“Success will only come to those willing to get their hands dirty.”

–  Howard Schultz, Former CEO of Starbucks

Data is great. But when you default to management by data, metrics or process alone, you’re using the rear-view mirror. This information is useful, but it tells you what already happened. Not what is going to happen.

We call this “managing by proxy.”

When we manage by proxy, we move further away from our teammates, our customers and the market – where the real truth is. When we only search for the truth in spreadsheets and pivot tables, we move further away from it. Because the truth ain’t there.

We need to get “in the mud” to know what’s really happening.

It’s not enough to use data to tell us what has happened. We also need to get close to the customer to know where we’re going. We need to do both.

Data is not a substitute for getting in the mud – getting on the call, visiting the customer, talking to the team member, getting in the details. This reliance on metrics and numbers draws us further inward, away from our customers. Focusing on data alone leads us to make the same mistakes the marketing industry as a whole is only finally digging itself out of. We’ve all pivoted too hard to zero in on metrics. Just like we’ve all gone too far trying to optimize and automate every single step of the buyer journey. We’ve lost that human connection.

How do I know when this happens? How do I know when my team fails to get in the mud? When you run through a treasure trove of data and still can’t answer the questions thrown your way.

At this point, you’ve failed to get in the mud.

Jeff Bezos touched on exactly this in a 2016 letter to Amazon shareholders:

Resist Proxies

As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.

Another example: market research and customer surveys can become proxies for customers – something that’s especially dangerous when you’re inventing and designing products. “Fifty-five percent of beta testers report being satisfied with this feature. That is up from 47% in the first survey.” That’s hard to interpret and could unintentionally mislead.

Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. Then, beta testing and research can help you find your blind spots. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.

So the advice I’ll leave you with is the same I give to my team. Get up from your desk and get out on the floor, get in front of customers, get out in the market; the truth lies outside yourself, your team, your office.

Get in the mud.

– DC

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