Ever heard the term “pain points”? Of course you have. The definition I’ve seen thrown around (like here ) is “Business consultants use ‘pain points’ as a term to describe the places where a business feels the ‘pain’ due to poor operational structure, bad software or good, old-fashioned inefficiencies.”
If you’re in product marketing or IT and trying to secure budget or resources to address a problem, it’s a good idea to isolate the “pain points” and then describe how your recommended solution will ease the “pain”.
But many of the issues I write about aren’t exactly pain points. It’s more like they are numb points. Users don’t think day-to-day about the symptoms of the underlying problem because they’ve been there so long and are so difficult to put your finger on, that they have become numb to it and just treat any resulting inefficiency as business-as-usual. A long time ago I wrote this in a document about Enterprise Attention Management:
Most people treat attention management problems like e-mail overload and interruptions from IM and phone calls like they do the weather. Everyone complains about it but no one does anything about it.
That’s what I mean by a numb point. I recently had a situation where someone sent a spreadsheet to a few dozen people, told them they each have to update their rows and email it back to her, and then on a team call we walked through it to verify that everyone had done this. This remarkable inefficiency could be solved easily with a co-authored spreadsheet (which we actually have access to), but no one thought of it since we’re used to annoying tasks like that. It’s not pain anymore – we’re numb to it.
So how does addressing “numb points” require different strategies than addressing “pain points”?
An organization cannot work at peak performance with numb parts any more than a football team can perform when players have numbness in their feet and hands. But trying to get people to address a numb point is not easy, despite the criticality of the issue.
For a parallel, think about the human body. Both pain and numbness can indicate very serious problems. A host of dreaded conditions involving circulation or damaged nerves can lead to parts of the body going numb, signaling major trouble. While the human body is wired to respond instantly to pain and force you to attend to the problem, numbness is more sneaky. It can go unnoticed at first. And once it is noticed, the numbness can be scary and lead to dread, but doesn’t inspire the same quick reaction as pain.
To get someone to address a numb point you have to first make them aware of the numbness, the nature of the efficiency loss it is causing, and how it is a symptom that is likely to get worse. You have to tap that numb part, show how that isn’t normal, and shake them awake into dealing with it rather than accepting a slow decline in function.
I hope that over time, IT and business executives become more sensitive and aware that sometimes numbness, not just pain, demands immediate attention. In some cases once people feel or see what the lack of numbness looks like they recognize the extent of the problem. Being on a project where everyone collaborates in real time on a single version of a document after years of inefficient modify/mail/merge/mangle can open one’s eyes to how they’d become numb to that inefficiency.
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