In a post on the MITSloanReview Management Letter, the reviewer discussed Clayton Christensen's (Harvard B School) recent presentation at an innovation conference. Christensen took issue with the conventional wisdom that understanding your customer is key to innovation. Instead, he suggested that the point of focussed analysis should be on the job that customers are trying to get done when they use your product or service.
Shift the context from innovation to client relationships. The parallel is important. In our client relationship training we've moved the focus from understanding clients better than they understand themselves to identifying and understanding what the client's anxious about. Client anxieties are usually very personal, far more so than organizational. They're anxious about loss of control, failure to manage budgets, lack of information, concern for project success, loss of power or people going around them.
Now shift the context to managing your boss and managing up. Your boss in many ways is your client and when you treat him/her that way, you'll find a great number of opportunities coming your way. Although there aren't many situations in which you can directly ask what your boss is really "anxious" about--the language is too offputting--you want to listen to identify those issues in your boss. You'll find that as in any client relationship, being able to assist your boss in the resolution of those anxieties will leave you with a very happy customer.
FYI: Treat your boss as your client. Once a customer has to spend time managing a salesperson, the relationship is about dead and gone. The same is true with your boss. Once he/she has to spend a lot of time managing you, your usefulness may well be coming to an end. Subordinates watch their bosses all the time. We've long known this about animals. Studies of baboon troops reveal that troop members typically glance at the alpha male every 20 to 30 seconds to see what he is doing. Often, the focus of subordinate analysis is just plain wrong. If you concern your analysis with your boss's anxieties instead of your own, you'll normally be granted exceptional opportunities.
Sure, you've got a job to do, specific projects and tasks, teamwork, deadlines and all the rest. But keeping your boss's anxieties clearly in front you inevitably provides you with opportunities to make highly respected contributions. How marketing/sales people focus their analysis on their clients is nearly identical to how your focus your analysis on your boss.
Keep this in balance. Stay timely with high productivity on your projects, but manage your boss for his future and your own. Bosses more and more are expecting this from their employees. It's a level of work sophistication that's only now beginning to enter the workforce.