Blue Highways Journey – Episode 16 – Understanding

Adam Steele was preparing to go on his final blue highways journeys.  This trip he planned to have his VP of Engineering, Greg Alston, joined him. Greg had resisted the blue highways journey and didn’t see the value in “wandering through the backwoods and talking with a bunch of yokels”. “What am I going to learn about technology from them?” he asked.

Adam was furious with Greg’s attitude but did make one concession. He and Greg would visit manufacturing facilities that used their products. There was no problem setting up the visits, but Adam insisted they have an opportunity to talk with the workers using the product, not their engineers.

The first visit set the tone for the entire trip. Greg had expected to hear praise for the new features they added to the product, but that’s not what he heard. “We don’t need that stuff. You just added more crap that can fail. You’ve made it difficult to train new employees with all of your bells and whistles.” Greg was steamed, but Adam had warned him in advance not to respond. “We need to improve our understanding of what the customer wants,” Adam cautioned.

As they made their way to the next factory, Greg asked: “Are you trying to humiliate me?” Greg asked. Adam’s response was unexpected: “Unless you are open to soliciting, accepting, and incorporating the feedback you hear in our designs than I’m not sure you are the person we need to be VP of Engineering.” 

Adam and Greg didn’t speak until they got to the next factory. But Greg had obviously received Adam’s message. Greg took over the conversation and began to ask questions. When a critical comment was made, Greg would follow-up and ask for the employee’s recommendations.

Soon each of the visits became mini design meetings with Greg taking pages of notes. As they began their way home, Greg commented: “I’ve developed a new understanding of what our role as engineers should be. We need to design what the customer wants.” Adam had to restrain himself from laughing.

As an entrepreneur, Adam had learned early in his life that understanding the needs of others can be a tricky undertaking. There are very obvious needs which can be easily addressed. But there are also hidden needs that can only be understood through interactive exchanges of conversations about possibilities. Often these exchanges begin with such phrases as: Just imagine… or how might…?

Adam also understood that conversations focused on understanding needs weren’t just about product design. These conversations need to take place in all aspects of the business world but also in society as well.

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“The key to all of life is understanding how to add value to others.”
– Jay Abraham (business executive)

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