In 2011 I was a CEO of a large company. The company was a part of a holding group managed by a bunch of people who believed that their mission was to control us, CEOs, because, as they thought, we needed control and their guidance. So their job was to doubt any of our decision and ask dozens of questions we had to answer – that's why I was not too fond of days when I had to visit the headquarters. And the most frequently asked question was, "can you prove this?". I always heard it when we discussed issues involving the future – new products, new projects, investments, and so on.
The future doesn't exist, and it is being created every second by the effort of millions of people acting, mostly independently. There are no "facts" about the future. We may guess, foresee, and make forecasts, but we must always keep in mind that all the estimates are always wrong, at least to an extent.
But many CEOs, financial controllers, and even entrepreneurs refuse to make major decisions in the absence of "firm evidence" or "facts" obtained from "reliable sources" that this market is attractive and that product will help win new customers. Steve Jobs didn't "know" that the Apple computer would become a game-changer, but he believed. In 1994, when Jeff Bezos launched Amazon, there was no "firm evidence" that e-commerce would become a huge market. When Elon Musk founded Tesla, only few people believed in the electric cars' bright future.
I'm afraid I have to disagree
with Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs claiming that market research is "useless" and that customers "don't have a vote." Managing a business is not an act of pure creation. Collecting customer needs data, foresight workshops, and customer research are not a waste of time. We must remember that for every Jobs or Bezos, there are hundreds of reckless entrepreneurs who believed in their products but, at the end of the day, did nothing worth mentioning in Forbes or Fortune.
Running a business is finding a balance between hard data and creation. When I work on strategy with my customers, we always collect a lot of information through customer interviews. But we don't use it only as a statistic; customers' fears, hopes, and beliefs are a powerful source of inspiration. Clients will never tell us what to do, but their worldviews and even superstitions can lead us to disruptive solutions and business models.
But even if we base our significant decisions on insights from customers' interviews, it doesn't mean that we "proved" the future – it is still uncertain. By doing so, we can only reduce our risks to an extent and nothing more. But those people who insist that any decision must be somehow "proved" by some "firm evidence" forget that if there is firm evidence about tomorrow, it is not the future – it is already present. And that, in turn, means that decisions based on facts are not strategic ones. They only help a business to keep up with the environment but don't develop it.
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