I gave a talk for the PDX Design Research Group's audience last night. This was essentially a new talk and I'm grateful for the opportunity to give it, to continue practicing giving talks before a live audience, and to hopefully get some people thinking about how we can all be better at what we do.
Below is the talk as I gave it, with the slides as they appeared. The talk references Design Research as that was the group I was giving it to, but really, it's basically for anyone in the human-centered disciplines.
The more I got into writing this talk, the more I realized it’s well-steeped in two, primary, “civilized” human activities: Ethics and Politics.
And then I figured, what if I gave you a choice? We could proceed with the talk as-written, or we could watch a couple of Chidi-heavy episodes of The Good Place.
Then I thought, there’s probably some kind of licensing involved that I don’t want to get into, so let’s just do the talk…
Before we do anything, I want us all to be here. I mean that metaphorically and I mean it literally.
Metaphorically, in that we all need to “be here” in our work, in our lives, to be sure we’re doing the right work well.
If you are going to do the right work well, you’re going to need to be fully part of the process of doing it; fully here.
And I mean it literally, because I want you to be here, in this room, with me, with your fellow attendees. And I want to help that along with a brief meditation.
Meditation can happen anywhere, anytime, for any amount of time.
Meditating even for 30 seconds can help bring your mind to the task at hand. You don’t even have to call it meditation. You can call it “taking a moment for yourself.”
So let’s do it.
- Close your eyes or keep them open, either is fine.
- Relax your shoulders.
- Relax your face.
- Breathe in through your nose and focus on the feeling of the air going in.
- Breathe out and focus on the feeling of the air going out.
- Breathe in and feel your chest and belly expand.
- Breathe out and feel your chest and belly fall back to their resting positions.
- Be here.
I'm grateful you are all here tonight.
Setting the Stage
Just to put this out there and have you thinking with an appropriately adjusted perspective: your job isn't to do research. Your job is to affect outcomes.
You might say, “But, Matthew, we’re supposed to be neutral in our research. Affecting outcomes sounds like there’s some implicit bias inherent in the system. I’m being repressed!” Only you’d say it less pedantically, and less plagiarizingly of Monty Python.
My point is that, yes, we should be neutral observers in our research. Ideally, all of our work is generative and starts with as little hypothesis as possible. And those projects do exist.
But ultimately, someone is paying you to be generative in hopes they can use what you find to be decidedly not neutral.
Also, in setting the stage tonight, as a researcher, you have a duty of care toward the people you are researching.
The implicit bias I’m asking you to take with you into each research opportunity is that you care about affecting the outcomes for the people whom you are researching.
We also have a duty of care to the people who receive our research. And that’s where the core of this talk is going to go.
The skills, capabilities, methods, tools, etc. we use to carry out and inform our research on customers, consumers, users, what have you, can be used to better understand the people on the direct receiving end of our work.
Those people sometimes known as “Stakeholder.”
Also, I’m going to make some generalizations in this talk. I’m going to say somethings which may cause you to think, “Oh, I do that,” or “I definitely am not like that.” Brilliant!
This profession is filled with all kinds. If you’re skewing positive on the things I’m talking about tonight, it’s on you to bring others along with you.
If you’re skewing negative, it’s on you to find someone skewing positive to bring you along with them.
You aren’t bad if you don’t do something. You aren’t great if you do it. We all have to practice to become and stay good at this work.
My hope is that the majority of you think, “How can I do that better?”
Finally, the way most of us work is well sub-optimal.
Specifically, researchers should be way at the front, generating and vetting ideas long before an organization commits to a path.
While supposedly we have a seat at the table now, it’s a purposefully uncomfortable, 20 minute, fast-food-establishment seat.
Until we get to the point where we’re determining (working with others of course) what an organization commits to, we have to take a different path to leading an organization toward doing the right work well.
There’s been a lot of talk over the past couple of years about ethics.
Literally there have been talks about it. At conferences, meetups … I gave a talk a few times this year about ethics. And I’d like to steal directly from that talk for a moment because it’s relevant.
It is a natural reaction of every brain in this room, including mine, to resist and rationalize. About everything, all the time.
You have to be conscious about your efforts to listen to a new perspective, to see someone else’s struggles without comparison to your own, to find a path forward through a time of uncertainty.
A way to push through or go around that natural reaction in yourself and in others is to intentionally love what you do and for whom you do it.
Love people enough to not drive them slowly insane with products and services that serve no purpose or are poorly thought through.
Love yourself enough to know when it’s time to push against the inertia that arises so quickly when an organization or team lacks a leader. Or when there are too many leaders fighting for resources and power.
Love yourself enough to know when it’s time to walk away.
It’s totally fine if your job is just a job.
But if you are making things for other humans or for any aspect of a complex system, I’m going to have to ask that while your treat your job as just a job, you treat the people and systems you’re making for as if they are worthwhile.
As if they are worth your time.
We all need to be curious and instill a willingness, or even a desire, to be changed by the things we see in the world or the things we discover in our work.
We all need to be willing to risk loss in order to do the right work well.
My point in bringing this up is, you have a decision to make: how are you going to work with people? What are you going to work on? What ethics … what behavior ... do you bring to the table that makes things better for you, those you work with, and those who are impacted by the outcome of your work?
What do you bring to the table that’s best left at the door?
As with many of the things I will say tonight, it’s worth sitting down and thinking that through.
What do you believe in? What is worth fighting for? What’s the best way to fight for it?
What are you doing now that’s keeping you from achieving the outcomes you envision? What are you doing now that’s making it hard for the rest of us (other researchers) to be trusted?
With that last one, I’m pointing fingers at all of us. We don’t work in a vacuum. The choices we make, the behaviors we present to our teams can make it easier or more difficult for those who come after us.
And if we really are, at some level, advocates for those impacted by the choices of the organizations for which we work, we all need to be intentionally working to make it easier for the teams we work with and those who come after us.
Do you work with other humans? Welcome to the world of Politics!
Seriously though, if that slide went up and you thought, “Ugh, not politics, I hate politics,” then, well … I actually agree with you.
I spent the first 6 years of my career actively eschewing, yes, eschewing! politics.
“I don’t deal with that bullshit.” And, surprise, I didn’t get listened to much at all.
It wasn’t until I went on a site visit with one of the primary business partners (I guess in today’s term they’d be product owner?) and got to know them, and got to win them over to my way of thinking with gasp basically politicking.
A few weeks after that site visit, on day 4 of a week-long meeting about the color of a button, yes, really, Andy, for t’was his name, slammed his hand on the table and yelled, “Just do what Matthew tells you!”
Let me tell you: I was so proud of Andy in that moment.
And, soon after, I realized that I was proud of myself for figuring out that “yelling” at people myself was getting me nowhere.
True progress comes when you get other people, people with decision-making power, to do the yelling for you.
In 1997, I sat at a restaurant table with two long-time friends. After good food and a drink or two, I said to them, “You know what? … I think I am actually an Extrovert.”
They didn’t stop laughing for almost 10 minutes. One of them slid under the table she was laughing so hard. Eventually, one of them said, “Matthew … Introvert and extrovert labels are bullshit.”
And it’s true. Well, bullshit when they are statically applied. I used to think of myself as an Extrovert who was trained from a young age to be an Introvert. As if that’s a solid state of being.
If one is truly an introvert, being a Design Researcher must be a tough gig. But I enjoy going out and talking to people during research.
I do not enjoy going out and talking to people at a social function. If context can switch how I feel, then the labels don’t really matter.
What matters is we all need to figure out what gives us energy and what it takes to recover from things that sap our energy.
I say it that way very intentionally, because Politics is something that I suspect saps energy from most people.
But you need to practice it and work to do it well. And in order to do it well, you need to figure out how to recover from doing it if indeed it does sap your energy.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable AND take good care of yourself.
In doing some reading in prep for this talk, I found the following quote which I think is true and also makes me cringe a bit.
“People who build strong networks ask lots of questions of colleagues, show respect for co-workers’ roles and accomplishments, and look for openings to help with projects that excite them, according to a 2017 study of 20 employers and 160 managers co-written by Robert Cross, a professor of global leadership at Babson College in Massachusetts. “These people create enthusiasm in the networks around them,” making colleagues more likely to offer them new opportunities, says Dr. Cross, who heads a 70-employer consortium studying collaboration. “I call them energizers.”” source
I know this is true. I’ve seen it in action. I wish I had figured it out long ago because I might have made the middle part of my career a lot more pleasant.
And I might have made things easier for those who came after me.
You have to be a leader, or work your way toward being one. A lot of people end up being in charge of things through no fault of their own (c’est moi), but, again, intentionality being what it is, it’s far better to decide to lead. You end up with a bit more say and a bit more choice of what you’re in charge of.
Don’t take this to mean you must be the CEO to get anything done, though it definitely helps.
Leadership comes in many forms. You can lead people in the direction you’re going, point people in the right direction, spend most of your time leading, or be a leader-in-the-moment.
Someone once asked my about my leadership style. My initial thought was that I don’t really have a leadership style.
Because I was thinking in terms of “traditional” leadership. Perhaps “stereotypical” would be a better adjective. But, I took a moment and thought about it.
My leadership style is to lead from behind. I’m much more “point-the-way” than “everyone follow me!”
I like my style. I like making space for others to shine. I like giving the floor, whether to speak or to draw, to others because I know great ideas come from many places.
I like supporting the goals of people around me and helping them along the path to achieving them.
I suspect there are a lot of people who are in a similar place as me.
Perhaps a lot of you don’t want to be leaders in the stereotypical sense, but at the same time you’re very good at getting a team or coworker to work through a particularly sticky problem, or facilitating a difficult conversation to a positive outcome.
If that’s you, congrats, you’re a leader. I see you. Others see you. You likely won’t be tapped to become Vice President of All You Survey, but you are moving things forward and making people’s lives better, even if it’s only in that one meeting that one time.
Whatever form your leadership takes, the goal is to move the person, or team, or company forward. I like this quote:
“... effective change leadership has to emphasize continuity — how what is central to “who we are” as an organization will be preserved, despite the uncertainty and changes on the horizon.” source
People hate change. As a Design Researcher, as a leader, you will need to change things, and through the nudges you identify, it’s usually helpful to assuage fears by focusing on what needs to change, while underscoring what will stay the same.
Take 7 seconds and do one quiet, deep breath (not now, though you can if you want) where you focus on the feeling of the air going in and out of your body.
Cut out everything for those 7 seconds, then look around you. What do you notice? How many hats?
I mentioned that meditating even for a few seconds can help bring the mind to the task at hand. I mentioned you don’t need to close your eyes.
Ultimately, especially in the context of our work, this is a tool to use to help you better observe the world around you.
We can call this mindful awareness. If that name doesn’t resonate with you, how about paying attention. Or active listening.
Whatever you decide to call it, I encourage you to investigate it and practice it.
If you do this in your next meeting with your team, or client, I wonder what you will observe.
Who is crossing their arms? Who is on their phone? Who is paying full attention to what you are saying.
What does that inform you about how best to communicate to each of these people?
What can you do to reduce defensiveness? What can you do to increase attention?
If you like using Personas, what persona can you start building to help you better understand and influence those who match the profile?
"...the act of suspending judgment about the natural world to instead focus on analysis of experience.” Thanks, Wikipedia.
In other words, intentionally set aside the idea that any of your work is about you.
You know, as a researcher, that the research not about you. We all carry biases with us, always, but the idea when we do research of being biased is, and should be, disdainful.
There’s no way around bringing yourself with you, but the idea here is you do your best to minimize your own experiential impact on the matter at hand.
We interview people to understand their values, motivations, capabilities, decision-making processes, etc, etc. And while it may be tempting, and even personally interesting to compare what we learn with our own experience, we know that isn’t the point.
Back when Empathy was trendy, it was applied haphazardly and ineffectually by many organizations. “We do empathy!” As if it were a checkbox on a project punch-list.
The idea of Bias Bracketing is to very intentionally, bracket yourself off from the work you are doing (again, as much as we can) so the work itself can be what it needs to be.
This same idea can be applied internally to the organization.
Imagine if you looked at your coworkers and clients as if they were research participants.
You might have cause to wonder aloud, after a 2-hour pointless meeting, as to why Gary is such a douchebag. And it’s a good question. Why is Gary like that?
Perhaps in answering this question, or even the act of investigating it, you can come to understand why Gary acts like this and, possibly, how to circumnavigate or even preempt the behavior.
And this gets applied to everyone. All your stakeholders, direct and indirect.
Surprise! It’s more work.
But as much as your research helps you understand the mind of your customer, so does this research help you understand the mind of your Garys.
Doing your work where people can watch you makes you do better work. Except Open Offices. They are, of course, terrible.
Using walls to share accomplishments and progress, sharing mistakes and what you did to correct it, weekly show-and-tells instead of boring standups, ride-alongs where you bring the CEO with you (and coach them prior on how to behave) …
These are all things you can do to do your work out in the open. In the words of my good friend Carl, “A culture of openness creates trust.” It do.
Driving Outcomes — Bias Unbracketing
Assuming you’re not new to research this week, you have all the skills you need to drive the entire roadmap.
Perhaps not all of your skills are where they need to be, but the bulk of the work you do, why you do it, on whose behalf you do it, is essentially in full-alignment with what a Product Manager does.
At the very least is is a well-overlapped Venn.
I think people don’t believe me when I say this. But I’ve been a Researcher and a Product Manager. It’s essentially the same job, expect there’s more control and responsibility on the side of Product Management.
You may never want to be a Product Manager, but I’d ask you to think a bit about this in the coming days to understand the ways your work can better drive outcomes.
I’ve been thinking about going back in-house because I miss working with a group of people on a problem over a longer period of time.
For any opportunity I have to talk with a hiring manager I always ask, “What impact would my work have on defining the roadmap?”
You may be surprised to learn, that pretty much all the hiring managers I spoke with said, “Uhhhhhhhhh....” and then added some answer that could have been shortened to “No impact.”
That ain’t right, y’all.
The most recent, extreme version of having no impact on the roadmap I’ve seen is there was a local startup that has a CEO whose catchphrase, of sorts, was, “I’ve thought this through.” In spite of evidence to the contrary, the company did what the CEO wanted. Because he was the CEO.
Someone I know who used to work there was very aggravated by this. Naturally.
They did their best to gather data through research and present it to the team, only to have it shot down by the CEO who had a different approach to the problem at hand. You see, he’d thought it through.
This startup has since been acquired by another local company. And they’ve inherited all the terrible, not at all well through through decisions made by the CEO.
Even though I wasn’t directly involved, I did my best to encourage my friend to find a way to connect with the CEO.
They ended up leaving the company. And probably should have left long before they did.
I think about this story a lot and wonder what could have been done differently.
Because now, I have a friend who works for the acquiring company and I hear about the integration shitshow going on.
I say this truly without blame, but there is a lost opportunity there. A lost opportunity to change the outcome for the startup’s few customers as well as the outcome for the acquiring company.
We are all advocates for people who don't have a voice in the company. And we can also be advocates for our current and future coworkers.
Sometimes, especially for our internal audience, we have to be more than advocates.
It’s ridiculous the amount of people you run into over a career who need to be wooed into doing their damn job.
But it’s a reality. You can fight against it (I have) or you can say, “Would you like some tea?”
In that way, we can work to be good advocates and deal kindly with those internally whom we must work with in order to do the right work well.
Nudge It. Nudge It Real Good.
Who here raised their child in a box? A little shout out to all the BF Skinner fans in the house. I say that because I want to talk a bit about Operant Conditioning.
“Operant conditioning is a learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment.” Thanks, Wikipedia.
Now, I don’t want to delve too far into classical psychology or whether Skinner was an idiot in a lot of ways (I’m still on Team Free Will), but I do want to talk about how you can condition the people you work with, ideally through reinforcement, not punishment, to be more open to or even demanding of your work.
After I titled this talk, because all good talks start with a good title, I found out there was a book called, Nudge.
So, why not raid that book for establishing a definition and highlight why focusing on reward over punishment is key.
The quote goes:
“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture [defined elsewhere] that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.” (source: Nudge - by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein)
Okay. Definition done. Let’s talk about the structure of a nudge. Basically, how do we break down what should be nudged, and then how do we structure it for best results?
Highlight what others do to encourage your audience to do the same. This means pointing out to whomever you’re trying to influence how others do well at issue X and how “we could be there too with a little effort.”
“This team is working really well together. What could we learn from them?”
“We did an analysis of Competitor X and they are doing what we’ve proposed. And it’s working well for them. What can we move forward on to get where we need to be?”
This isn’t an opportunity to shame, by any means. But it is, perhaps, a way to generate that little bit of envy, or even safety (“see someone else is doing it already”) for your audience such that they want to go toward what you are suggesting.
And I say “suggesting” there, because this is a soft-touch move.
The advance-maneuvering part is you are trying to get them to make the suggestion.
It’s on you to point things out and ask the question that’s going to get them to start questioning the status quo; to get them to start suggesting what you’ve known to be the correct path the whole time.
This is a part of the talk where I ask you to toss your research skills out the window for a moment. Go against your training and praise people immediately when they do/say/think the “right” way.
What you’re trying to do is redirect behaviors in hopes of your audience developing new desires and habits.
“Oh, I’m really glad you noticed that. That’s a good insight.”
“Thanks for coming with me to meet the users. I’m glad you were there to listen and ask your question at the end.”
The caveat here is you have to be authentic. If you don’t have a lot to work with in a given situation saying “Thanks, I appreciate that,” can be enough.
While the goal is to nudge people into behaving better, I want to point out one thing that gets in the way of your immediate reward doing any good: stress.
If someone is stressed, likely they are using behaviors they are comfortable with and are not in a position to be open to developing new ways of interacting of acceptance.
We need to have ways to show the improvement, highlight the good your audience does.
This is decidedly done in public. The idea here is to show off how well your people are doing to a wider audience.
That’s where walls come in. Commandeer a wall and use it to highlight all the good work being done.
Customer support calls going down. Number of widgets sold up. Number of customers interviewed and their impact on insights that drove other things to success. Helper of the month for people who go on research trips with you.
Plus, it’s Ambient Accountability for all. Win win.
I gave some pretty generic examples here because the answer for you is going to be highly contextual and different from person to person, team to team, company to company.
But the point is pretty straightforward and should be applicable everywhere:
- Show what others do and highlight the good of it.
- Praise people, authentically, when they do good.
- Do things to remind people of their good progress and share that progress with others.
Briefly, because it could be a talk and a workshop unto itself, I want to mention how important this is to a high-functioning, or even just functioning person.
Please take some time and read up on on this if you haven’t already. Look for ways you can provide psychological safety to the people you work with. Kind of like we try to do with our research participants.
Channel Your Inner Sophie
I would call the following items tricks, but a lot of what I’m about to walk through are things you do on your projects, especially working with users and customers. Or, should be doing.
Here, in the context of this talk, I want you to think about doing them to your internal audience. Not doing them to be mean, but doing them to nudge people in the right direction.
Side note which is important enough that I will repeat it in a bit:
The following items tend work best 1-on-1. Make sure to document their explanation / what you think your shared understanding is, email it to them for clarification and agreement.
This documentation becomes useful during retrospectives when everything blew up just like you said it would.
We know that, usually, when a participant has trailed off, it’s best to wait for a bit before saying anything. Active listening, for the win! Same with an internal audience. Allowing for a bit of silence does two things.
It allows them to collect their thoughts if they need it and not be interrupted (like your participants!).
It can make them feel a bit uncomfortable and they will keep talking to fill the silence. This can be an easy win for getting them to talk through the fallacy of their idea which you are trying to shut down.
Play mildly dumb. “What was the middle part?” We do this during research to underscore that our participant is the expert. For our internal audience, getting the person to explain it to you, often they realize how dumb their idea is.
This also works for getting people on your side. Get them to explain something to you, even if you already know it.
Yes, we are mildly manipulating people. But the reality is, people like to feel valued. And making them feel valued is a good thing … that you can use later to your advantage.
If you’ve figured out that your internal audience is overwhelmed, for whatever reason, and it’s making it difficult to get them to move forward on anything, pick one small thing for them to focus on and say, “Let’s start with this.”
The language choice here is very specific. “Let’s” means they are not on their own. “Start” means you only have to focus on beginning, not doing the whole thing. “With this” means there’s just one thing to grapple with. The rest can wait.
Tilt and Nod
Non-verbal cueing is something we have to watch out for if we’re doing research with a participant.
Here, however, oh, we can make use of it. Nodding your head when you are talking or very slightly shaking your head when your audience is speaking can influence the outcome of a conversation.
Again, related to what we look at in research, we must keep an eye on their body language.
Who crosses their arms in meetings? Who leans forward? This is data you can use in developing internal personas and how you might best communicate with these individuals.
Criticize the Behavior, Not the Person
Part of our brain is always a toddler who wants comfort. How we speak to people can influence how they think about themselves.
Never talk in terms of “you made a mistake” or “you are terrible at this.” Say, “this was a mistake” and “this behavior is not appropriate, but we can fix things.”
Beginning & End: Meetings and Willpower
Try to have your meetings with people at the beginning of the day or the end of the day.
The cycle of people’s brains means they tend to be more susceptible to change in the morning and in the evening, with it being more challenging in the middle of the day.
Willpower: If you need someone to do something and they are resisting, try pitching them toward the end of the day when their willpower will likely be lower.
Willpower is a limited supply thing which we refill (ideally) when we sleep. We use it throughout the day and typically do not get a chance to replenish it.
The culmination of all this is: you have to clearly, authentically communicate a positive vision of what the future state can look like and you have to do it in such a way that you emphasize what foundational things will remain the same.
As a reminder, this all tends work best 1-on-1. Make sure to document their explanation / what you think your shared understanding is, email it to them for clarification and agreement.
I'm not saying, "be a grifter," but I am also not not saying that...
What are some of the tools, methods, skills we use in our project work that can be brought to bear for understanding and designing for the internal audience/stakeholders?
Much as with all tools, methods, and skills, we tend to use the ones that are easiest for us.
The list I’ve assembled isn’t exhaustive and is not meant to be. It’s also not a list of “use this and all will be right with the world.”
It’s a list of things I’ve found useful. I trust you, as design research professionals, will have other things to put on the list and if so, I’d love to hear about it.
Some of the items I’ll go over are things you can use on your Wall of Ambient Accountability. Some of them you may want to keep to yourself and a trusted group. Some of them you really should never share with others.
It will depend (doesn’t it always) on the structure and politics within your organization.
Looking back, there’s definitely a couple of places I’d never share any of this stuff with anyone. But there’s a couple where I’d likely share it all and ask for help making it.
Tools — Shareable
I don’t like to think in terms of, “Oh, developers want this information, and product managers want this other info.” I mean, it’s true to some extent, but I’ve worked with enough developers, for example, to know there are many different kinds.
Some of them just want a punch list of things to change. Others want in on the big-picture stuff.
You can’t define people by their title. You need to understand them by their motivations and capabilities.
Maybe your dev group is 3 different personas? Knowing that, and knowing how each persona likes to receive (and contribute to) information, how does that change your approach?
Journey/Experience Maps, Mental Models, and Service Blueprints
I lumped these together because the Venn diagram of each is essentially a circle. Yes, there are some differences, but overall it’s a map of a system and how a person moves through it.
So, what is the journey of the people you work with through the system? How did they get where they are at? Where are they going? What is it like for them to get through the day?
You can map it out. It may not immediately elucidate ways to make a better impact with the people you work with, but it may help you understand where their pain points are in their jobs and then maybe you can do something about it.
Comics can be a great way to represent and communicate a dense topic. They can also be a great way to highlight someone’s journey.
If you can draw, why not a post-launch comic sent to the entire org on how your team did super well and everyone gets capes unless you’re on Team No-Cape.
Definitely something to put up on a wall.
Which teams are being most impacted by your work? Which products or services are getting in better shape thanks to you?
Many teams (think Sales and Dev) have dashboards that display on TVs around the office to show how good things are going.
How can you adapt what you are doing for your teams to something like this?
Number of people interviewed? Number of insights that came from team members?
Find metrics that matter (and maybe round it out with a few that don’t) and put together a Leaderboard. Create a bit of competition around people doing the right work well.
Tools — YMMV on Sharing
If you run your own company, you likely have some form of Customer Relationship Management tool. Could be a spreadsheet or a SaaS app.
Whatever it is, you use it to track when you talked to someone, what your relationship is with them, what you talked about, their mood, when you should follow up, how likely they are to want to work with you.
You need to do this to some level with your own company, but why not with your internal audience?
Let me tell you, as someone who has their own business, CRMing is boooooring. It feels like extra work.
That is, until I remember that 4 months ago someone said to ping them in a couple of months to see if the project is back on track. It’s so much easier when the app reminds me to do it.
Same for your internal audience. While my CRM is primarily points of contact for projects past and future, I also keep track of people in my client’s organizations I’ve interacted with more than once.
I know that someone at a recent client will never respond to my email, but will respond to a text within minutes.
That is useful information to have in my CRM so I know how to make something move forward when this person is the key to doing it.
It’s worth considering the extra effort to create something like this if you are working internal to an organization.
What information could you collect and how might that help you nudge the people around you?
The Real Org Chart
Assuming your company has an org chart, does it represent how things get done?
You can use some of your mad mapping skills to put together an org chart that represents reality.
Does nothing move forward unless your lead dev agrees to it, yet on the official org chart they are still an individual contributor? Time for the real org chart to come into being.
I’ve used this before to understand team dynamics and figure out who’s really in charge of things. It is often not the manager or the director.
It’s almost always someone who’s been there a long time and, whether they are liked or not, have a lot of sway on what gets done and how.
Stand-alone Discovery Projects
I have an entire talk and workshop on this. It is the best way I know to reduce risk and increase confidence in ideas usually put forth by execs.
Some of you have heard me say, but I am actually proud of it so I will say it again, that I have successfully shut down 4 businesses and had the owners thank me for it. Because of doing a stand-alone discovery project.
Push for these. They don’t have to be long. You can call it a Design Sprint if that helps. The point is to underscore how there’s a lack of confidence about X and you want to reduce the risk of things going wrong.
Spend a week investigating and deliver a go/no-go report.
It’s often easier to sell this when you say it’s work you have to do anyway. Because it is.
Retrospectives and Reflections
There’s a lot of great resources out there on how to run a useful Retrospective. Find one that works for your context.
The crux of doing this though, and where most teams lag or fall down completely, is the follow-through after identification of areas of improvement.
There’s other sticking points of course, but the purpose is to find things to Start, Stop, and Continue (Ooo! That’s a good exercise!) and follow through on it.
You don’t even have to wait until the end of a project to do it. Which leads to…
Diary Study (of sorts)
Much in the same way we ask our customers and users to keep track of a behavior, task, or project over time so we may learn from it in order to improve it, you can use this, less formally, on your internal audience as well.
There are many ways you could implement this, so I’ll just talk about how I’ve used it.
Several jobs ago, I found a single person who was a Blocker. Like, professional-grade, been-blocking-since-the-70s kind of blocker.
So I asked the people on my team who I trusted the most to send me an email each time this person blocked them.
I gave them a form they saved to drafts and used that to document it. I wanted to know when, what, why, and what the perceived impact from blocking was.
I didn’t use this as fodder for getting them fired. They were, usually, never mean about their blocking.
What I was doing was trying to find a pattern to the blocking so I could use that knowledge to get them to stop.
The pattern that emerged was the blocking was basically done any time they would have been required to do work.
Now, folks, I gotta tell you I didn’t really know what to do with that at first. As I said before, it befuddles me to this day that you often have to talk people into doing their jobs.
But we came up with a tactic that then worked … well, better. We reduced blocking by making this person an “approver” rather than a “doer.”
Didn’t solve the problem, but it made their blocking much less impactful.
Nudges — Wrap It Up
Like the title of this talk says: data, patience, and kindness. Specifically those three things.
You have to know what you’re talking about and to do that, you’ve got to have the data.
We’ve all been in those situations where no amount of data is going to change the mind of the CEO who has “really through this through last night during dinner.”
That’s where the patience and kindness come in.
We treat our customers and users with patience and kindness, why not our internal audience?
Until we put some effort into discovering why, we won’t know the reason so-and-so is a blocker. And we’ll get nowhere except by luck until we do discover why.
Everyone you work with is a person.
While there certainly are classically-trained assholes out there, most people you have a hard time dealing with or understanding are that way due to some form of stress you have no insight into.
Get the insight.
See what you have control over or ability to influence in order to reduce the impact of their stress and make them more open to working with you.
Do it often enough, and, like good ol’ Andy, maybe they, too, will someday slam their hand on the table and tell everyone to just listen to you. One can dream.
Turns out, there’s books and such on this topic. I highly recommend the Habit and Nudge books.
I also recommend Leverage to improve your grifting skills, Psych to improve your observational skills, and The Good Place for learning about politics and ethics.
Also, they are all good shows.