man giving the thumbs up
PHOTO: Aziz Acharki

Customers are changing far faster today than organizations are. Customers are setting the agenda. Their expectations are rising in direct proportion to their declining trust in and loyalty to organizations and brands.

You cannot deliver quality customer experience if you don’t understand the needs of your customers and create products and services to meet those needs. The agile organization is constantly soliciting customer feedback and constantly adapting and refining based on that feedback.

An underlying reason why customers are changing at such speed is because, with the web, smartphones and computers, they have acquired much faster, flexible and vastly more connected communication tools.

For centuries, organizations have had vastly better communication tools than customers. This has allowed organizations a great degree of control over customers. Today, an average customer often has better — yes, better — communication tools than an average employee. Typical enterprise systems are chaotic and appalling, more akin to a medieval torture chamber than a modern environment for knowledge workers.

Whenever there are significant changes in the speed of communications, there are significant changes in societies. In ancient times, non-verbal communication was on stone tablets. That was slow and not open to much feedback (e.g., I see you spelt that word wrong). Then we had scrolls. The flat page was a major innovation but it took it centuries to replace the scroll.

Before print arrived, a 250-page handwritten book could take a writer almost 40 days to produce. These books were nearly always once-offs, so feedback was of little use. It is estimated that books became almost 350 times cheaper to produce as a result of the printing press.

Printing created exact copies and that was another huge innovation because it allowed many people to give feedback on the exact same thing. The cleverest entrepreneurs understood this new potential.

Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598) launched a print edition of his Theatrum atlas in 1570. Over the next 28 years he published at least one new edition every year. Why? Because he was getting tremendous feedback from cartographers from all over the world.

"By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions," Elizabeth L. Eisenstein writes in "The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe," Ortelius “made his Theatrum atlas a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.”

Ortelius created an agile organization: open to the constant flow of feedback unleashed by print, and willing to adapt and improve based on that feedback. A word of warning about agility. An agile organization learns to jump out of the way of the oncoming train, not into its way. If you’re moving in the wrong direction then learning to sprint will just get you there faster.

Iterating and adapting is pointless unless your customers are at the very center of your design process, because it is your customers who you are adapting to. Constant customer feedback keeps you heading in the right direction. The faster you can solicit and act on that feedback the more agile you become.