Is CIA stalking you?

You all know the CIA. It is secretive, going about its business in the shadows, rarely announcing its presence or its impact. It is spoken about in hushed, often fearful tones. The outcome of the CIA’s work is often unexpected: confusion reigns, uncertainty abounds, and leaders are undermined.

But wait – it’s not the Central Intelligence Agency I’m talking about. The CIA I’m referring to is a combination of behaviors that negatively affect business performance and culture.

Customer-focused organizations should fear this CIA:

  • Complacency. We’re OK; we’ve been around for a hundred years, survived battles,  and fought off the competition. Who cares if our market share has slipped a few points in the last couple years and a host of new start-ups are nibbling at our ankles? Our customers know we give them a good deal, even with the threat of some new whiz-bang technology; that’s not really our business anyway.
  • Ignorance. Ignorant organizations just don’t know what’s happening. They make little or no attempt to understand what customers really value and how well they are doing in the things that matter most to them. A customer lost (if they know about it at all) comes as a surprise, well after they have defected to a competitor when all opportunity to recover them is lost. They lack meaningful measures of performance and take decisions on instinct or even a whim. Remember, in the absence of data, everyone is right or no one is!
  • Arrogance. We know best, even better than the customer. Don’t tell us how to run our business; we’re the experts. Of course our product is the best – we built it that way. If it doesn’t do what you want, then your requirements are wrong. This misplaced self-confidence is fueled by a lack of willingness to listen to the market, to customers, or indeed to anyone else who does not buy into the creed, which is often reinforced by suppressing dissension. When innovators suggest new ideas, they’re quickly squelched or dismissed by words like: “We’ve tried that; it doesn’t work.” Note carefully the words of Alfred Toynbee who said “Nothing fails like success.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Corporate history is littered with examples of once successful companies and leaders that suffered from CIA syndrome. Ask Nokia, which has slipped down the league of phone providers and is now busily playing catch-up with new competitors,  technologies, and ideas. Ken Olson, legendary founder of computer-maker Digital, who was once described by Fortune as ”the ultimate entrepreneur,” summarily dismissed the PC market, saying, “I cannot see why anyone would want a computer on their desk.”  The rest is history (or at least it was for Digital).

The New & Improved CIA
Just as in physics where matter has its opposite, anti-matter, organizational CIA has anti-CIA – the good stuff.

  • Customer focused. This behavior is demonstrated through an intense and continuing desire to really understand the needs of your customers and to know how well you are doing in the things that matter most to them. It is not limited to capturing the voice of the customer and includes building a comprehensive, single view of the customer.
  • Innovative. Constantly questioning what  your company does and how it does it is ever more important as the pace of change accelerates. Companies must take the attitude of “if it ain’t broke, fix it.” The means continually examining the landscape and asking how new technology and socio-economic change affect what you’re doing.
  • Aspirational. This requires you to systematically harness innovation and focus on the customer in a restless pursuit of challenging goals. You seek to be the world’s best in things that matter most to customers and engage your whole staff in achieving excellence.

So, which is your company: CIA or new and improved CIA? If you aspire to the latter give TheCustomer.Co a call.

(With apologies to the good folk at Langley, Virginia!)

A version of this blog first appeared at

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