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Adopting an ‘Outside-In’ Approach to Organizational Empathy in a Consumer-Centric World

Rather than managing teams and systems for operational efficiency, organizations need to get better at emulating consumers and the worlds they live in, and leverage the power of an “outside-in” model.

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By Camille Nicita, President & CEO, Gongos, Inc.

Nature vs. nurture? While this topic has been widely debated for centuries, evidence suggests that nature (a person’s inherent genetic make-up) and nurture (environment and external influences) have equal influence on shaping who we are, how we live, and the decisions we make. Or put another way, our ability to survive and thrive.

Yet, if we look at this debate through a corporate lens, it appears most organizations place a disproportionate focus on an “inside-out” approach. Rather than managing teams and systems for operational efficiency, organizations need to get better at emulating consumers and the worlds they live in, and leverage the power of an “outside-in” model. This laser sharp consumer-centric orientation is what will bring organizations closer to creating true reciprocal relationships with the consumers they serve.

The world of biology—and to an extent, the practice of biomimicry—teaches us a simple, yet profound, lesson: an outside-in approach is akin to survival of the fittest. An organism’s necessary evolution is often sparked by environmental change. Those that successfully adapt to their environments are more skilled at managing change, and thriving, than those who do not.

The Corporate Parallel

While many companies claim consumer-centricity as a key priority—and have for decades—how many truly prioritize the consumer in their decision making? Recently, I was asked to partner with Forbes.com contributor, Christopher Skroupa, to co-curate a feature article on this “outside-in” approach. In it, we postulate that in order for B-to-C organizations to create sustainable differentiation, consumers must become the focal point in decision making. Sounds easy—even logical—but why do so many companies fall short on this?

In our discussions with Global 1000 companies, two interdependent themes seem to prevent this reality—structure and mindset.

Flipping the Fundamentals 

An inside-out approach to business relies heavily on legacy issues (i.e., existing resources and operational efficiencies). Oftentimes the consumer’s voice is represented, but only to get a reaction to a concept or innovation that was thought up by someone in the C-suite, R&D, and/or marketing. This somewhat force-fit model encompasses the consumer voice, but only in retrospect.

On the other hand, an outside-in model predicates that all decision making is based on customer and market trends, therefore solving consumer needs and pain points. Not only does it rely heavily on interactional patterns between the business and consumers, it’s evolving to suit the changing world in which it exists.

The barriers of an inside-out structure can be significant because many will resist and claim “it’s the way we’ve always done it.” But opportunity exists for forward-thinking companies to flip the fundamentals and live by the mantra “if the consumer wins, we all win.” Yes, even if it means short-term performance metrics become secondary, while the company recalibrates consumers as its “new North.”

With structure in mind, many companies have an insights team with a mandate to bring the “voice of the consumer” to the decision-making table. Arguably, this one-department charge is not enough. Consumer-inspired decisions require the consumer to be in the mind’s eye of all stakeholders. Just as in the natural world, if only a cross section of an organism changes, successful adaptation will not be achieved. The entire organism (or all teams within our corporate example) must adapt to the consumer.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Beyond impacting behavior and workflow, an organization’s structure is a cue to its mindset and priorities. Consumers don’t think or act in silos, yet many organizations function with divisions that lack intra-organizational collaboration to support the sharing and internalization of consumer wisdom. Just as the world is becoming less hierarchical, so too must our organizational structures, process and systems morph into an interdependent ecosystem with the consumer as the hub.

When organizations are faced with the tensions of urgent-vs-important, urgent wins out most days. Unfortunately, days roll into years, and years become decades and a cycle of short-term focus perpetuates. Shareholders, Wall Street, governmental regulations and the global economy are real pressures; and in comparison, consumer-centricity can unintentionally become idealistic rather than realistic. Creating a consumer-driven strategy within the corporate confines requires discipline, focus and a long-term orientation. It simply cannot be achieved without an agreement between both top-down and bottom-up corporate mindsets that emphasize empathic human connections, both inside and outside the proverbial walls of the organization.

The potency of leadership, in this case, is more important than ever. Talent management and people practices must cultivate a corporate culture that rewards our ability to make a positive impact on employees and customers. If we wish to truly understand and advocate for the consumer, we must first model that behavior with the people inside our organizations. This “pay it forward” approach is the first step to replication and the creation of a resounding ripple effect on talent retention and consumer loyalty.

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? It may not be easy, but I promise it is worth it.

What Should We Do? Cultivating Discipline, Clarity & Long-Term Focus

Just like nature vs. nurture, the right solution is not choosing one over the other but finding and maintaining the appropriate balance. Consider these points:

  1. Ground yourself in the company’s core values and core competencies – those are non-negotiable, like human Once those are set and organizational alignment is achieved, establish the vision, and break down the steps that are required to get there.
  1. Find peace with sacrificing short-term metrics in the name of long-term growth and gain. Important work takes time, ingenuity and agility. Rome wasn’t built in a day and each brick laid was part of an ever-evolving Be devout to the long term goal, yet open to the continuous ebb and flow of the environment in order to stay in sync.
  1. Become adept at hiring talent that mirrors the dynamic and diverse nature of your Acknowledging this also takes time, in the short term; consider commissioning a customer advisory board to infuse a steadfast empathic connection while transforming the talent base.
  1. Organize around the “consumer journey” and how she/he thinks, feels, acts and comes to This step alone has the potential to produce profound shifts in the organization’s ability to cross-collaborate and internalize consumer wisdom.

Just as with biomimicry, we can learn from organisms inside nature and how they innovate while becoming more resilient to changes and the inevitable forces amongst them. The transition to an outside-in approach could very well be the market research industry’s environmental trigger to adopt methods that drive a more empathic connection, which requires organizations to be in tune with the body, mind and heart of the consumer. If talent, processes, systems and structure are equally envisioned with the consumer as the guide, these marching orders will become not only intuitive, but inspiring… and fruitful for all.

 

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