, I believe there’s something to be gained by reading in Dr. Dweck’s wonderful book. Once you’ve adopted a growth mindset, it’s much easier to be compassionate, to mentally put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Besides, my dear Watson, detective’s hats fit only those heads that contain growth mindsets… and that’s the hat you’ll be wearing in all CA meetings. But do remember, smoking a pipe is not legal in the workplace in California.

Reserve Judgment.

You and your teammates are embarking on a delicate mission. Your goal is to learn what the customer is trying to achieve without leading them or pursuing your own agendas. This is easier said than done. Add to this the need to cultivating compassion, genuine curiosity and a growth mindset, and you have a team of people operating beyond their comfort zones, taking risks, and potentially asking questions that make them look stupid.

Be gentle. Rather than judge a teammate to be an idiot for asking a question that’s out of their depth, support them. After the CA meeting, complement them for taking a risk. Offer to review what happened and come up with strategies for improving.

Later, you’ll learn a questioning technique that makes someone on the team look deliberately foolish. Realize that it takes real courage and a growth mindset for a colleague to put themselves out to look like an idiot in front of their colleagues. Be part of making the team dynamic safe by reserving judgment. Use the post-CA meeting forum to review and improve.

Focus on the Customer.

During the uncovering sessions, when you find yourself about to talk about your trade-offs or your product details, stop. A CA meeting should be held in the customer’s realm. Get back there as quickly as you can. Put on your detective’s hat, think with a growth mindset, tap into your compassion. Instead of explaining your constraints, ask your customer what exactly they think a specific feature request will do for them. What problem will it solve? What objective will it help them drive toward?

Focus on the Future.

You start the CA meeting by asking about future objectives. When you align two vectors, you need to know their direction. So ask about the customer’s direction. Don’t worry, they’ll fill you in on relevant details about today’s projects as they answer.

Keep those future-oriented questions up until you are absolutely sure you’ve uncovered the full story. You keep asking about your customer’s future goals and challenges until they’ve shared everything. Only then is it okay to ask about today, or, sparingly, about the past.

Customer Aligning Mindset in a Nutshell.

Attendees should come to CA meetings with open, growth-oriented, people-oriented, future-oriented, and customer-oriented mindsets.

Yes, the team can bring presentations, questions they’re dying to ask, and information to share. But it should all be put away until those two key questions, What are the customer’s goals and What are the customer’s challenges, have been answered – in full. The first order of business is uncovering the customer’s worldview. Until it is understood, all other business should be put aside.

For example, put aside any preconceived notions you might have. Do you think cost is the main constraint customers care about? Are you looking to confirm that opinion? Don’t. Put all thoughts of cost aside as you enter the meeting. Do you think all customers want higher performance, and even if they complain about high power, they’ll find a way to work around it? Stop. Put that idea aside and pretend like you have no idea what customers want. Only in this mindset will you be capable of uncovering the truth. Don’t worry, you can bring your preconceived notions to the table in the latter part of the meeting.

If you have difficulty with cultivating such a mindset, I strongly advise you read the two books mentioned in this section: Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg and Mindset by Carol Dweck.

Whatever tactic the team employs, it’s critical that attendees clear their minds, and learn, in the customer’s own words, what the customer’s objectives and challenges will be.




[1] Captain Oveur, Airplane! 1980

[2] We called such features, “table stakes.” In other words, these features are 100% required and obvious, the customer might not even mention them. If you are at all unsure whether the customer cares about these “table stakes,” then wait until the second part of the meeting, and confirm these requirements then.

[3] Double precision Floating Point is a number type that can express very high precision fractions to a computing unit. In other words, it doubles the number of digits after the decimal point to reduce rounding errors for numbers subjected to many math operations.

[4] Godwin’s Law states that every online discussion, if left to go on long enough, will eventually mention Hitler or Nazis.

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