Four lessons my 4-year old taught me about gaining customer insights

Take a look at this picture my 4-year old son created. What do you see?

I saw three balloons floating in a blue sky.

What did he see?  

The two circles in the corners were “eyeballs.” When I asked my son why they were eyeballs, he responded, “So they can figure out where they can live.” 

The middle image was a “zig-zag road.” When I asked why, he told me “so ‘he’ could find another friend. He was different than the other two, so he needed to find a new friend."

I was way off. I imagine you were, too.

Throughout my professional life, I’ve learned that customer insights are at the core of innovation. Without them, I can’t help others be more innovative and create market disruption. Most importantly, without insights, I won’t be able to fully understand and build trust with my clients.  

My interaction with my son reminded me of four fundamental lessons when it comes to gaining valuable insights from customers and clients.

  1. You don’t know everything. I came into this exercise 100% certain that those images were balloons. The middle one was just a different one. My mind was closed to my son's perspective because I already knew what he was going to say. If we want to be innovative in our businesses and careers, we have to approach our customer and client interview sessions with a, “I don’t know anything”  "I’m here to learn” attitude. If we don’t, we risk uncovering the true meaning behind their thoughts and actions. Without fully knowing and understanding our customers and clients, our chances of helping them design innovative brands are slim-to-none. 
  2. Pay attention. At one point during my interview, I was taking notes while my son talked. He did not like that at all. He even stopped me at one point and asked, “What did I just say?” I couldn’t answer. I just missed an opportunity to build trust with him and gain insight into what really mattered to him. I was too busy writing. Am I doing the same thing with my clients? Am I too worried about remembering what they are saying (vs. looking them in the eyes and feeling what they’re saying)? I stopped taking notes. I just listened and asked questions. As a result, my son became more engaged (and animated!). And guess what? I remembered everything he said. My ears weren’t the only things engaged. My brain was, too.
  3. Stop judging. When I learned that the middle image was looking for new friends because "he was different," I caught myself disliking the other two “eyeballs.” I blamed them for forcing the middle image to find other friends. But was that the truth? It wasn’t. My son told me so. I quickly found out that my preconceived notions prevented me from keeping an open mind. Innovation doesn’t like closed minds; neither do my clients. We need to lay our particular opinions down if we want to learn from others. If we don't, we will limit our imagination in ways that hinders (or flat our prevents) the innovation process.  
  4. Stretch your imagination. My son went on-and-on-and-on about this drawing. You can thank me later for sparing you from the 15-minute version. Bottom line, my son had it right. Just when I thought he was going to stop explaining the drawing, he kept going and his story kept getting more outrageous. When thinking about what could be and crafting the infamous “what if’s,” don’t stop when you think you have “the” idea. Keep going! Give yourself a hall pass to be ridiculous, bold, and outlandish. Steve Jobs was laughed at when he envisioned a computer as a personal tool. That didn’t stop him. He kept dreaming and iterating. He turned “what is” into “what could be.” Considering Apple is one of the most innovative companies on the planet, I wonder who is laughing now.

Maybe it’s time for you to put yourself through the same exercise I did. I’d hate to see you miss out on key customer and/or client insights that may bring you closer to that next level. If you don’t want to practice on a client or customer, find a 4-year old near you!  

Are you seeing balloons or eyeballs?  In what ways can you stretch your imagination in business?  In your life?