This was originally posted to the Slalom Customer Insights blog on Medium.
Recently I picked up lunch from a national fast food chain my kids are hooked on (we’re there weekly). I used their mobile app and was surprised to find a new option — curbside delivery! I skipped the drive-thru line, pulled into a labeled parking spot, and the app prompted me to enter my spot number. Five minutes later, my food was safely in my hands.
The new offering was convenient — and impressive, especially when you consider the speed in which it came together. Within weeks of COVID-19 truly impacting everyday life in the U.S., the company had deployed a new option for pickup in their already impressive mobile app, updated their in-restaurant systems to communicate parking locations, deployed new processes to their hundreds of franchise locations, and trained their employees on the new approach.
While consumer behavior typically tends to shift slowly — usually in weeks or even years — success or failure is often determined based on a company’s ability to adapt quickly. This has never been truer than during COVID-19, a black swan event that falls outside the realm of regular expectations. This crisis led to the most rapid shift of consumer behavior in history — stay at home mandates across the country, and a shuttering of any “non-essential” physical storefront.
Well-prepared, agile, and leading organizations have been able to adapt quickly to shifting consumer behavior — displaying we call Experience Agility.
It started in the good times, like when the fast food company made investments across their entire customer journey and all the way down their service capabilities, thus enabling them to rapidly adapt to this unexpected shift in consumer behavior. They had high Experience Agility, and today’s COVID-19 environment has exposed the need to invest in your organization’s Experience Agility.
What is Experience Agility?
Experience Agility is the velocity that an organization can adapt to shifting consumer behaviors.
It goes far beyond any single product or customer touchpoint. It’s the sum of your organization’s innovation capabilities and factors in the dollars invested to achieve customer (and business) value.
It can be expressed as an equation:
The goal for a company is to increase the capabilities in the numerator and improve the denominator — faster and more efficient dollars to customer value.
Let’s take our fast food example. If in Week 1 you could have seen the COIVD-19 economic shutdown coming, and by Week 3 you had flipped a switch to roll out a new feature in your mobile app (already used by millions of customers), and then trained your employees on the new relevant processes — you’d have a very high experience agility.
Conversely, if you’re a retailer with no eCommerce that has to stand up an entire platform, and then convince you customers to come shop with you through new digital channels when they only think of you as a physical store, you’d have a very low Experience Agility.
The challenge with this equation is that these capabilities are nearly always deployed within organizational siloes. Too often organizations will invest in one piece of the puzzle without considering the inputs and outputs. For example, they might pour millions of dollars into a migrating their systems into the cloud without ever considering why those apps exist. Or maybe they train up their teams in Design Thinking while antiquated technology means it takes a full year to deploy a new feature to end users.
Core capabilities for Experience Agile organizations
Every organization is different but there are three core capabilities every company must cultivate to respond rapidly shifting customer needs — a culture of customer obsession, truly agile delivery teams, and speed of delivery.
Capability #1: Building a culture of customer obsession
This is a widespread culture that places the customer at the center of every strategic conversation. I’ve often found companies to be great at considering the business and technical impact of ideas, because the experts are typically sitting in the room. The challenge is relentlessly hunting for insights about unmet customer needs and turning those insights into problems to be solved.
The successful organization has developed capabilities in:
- Customer exposure — Teams across many disciplines regularly have direct contact with users across all disciplines (product, tech, etc.).
- Problem framing + co-creation — Cross-disciplinary teams work together to synthesize findings from customer exposure into problems they could explore.
- Experience ownership — Leaders own and are accountable for major service experiences that happen across time and touchpoints and can influence and drive the roadmap across your customer touchpoints.
Capability #2: Developing truly agile teams
Agile means that any team can rapidly retool and adjust their priorities. I’ve worked with too many companies who embarked on an “agile transformation” that amounted to development teams learning to use a backlog and work in two-week sprints that ended in a demo. Remember that the first principle behind the agile manifesto is “to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”
Agile delivery starts before a line of code gets written. The successful organization has developed capabilities around:
- Exploring problems** — Focuses teams on exploring problems with a variety of possible solutions, rather than anchoring too early on a solution that might be the wrong one.
- Rapid prototyping + validation — The ability to validate (or pass on) possible solutions in a lower fidelity approach than fully building and deploying it.
- DesignOps — A toolkit and process for design teams to rapidly design solutions in a consistent and usable manner.
- Internal frameworks + code reusability — Development teams have well documented, repeatable approaches to building software where teams don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time that they tackle a problem.
Capability #3: Accelerating your speed of delivery
The time it takes to go from idea to customer and business value is a key driver in our Experience Agility formula. DevOps — that systematizes the delivery of code — and the Cloud are key facets to rapidly deploying features. But beyond the technology, a business must consider how their employees will be trained on a new service experience, and how effectively you communicate with your customers.
The successful company has developed capabilities in:
- DevOps — a systemized, consistent approach to delivering feature to end users in near real time.
- Cloud — enables companies to rapidly deploy and scale their technical infrastructure to support new experiences.
- Change management — a disciplined approach to training employees on new processes and technology.
- Agile marketing — This helps marketing teams focus their collective efforts on high-value projects, complete those projects cooperatively, measure their impact, and then continuously and incrementally improve their results
The path forward
Our world will find a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most companies weren’t prepared to specifically deal with a global shutdown due to a disease. But trying to predict the future is a futile endeavor. Instead, your focus should be on developing capabilities to allow your organization to adapt to shifting consumer behaviors, because the next crisis your business will face probably won’t look like this one.
Consider these words from Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, a seminal work in the space of operating in the unknown, covered in the opening pages of his book:
The inability to predict outlier [events] implies the inability to predict the course of history, given the share of these events … The strategy for discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves.
Increasing your Experience Agility opens the door to increased tinkering. It’s about building a foundation that enables your company to rapidly react to future shifting customer needs.