Mumford’s Law and Vision vs. Customer

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was an American Architecture and Literary critic, as well as Sociologist and Philosopher.  I often attribute a particular quote to Mumford, though I can’t seem to locate the source.  When asked where to put a sidewalk, Mumford responds:

See where the people walk and then pave their path.

How many times have you seen two sidewalks intersecting at 90 degree angles, with worn grass cutting the corners?

There’s a fine line between executing on your vision and listening to your customers.  Consider Mumford’s quote, thinking of the sidewalk as the “vision” and the path as “customer needs.”

I help entrepreneurs create investment pitches and so sit through a lot dry runs, where they practice presenting their vision to real entrepreneurs and investors.  The most painful part of the process (once we get beyond the creation of a basic elevator pitch) is listening to the critique of the vision, rather than the pitch.  Inevitably, the audience offers recommendations on how to change the product, the customer or the business model.  The audience tells the CEO how they would do it, if it were their business.

It is certainly understandable that business plan critics would lean on their own experiences.  Yet, if you asked each one about their past successes, and they will inevitably answer that they “stuck to their vision.”

But what of the customer?  If you’ve happened by this blog before, you might have run across the term “customer development.” : )  So how does one listen to the customer and stick to the vision?

How to accomplish this balance?

First, you must be able to clearly articulate your vision.  Your vision includes your customer, the problem you’re solving, and how you’re solving it.  My suspicion is that the harder to explain the softer the vision. Hence the oft-repeated question, is your product a vitamin or pain killer?

Test your assumptions.  It may be difficult to believe, but funding is not vindication of your vision.  Only customers can answer the question whether the assumptions upon which you base your business are valid.   My suspicion is that many entrepreneurs would rather live a year or two off investor’s money than have customers tell them from the outset that the vision doesn’t cut the mustard. You must be willing to ask the question; you must be willing to hear no.

Understand where you are now and what your needs are.  Anyone who has ever been a project manager knows that the art of gathering requirements includes the fact that the customers don’t know what they don’t know.  In other words, there are possibilities for solutions to their problems beyond their understanding.  So it is not the role of project or product managers to be stenographers.   The key to understanding communication with customers is to understand what your current objectives are based on where you are within your chosen market.  My suspicion is that many businesses lose track of their own strategic objectives.

  • what is your market type?
  • what is your segment?
  • what is the minimum feature set required to “kill the pain” enough that customers will pay?

To answer all three requires a combination of intuition and flexibility.

So this is the dance.  You must be open enough to ask the questions, listen well enough to ingest differences in opinion, confident in your instincts to reject some, flexible enough to alter your assumptions.

You might have to initially use concrete instead of slate, forget about color, and pave where the grass is worn, and not where your vision predicted.