That was the first sentence I heard coming out of my sales partner on our first sales call together. I couldn't believe it. Hadn't asked Question 1, and that's how we were starting out with this Fortune 100 customer. We didn't close any business.
Even if your customer hands you a well composed document outlining their requirements, you won't understand them. Why? Because you don't know how that person uses written language. You have to understand your customer before you can understand how they use language to tell you what they want.
Successful leadership isn't about what you know. It's about uncovering needs. Your customers' needs. Your team's needs. Sometimes even your own needs can help inform the situation. And even when people are trying, it's always hard to understand what they need.
Since mind-melds are currently science fiction, you will have to build your own iterative communication process that helps you and your customer converge on the optimal description of their needs. Some people have a gift for it. If you're not one of them keep practicing, and study your mistakes carefully.
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Things have smoothed out a little bit in the software development industry, in terms of buyers getting what they want. To a large extent this has been driven by the smart phone app industry, where a piece of software delivers only one, or at most a small number of specific, targeted functions.
But for more involved systems, development and integration still seem to be a great difficulty. Vendors frequently under bid jobs, at least here in the Washington, DC area. They are not able to capture the intended requirements. They deliver confusing products that don't really do what the buyers and end users wanted.
Over the years I think I've come to some understanding of the disconnect between system buyers and system builders.
In a place like NASA, the developers and integrators of a system are also usually the end users. The effect of this reality on requirements capture alone is huge. If NASA requirements had to be transferred to the minds of IT people who had no clue about flight dynamics or scientific data analysis, well, there just wouldn't be any NASA any more, would there?
You need every systems person that supports your business to be able to build their own, accurate vision of the ways your end users have to do their jobs. The closer their vision maps to end-user life, the smoother your operations will run, and the fewer errors you will have to track down and fix. Go out, and hire accordingly.
Even in pure research contexts
it's all about problem solving.
Problem solving always begins with
careful problem characterization.
Innovation is the art of turning
a great solution into a great application.