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African Customer Experiences With Theory U

Written by Jacqui E'Silva

African Customer Experiences With Theory U

Written by Michelle Ashen-Abrahams on Jul 2, 2019 11:27:21 AM

Customer Experience and Management

Africa is at the centre of a global development crisis and customer experience professionals have the opportunity to influence economic growth and increase shareholder value with meaningful impact. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for citizens, businesses and the planet, now and into the future. At the heart of the 2030 Agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

Customer experience professionals are already familiar with human-centered design and systems thinking as part of the work we do. Dedicating ourselves to a human-centric, rights-based approach across all the other 16 Sustainable Development Goals will not only end poverty, but support efforts to achieve the global goals that impact all of us.

The SDGs provide African business leaders with a road map for decision making so that collectively we can produce results we do want to see. If we work in isolation of the SDGs then customer experience and the businesses we serve will no longer cease to exist, threaten their sustainability and the future of the economies we’re working within.

“The SDGs recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”

This is not the job of the United Nations, non-profit organisations, government and interest groups alone. This is work we all need to be actively engaged in if we want to leave a legacy of positive impact and live the African values of Ubuntu that once ended the apartheid regime and gave birth to a period of economic growth and stability.

Customer experience professionals hold important positions of leadership and influence in organisations who recognise the value and contribution of these skills. Dimension Data’s 2019 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking[1] report highlights that customers are now unquestionably at the centre of organisational strategy, with the spotlight on customer experience. The report reveals that while CX is recognised as the number one driver of digital transformation and the top strategic measurement for organisational performance, only 30.4% of organisations have an executive on the board accountable for CX. Within the context of customer experience and global research insights, we’re able to identify and categorize the problems into three distinct areas: the ecological divide, the social divide and the spiritual divide.

Theory U argues that our capacity to pay attention is what co-shapes the world, the experiences we design for customers and the engagement we have internally with our employees. What prevents us from attending to situations more effectively is that we are not fully aware of that interior condition from which our attention originates from. Leadership development for CX professionals should not just be a term, a concept or task on the To Do List. Coach training, personal mastery, meditation and mindfulness based stress reduction are just some of the techniques that businesses like Google and MUA Insurance Acceptances (Pty) Ltd are recognising as critical contributors to the success of cross-functional and integrated client experience strategies that deliver on growth mandates.

C.Otto Scharmer calls this lack of awareness our blind spot. The success of client experience professionals in the 4th Industrial Revolution will require new “software”, especially in industries like financial services where the operating contexts are more complex, ignited as a result of human suffering and difficulties.

To help write this new “software,” client experience professionals should become intimately familiar with Theory U and mindfulness as a means to nurture, develop and nourish their own interior condition to further expand their ability to innovate and successfully implement change. The 4th Industrial Revolution and the SDGs demand new ways of working, thinking and being for client experience professionals to successfully deliver on strategic organisational objectives. The late CEO of Hanover Insurance, Bill O’Brien, put it: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.”

Theory U draws our attention to the blind spot in our leadership as CX professionals: the “interior conditions”, the sources from which we operate both individually and collectively. We can see what customers do and how employees respond to them, the practical outcomes that they accomplish through their engagement with one another. But rarely do we pay attention to the deeper root condition: the source and interior condition from which we operate from as CX leaders within the business, individually and as a cross-functional team who serve the needs of our customers.

Theory U[2] draws our attention to that blind spot - to the essence of our being, to the quality of the relationships that we have to each other within the organisation, to the ecosystem within which all the interactions occur and the relationship we have with ourselves.

Theory U identifies four ways that action and attention come into the world. They arise from a quality of awareness that is (1) habitual, (2) ego-systemic, (3) empathic-relational, or (4) generative eco-systemic.

The essence of client experience professionals and leaders today is to become aware of our blind spot and then to shift the inner place from where we operate, as required by the situations we face. This means that our job as CX leaders within organisations is to cultivate the soil of the social field for innovation, creativity and integrated client experiences. The social field consists of the relationships among individuals, groups, and systems that give rise to patterns of thinking, conversing, and organizing, which in turn produce practical, innovative results.

The problem with leadership and the challenge that client experience professionals have today is that most people think of it as being made up of individuals, with one person at the top. But if we see leadership within an organisation as the capacity of a system to co-sense and co-shape the future, then we realize that all leadership is distributed - it needs to include everyone. To develop collective capacity, everyone must act as a steward for the larger ecosystem.

The 2019 Global Customer Experience Benchmarking Report points to the challenges of channels being managed in silos and customer satisfaction levels way below optimal. The problem with our current organisational and societal ecosystems is the broken feedback loop between the parts and the whole. Theory U offers a method for relinking the parts and the whole by making it possible for the system to sense and see itself which is critical for effective customer experience design. When that happens, the collective consciousness begins to shift from ego-system awareness to ecosystem awareness - from a silo view to a systems view. Awareness-based systems change should be at the heart of effective and impactful client experience design so that collectively we design solutions that our customers want, that our business needs and that the planet is calling for.

Hlumelo Biko’s published book Africa Reimagined: Reclaiming A Sense Of Abundance And Prosperity is a collection of inspiring words that honour the legacy of his late father, Steve Biko. He combines the meaning of the Ugandan proverb, ‘If you cut your chains you free yourself, if you cut your roots you die’ with the words of the American historian David McCullough: ’History is who we are and why we are the way we are.’ Client experience professionals play a critical role in the new narrative being written in African businesses and in the history books that will be titled the 4th Industrial Revolution In Africa. We need to be mindful and raise our own level of consciousness so that the choices we make consider the generations who will learn how to lead by observing the choices we’ve made and the experiences we’ve designed.

About Theory U

Building upon two decades of action research at MIT, the process shows how individuals, teams, organizations and large systems can build the essential leadership capacities needed to address the root causes of today’s social, environmental, and spiritual challenges. In essence, we show how to update the operating code in our societal systems through a shift in consciousness from ego-system to eco-system awareness. Michelle Ashen-Abrahams has joined leaders across the African continent to facilitate the Ubuntu Lab with the Presencing Institute. Ubuntu.Lab is a four-month applied online-offline learning program for change-makers, emerging and established leaders and innovators. For more information visit:



[1] https://www.dimensiondata.com/en/insights/-/media/dd/insights/cxbr/executive-guide-cxbr-2019.pdf

[2] https://www.presencing.org/aboutus/theory-u

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