Why companies need to beware of operating ‘on autopilot’

Human error is still the leading cause of aviation accidents. Over time, pilots have become ever more reliant on increasingly sophisticated autopilots.

But when they face unexpected conditions that the autopilot can’t deal with, they can suddenly find that their own skills have become dangerously rusty.

Businesses can operate on autopilot too.

People can become complacent and slip into routines. Curiosity dwindles and wisdom becomes a substitute for insight. At its very worst, a company becomes oblivious to external conditions. And as they fail to understand the perspectives and expectations of their consumers, they begin to nosedive towards irrelevance.

1. Create your own turbulence

Mike Bracken, Chief Digital Officer for the Co-operative Group and previously head of the UK Government Digital Service, talks of transformation beginning with a series of questions, the most fundamental being:

“Should we even do this anymore?”

If the answer’s positive, Bracken recommends asking:

“Why are we set up this way?

"How can we do something different?"

"What are the real user needs that our customers have?”

However, many businesses are uncomfortable with these kind of questions. They’re not easily answered with jargon, stock responses or corporate clichés. They force a company to disconnect the autopilot, broaden their viewpoint and look for evidence from outside.

Any question that forces a company to step back and interrogate itself is worth asking. And given how rapidly consumer expectations are rising, questions like these are worth asking again and again. By voluntarily subjecting itself to turbulence like this, and keeping their answers fresh and updated, a company can better anticipate and react to change.

2. Question the flight instruments

With businesses collecting more data than ever before, many have been lulled into a false sense of security, believing that their dashboard tells them all they need to know.

Blindly trusting data in this way can cause complacency. Companies mistakenly believe that the data they collect gives them the big picture. But in reality, most businesses are ‘data narcissists’, only seeking to understand consumers relative to themselves.

Their data is ‘all about them’ – meaning they have insight into perceptions of their brand, their business performance, and a limited array of consumer interactions based on their own channels and touchpoints. But they have little insight on consumers’ experience of the category as a whole – or how expectations are being raised by experiences from outside of their sector.

As a consequence, ‘autopilot businesses’ can miss changes in behaviours, attitudes and needs that aren’t picked up by their instruments.

To really understanding consumer expectations, companies need to look for insight in the spaces around their channels and amongst those people that their touchpoints fail to reach. This means getting out from behind the dashboard and into the world of the consumer.

At Great State, we strive to get out into the wider world of the consumer at least twice a month – whether that’s to speak to consumers, extreme users or opinion leaders (like foodie Matthew Fort, pictured with Eliza below as part of a recent research project).

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3. Be an eternal test pilot

By their very nature, ‘autopilot businesses’ don’t experiment.

They don’t look for insights outside of their core or develop and test hypotheses about new opportunities. In the short term, they can fall behind competitors in terms of skills, knowledge and experience. And in the long term, they can miss out on entirely new markets. As Jeff Bezos says:

“Companies that don’t experiment – companies that don’t embrace failure – they eventually get into a desperate position, where the only thing they can do is make a ‘Hail Mary’ bet at the very end of their corporate existence.”

At Great State, as well as helping our clients test and learn, we’ve also run lots of our own experiments. Some of these side projects – like online listings platform Just Opened – have turned into standalone businesses in their own right. And some – like our social media publishing tool Okey Dokey – have turned into new revenue streams.

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But other experiments have benefitted us because of what we’ve learned rather than what we’ve made. Some propositions have tested well on Facebook – like our baby food subscription service Second Helping – but their business models have proved too difficult to execute.

Meanwhile, our vegetable crisp brand Prize struggled to find a production partner even though consumers loved its seed-embedded packaging – which could be planted so people could grow their own veggies.

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And, although Saint (our low-carb British lager) launched but failed to get enough market traction to make it sustainable, it taught us more about making, selling and marketing beer than any industry report ever could.

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Ultimately, these side projects are of huge benefit to our client work. They sharpen our practical skills; help us learn about new technologies and business models; and give us deep, first hand knowledge of particular categories and consumer groups.

Contact Us

For more information on how we can help you avoid slipping into irrelevance, contact Matt Boffey here.