How do we move to a state of sustainable organizational agility? There is a lot of discussion about the importance of the customer, the need for agility, and the critical relationship between the two. In fact, often it seems organizing around “putting the customer first” is described as the single most important factor in achieving agility. I can’t really argue with either of those priorities – being customer experience focused or agility – but there is something missing.

What I’m saying here isn’t really anything new. I’m simply expressing my POV in response to all the “putting the customer first” messages I’ve been seeing lately.


The customer obsession seems to gloss over the experience of another critical set of humans involved– that of the workforce. That is dangerously limited and shortsighted.

No doubt, we are living in a world in which the customer drives just about everything in business. From Design Thinking, for example, we hear about things like listening to the customer, prioritizing for customers, solving problems for the user, communicating with the customer, etc.

Equally, we are operating in a VUCA environment – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The term is not new – it was first used in the 1980s by the US Army War College. Yet it is just as relevant today and increasingly defines the landscape that companies are operating in.

The reality of VUCA, combined with rapid developments in emerging technologies and high expectations by customers, makes it essential that companies focus on delivering value. Delivering value includes designing a customer-centric experience at a pace the customer demands, as well as leveraging technologies to enable these priorities.

Many organizations are struggling to become more agile in today’s digitally transformed (transforming?) world. Among the reasons for this is a lack of skills to make these organizational priorities a reality. Even from recruiters, who are intimately involved with developing organizational skill sets, we hear things like “put customers first” (e.g., Heidrick & Struggles in discussing their META framework) as they talk about developing leadership for organizational agility. (I’m not singling out Heidrick & Struggles – they simply provided one example of several that I’ve seen lately.)

What About the Workforce?

The problem I have with the single-minded focus on the customer is that it leaves behind another enormous and important group of humans that contribute equally to an organization’s success: its workforce.

“Customer” can be taken to mean both external customers (what we have traditionally understood as customers) and internal customers (other stakeholders within the organization, e.g., the workforce). It’s entirely possible that some people are using the world “customer” to include both groups when they talk about putting the customer first. But really, what comes to your mind when you hear that word? Employee? Contractor? Probably neither. You’re probably thinking more along the lines of “user” or “whoever pays for our product.”

I don’t for a moment want to detract from customer-centric product design and service delivery. In a fully agile organization, even those functions that traditionally are on other aspects of the business (such as IT) have to become customer focused and oriented toward value creation. Those are frequently painful changes (as all organization-wide transformations are) but I welcome them, as they will make an organization stronger and more resilient and ultimately better.

What bothers me is that the customer obsession leaves out the critical piece of who is going to make all of that customer-centric work happen. You might argue that valuing the workforce is implied: Agile principles, for example, require self-organization of teams, where the customer (or product) typically provides the focal point for the team’s existence. Clearly, to have effective self-organization, the team and its team members must be important too.

Sustainable Organizational Agility

By not also explicitly including the workforce in the core focus of the organization, we are risking creating an organization that puts customers ahead of workers and ultimately undermines our ability to create value for the customer. This may be the result of non-inclusion, lack of empowerment, lack of basic respect for workers, or other issues that may fundamentally make a workplace hostile, simply not interesting or challenging enough to keep top performers stimulated, or inconsistent with workers’ values.

Asking your workers to wrap themselves around a customer-centric approach and expecting lasting results, without making the workers themselves every bit as important as the customers, is about as realistic as putting together a bunch of talented individuals and expecting a high performing team when you don’t have the right structural environment in which they can self-organize and operate. It simply doesn’t work, at least not in the long run. If you’re not valued as an employee (or contractor or…), for how long will you be contributing your best efforts in support of those customers?

The prioritization and interconnection needs to look more like the diagram on the right.

What does support for the workforce look like? It needs to go beyond obvious things like benefits and perks and needs to include a culture and infrastructure that empowers workers to do their jobs and supports their innate passion for doing so. Don’t forget this key element in developing your strategy for sustainable organizational agility.