Jane Fulton Suri's book may be titled Thoughtless Acts, but her approach couldn't be any more considered. As chief creative director of international design firm IDEO, Suri takes the power of observation and elevates it into a business philosophy. “Observation is the idea of not just listening to what people tell you about their experience, but looking at how they behave in relation to things,” she says in the June 2007 issue of HOW magazine (www.howdesign.com). “It's about looking at the action and noticing what people actually do, as opposed to asking them to reflect on it, which will be some sort of approximation.”

Suri's words describe an approach worth considering in today's rebounding apartment market. Rents are climbing, but so is resident turnover, as renters seek better deals—and better living experiences—when their leases come up for renewal. If you want strong rent growth and solid retention figures, it's time to evaluate how well your company meets resident expectations, both obvious and unspoken.

Katherine Lambert
If you're not sure how to determine that, look to IDEO for inspiration. The innovative San Francisco-based firm, which has handled branding, technology design, and more, understands the importance of the experience in consumer decisions. So IDEO's creative process doesn't begin and end in a corporate conference room; its staffers spend hours watching, listening, interviewing, and questioning people in search of unspoken factors, hidden influences, and undiscovered opportunities. The result? Fresh strategies for clients that connect with customers' deeper needs.

In the multifamily arena, Forest City Residential partnered with IDEO on a compelling and memorable marketing approach for its boutique urban properties. The approach transformed those buildings from fashionable addresses into something more dynamic and organic: great places where the energy of city living informs every aspect of the living experience, from the leasing center to the apartments themselves (see “One-Stop Shop,” MULTIFAMILY EXECUTIVE, February 2007).

Think about your own company. When was the last time you challenged your own assumptions about how things should work best at your firm—either strategically or operationally—by taking the time to simply observe people in action, from leasing associates to C-level colleagues?

If it's been awhile, you're not alone. “It's just blocking and tackling,” executives like to say about property management—or any other business area about which they feel comfortable. After all, the more years you work, the easier it gets to fall back on your own experience.

That would be a mistake. In our hyper-speed world, assuming you already know all there is to know about your business surrounds you with a false sense of security and results in an unlimited number of missed opportunities. No apartment company can afford that.

Instead, choose to “[see] the ordinary afresh,” as Suri would say, and open your mind to the power of observation to change your business for the better.

After three years, I am leaving MFE for a freelance venture of my own. Thanks to all the readers who welcomed me into the multifamily industry, sharing their business concerns and corporate triumphs in conversations and magazine articles alike.

Alison Rice, Editor