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Your Desk at Work Is Literally a Prison—A Dangerous One

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Peter Drucker cautioned executives not to become “a prisoner of the organization” in which they work. Yet surely he would have admired the way that Rick Raemisch became a prisoner in his.

Raemisch is executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and earlier this year he spent a night in solitary confinement at one his state penitentiaries so that he could get “a better sense” of what such an isolated existence “did to the prisoners who were housed there, sometimes for years.”

The experience was profound. Crammed in a 7-by-13 cell, Raemisch began “feeling twitchy and paranoid.”

“I kept waiting for the lights to turn off, to signal the end of the day,” he recalled in a piece a few weeks ago in the New York Times. “But the lights did not shut off. I began to count the small holes carved in the walls. Tiny grooves made by inmates who’d chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them.”

Raemisch emerged 20 hours later vowing to greatly reduce the use of solitary by stepping up various reforms of the system that already are underway. “Knowing that 97% of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities,” he explained, “doing anything less would be both counterproductive and inhumane.”

Although Raemisch was dealing with a situation extreme in many respects, the basic lesson for any manager is unmistakable: “No matter how good the reports, no matter how good the economic or financial theory underlying them, nothing beats personal, direct observation,” Drucker wrote in Management Challenges for the 21st Century.

“Market research, focus groups and the like are highly valued, and rightly so,” he added. “But still, they always focus on the company’s products. They never focus on what the customer buys and is interested in. Only by being a customer oneself, a salesman oneself, a patient oneself can one get true information about the outside.”

As commonsensical as this may sound, many businesspeople fail to ever venture very far beyond their own desks. Indeed, many don’t really focus on the customer much at all.

Why? In their 2013 book Customers Included, Mark Hurst and Phil Terry of the New York-based consulting firm Creative Good say they routinely run into a litany of excuses. Among them: “There’s not enough time in the project to spend with customers.” “Customers don’t know what they want.” “We already know what customers want.”

There are other traps, as well, including an obsession by many managers with quantitative analysis. “It has become so dominant that companies tend to forget that the world consists not only of quantities but also of qualities,” Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen write in The Moment of Clarity, published last month.

The two are founding partners of the innovation and strategy consultancy ReD Associates, and the premise of their book is that businesses would be wise to pay much more attention to the human sciences—including ethnography, which they define in part as “an in-depth approach to researching cultures that involves immersing oneself in a particular society.”

“It is good to know that x percent of your customers are satisfied with your company,” they note, “but you also need to know what the experience of interacting with your company is like. It’s helpful to know that x percent of the population has a smartphone, but how are people using the technology?”

Drucker loved to highlight those who figured out these sorts of things—executives such as Irish supermarket pioneer Feargal Quinn. “His secret is that he and all of his company’s executives have to spend two days a week outside their offices,” Drucker wrote. “One day is actually spent doing a job in a supermarket, for example, by serving at a checkout counter or as a manager for perishable foods. And one day is spent in competitors’ stores, watching, listening, talking to the competitors’ employees and the competitors’ customers.”

Then there was Alfred Sloan, who ran General Motors from the early 1920s through the mid-1950s. For two weeks every year, according to Drucker, he used to work in the service department of a GM dealership. “The problem was, no dealer took him back because he was such a very poor mechanic,” Drucker remarked. But this wasn’t the point. Sloan returned to his post with a keener understanding of what the customer valued and with a better sense of where GM’s weak spots were.

Sometimes, assuming the customer’s vantage is the only way to truly understand how all the parts of the organization fit together. This was the reason that Gustav Mahler changed things up at the Vienna Philharmonic in the late 19th century. “He found in the orchestra’s contract that they had to play five evenings,” Drucker recounted, “and he said, ‘No you are going to be on duty five evenings, but you play four. The fifth evening, you sit out in the audience and listen.’”

Quinn, Sloan and Mahler all got it—and Raemisch gets it: There is simply no substitute for stepping into your customer’s shoes, if not his shackles.

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