Some Thoughts on Customer Empowerment

We have all heard variants on the quote, “if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour; if you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.” by Anne Isabella Ritchie and use it in the context of the value of educating someone in a skill rather than performing that skill for them.  There is little reason to argue with the common logic provided by this phrase, as we have all seen people who cannot do for themselves through a lack of knowledge and experience.  Where I challenge this precept is in the approach to the empowerment.

If you have ever had the chance to take a small child fishing, you can relate to the following sequence of events.  You take the rod and put a hook on it for them.  You bait the hook while they look on squeamishly.  You hand the rod to them while not releasing your grip and guide it back slowly, constantly watching to make sure they do not hook themselves or you or anyone else for that matter.  You guide them through their first cast and then help them reel it in after the bobber lands three feet in front of them. Finally you are successful in getting the line out and now you wait with them, trying to keep them focused as their patience starts to wear without an immediate strike.  Once a fish does bite and you’re able to get it reeled in with their help, you remove the fish from the hook.  Dropping it into a bucket for the child, they then spend a little while playing and poking at the fish before either wanting to try again or wanting to wander off to the next thing.

Why explain this?  Think about how you teach someone to do something much more complex as an adult.  We sit them in training classes, giving them the critical skills to do the key steps in a process. Once they are done, certified, and ready in our eyes we send them off to be successful.  Are they?  That’s up to them since at that point we have relinquished control of what we can do and how we can help them.  There are other analogies such as the first solo time driving but what it comes down to is this: there is more than mechanics that are needed to be learned to be successful.

A successful fisherman not only knows HOW to fish, but WHERE to fish, WHAT to fish for, and WHEN.  He’s skilled in understanding the environment, the weather, the fish, the gear, and so much more.  How did he get that way?

That fisherman who came home with the trout or tuna didn’t go down to the corner Walmart and buy the Spongebob fishing starter kit.  They didn’t take what someone else said was “right” as gospel.  They looked, listened, studied, and read.  They saw how others fished, how they succeeded and how they failed, and learned.  Most importantly, they got up early, put their waders on, and went and stood in the cold water by themselves.

We need to stop treating people as four year olds.  Stop baiting the hook for them.  Stop guiding their hand when they cast.  Don’t drive them to the fishing hole and hand them hot cocoa when they complain they’re cold.  We need to be supportive, but strong, and help them stand against the current from the shore; not by holding them up by their waders.  We also need to recognize that some will never be successful fishermen and that is ok.

LEGO is one of the most successful toys in the world for what I feel is one core reason.  Not that they are simple.  Not that they have thousands of different blocks and kits.  No, they are successful because with only one basic block type in the beginning they were able to inspire…vision, creativity, adaptability, and problem solving.  They provided a structure without presuming what the answer would be.  The kits provide you direction and guidance on how to construct one model or toy, but I challenge in the cases where only the directions are followed those toys are quick to return to their box or collect dust on a shelf.  It is in those cases where LEGO builders have learned to think “the LEGO way” the models continue to grow and change; challenge and solve over and over again.  The same must be said for solution platforms.

A powerful platform is the launching pad for solution after solution ONLY if there are people with the vision and creativity to take what is capable of being done and make it real.  Companies must decide if they want to sell their customers model kits, model parts, or open collections of capability.

A model kit such as a Snap-Tite airplane is easy to build; almost foolproof.  Once the plane is built, you have a plane.  A nice plane, but that’s it.  It can’t be a car, or a bus, or anything else.  You bought a plane and that’s what you have.  A LEGO set includes instructions on how to build the model on the box, but when you’re done if that’s the only thing you ever build you might as well have bought the Snap-Tite model.  The long term, success comes from when you understand how those pieces fit together and why you did certain steps to make the model.  Those steps, when changed around, now allow for new models to be created.  The same applies to solution platforms.  Understand not only the what but the why and the how and the solutions you can implement are virtually without end.

As customers we must make sure we are not encouraging our treatment as four year olds.  Demanding simplified solutions, turn-key implementations meeting our exacting specifications, or changing core functionality because we cannot leverage our vision and problem solving to come up with solutions all take us down that path.  We have to stop kidding ourselves that, even though we had the hook baited for us, the line cast, and the reel turned, we’re “fishing.”  We must challenge ourselves to stand in the cold water and try.  We must challenge our platform vendors to stand on the shore and help us understand, but not do for us when we can do for ourselves.  As customers we should learn where to fish, how to fish, and why to fish…and then cast our lines.

“We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams…” –  Arthur O’Shaughnessy

Photo credit: tomswift46 ( Hi Res Images for Sale) / / CC BY-NC-ND