How do you feel when something doesn't go as planned? Disappointed? Frustrated? Annoyed?
What about energized, excited, or enthusiastic?
Over the past few weeks, I've been working with a client to get ready for an important strategy session. They know there are big shifts looming on the horizon, and they want to be ready. They've done the right thing by taking a proactive approach, and they've been looking at data, exploring potential outcomes, and discussing "how might we" scenarios. Yet suddenly, in the midst of a session with outside partners, key team members, and even an advisor from head office, they weren't making headway. Someone said, "Let's change the focus entirely!"
Now there are times when this might just be a tactic to avoid hard conversations, but in this case, it was because they realized they were looking at the problem through the wrong lens. Their problem definition was out of whack, and they got clarity on this because they had everyone in the room, and because they weren't so married to the facilitation method they had chosen, that they kept trying to force-fit solutions to the wrong problem. Once they stepped back and framed the challenge in a new way, they were able to very quickly devine the realm of possible scenarios, determine how they could respond to these in their own favour, and what proactive steps they could take right now, to get ready for the most likely eventualities.
The change in energy in the room at the end of the day was palpable. And as a facilitator, it was a pretty spectacular ending for me, as well.
There’s so much great survey software out there, I’ll just do the project myself!
Does this sound familiar? It can be tempting to undertake all your customer research on your own. After all, who knows your product or service better than you? Why would you ask an outsider to get involved?
Experts bring objectivity
It can actually be quite helpful to bring someone in who isn’t as familiar with your product, your service, or even your customer, as you are. Much like the Buddhist concept of the “beginner’s mind”, a professional researcher adds value precisely because they don’t have the level of immersion that you do. It allows them a certain level of openness, freedom to explore, and license to ask “stupid questions” for which your best customers or prospects might not grant you the benefit of the doubt. How else can they help?
They have a big toolkit, and they know what to use, when
What if a survey isn’t even the tool you need? Just as you are able to work with your customers to provide them with the best solution to their problem, strategic researchers can help you to determine, based on your objectives, the very best research method to use, to get the answers you need. Making a forecast? You definitely need a quantitative approach for at least some of the work. Interested in seeing whether your customers are able to explain your concept to others? A focus group or research community may be a more appropriate tool.
They’re experts in finding the right respondents – even amongst your current customers
Beyond this, experienced research experts work to make sure you are screening for the very best respondents – those who are really able to articulate their opinions and ideas. Moreover, a great research partner will help you figure out whether there is value in exploring sub-segments or groups of individuals who exhibit specific qualities (lots of experience with your product, versus none, for example, or language or cultural groups that resemble your new target market).
When the data comes in, they know what to look for
Let’s say you go ahead and you do host and field a survey on your own. What happens if you forgot an important question? Or if you put a lot of open-ended questions in there, and now you don’t know what to do with all those verbatims? It can be really helpful to have that second set of eyes to look at the questions, pilot, and test them. They can bring their experience to the table in structuring the questions to yield answers that will be useful and actionable. Then, when the answers are in, they are great at separating the “nice to know” answers from those that really go to the heart of your objectives.
They’ll help you build a story that will keep your team engaged
Beyond just asking the questions, research practitioners are also storytellers. They don’t just produce pie charts or pretty pictures – they create a narrative that moves your colleagues from why you asked the questions in the first place, to what it means for your organization, and what you can do with the findings. This will encourage them to ask questions of their own, to be on the lookout for additional clues, and will help keep them from getting distracted by red herrings.
There’s plenty of value in engaging your customers and asking them questions – and in hearing the answers for yourself. It can also be worth the investment to work with a partner if you want to maximize your research ROI. It’s a little like that old adage: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
One of the best gifts you can bring to your work, whether you're just starting out, or you've been working in the same field for a very long time, is curiosity. Giving yourself permission to be curious can help you solve problems more creatively, demonstrate engagement to colleagues and customers, and keep your work interesting when others feel like their occupation is nothing but a grind.
So how can you stay curious? Here are just a few ideas to keep your curiosity active all the time:
As the holiday season approaches, companies (and especially your sales team) start thinking of ways to thank, or give back, to your best customers. You can send them cards. If their corporate responsibility code allows it (and yours does), you can send them tokens of your appreciation. Some companies send sales incentives, wrapped as "gifts" and tied with a bow. (We're looking at you, Black Friday).
Here's are a couple of gifts you can give to customers and prospects, all year long: active listening and empathetic engagement. How can you do that?
Visit them at their workplace, and ask them what problems they're trying to solve, and how they're trying to solve them now. Not what problems they're trying to solve with the tool you have on offer, but simply an opportunity for you to walk a mile in their shoes. Save the solutions for later.
Ask them questions in a way that's easy for them - let them answer in a way that's comfortable, conversational, and that allows them to say, "that isn't even the right question!"
Make it easy for them to contact you - however they want. Let them call, write, email, engage through social media, or even send a carrier pigeon (ok, maybe not that). When they do, respond, even if you don't like what you're hearing, or if your answer must be, "we're sorry, but that's not a problem we're able to solve". (Bonus points if you can point them to someone who can).
If your team needs help asking hard questions, needs training on how to choose the best research approach to solve their problem, or wants a facilitator to help bring it all together, we do those things. But for today, we'll just wait patiently and ask, what's up with you, and what problems are you trying to solve these days?
We've been reading a great book from our friend Dr. Rick Nason of Dalhousie University, called It's Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity for Business Success. It's definitely on our "read and recommended list for all our clients. When Megann met with Rick recently, they were discussing analogies for complex versus complicated things, such as: "Complex is like mayonnaise - once you make it, it can't be separated back into eggs, oil, and lemon juice". She shared her favourite description of companies who expect to be able to use complicated thinking for complex problems, like the way customers make decisions:
"It's as though they think customers can be handled like the cakes in an Easy Bake (TM) oven. If they just apply all the same tactics the same way, all the consumer behaviours will pop out the same way at the other end of the machine."
Hopefully you haven't been managing your customers like inputs in an Easy Bake oven, but if you have, and you'd like to work on building your team's complexity thinking, we can help. Why don't you give us a call, and we can get started with an introductory conversation about how to use the right thinking tools at the right time.
We see startups and "stay ups" all the time, reaching a point where their costs are escalating as they work to get their product or service to market. Sometimes the issue is insufficient validation at the early stages. Other times, it can be that new information comes to light that wasn't previously available - and it is a complete game-changer. The trouble arises when there has already been significant investment in taking the current route. Those sunk costs make it incredibly expensive reverse the engines or take a new tack.
At times like that, it's helpful to think of the current way forward as a metaphorical sinking ship. No matter how much you've invested, you're better to get out with your life (and that of your product or service), than to hang on because of your sunk costs.
If you've sunk a lot of time and effort into your business, and evidence is making the way forward less evident, rather than clearer, we're here to help.
Crowdsourcing is a fantastic way to get ideas, feedback, information, and synergistic thinking. As long as you're hanging with the right crowd.
Thinking carefully about who needs to be in the room for your sprint, who should be invited to respond to your survey, or whose opinion will really make a difference when you are interviewing experts for a report, has never been more important.
If you need help deciding who to ask, poll, invite, or share your concept with, just ask. We do that.
Last week was jam-packed with events! We had a great time at one of them, watching startups, students, facilitators and generally-interested folks collaborate to come up with new ideas to help a young business grow and flourish. Everything was going swimmingly, until we heard this:
"The first iteration of our product has had a great response and excellent feedback. With release 2 we hope to find out who our target market is."
SCREEEEEEEEECH! What's wrong with this picture? We love to work with growing companies, helping them develop and build their business model and validate their canvas. Getting them to ship their MVP (minimum viable product) instead of adding every possible feature all at once is exciting! Can you imagine our disappointment when we hear words that mean, "We came up with a solution to a problem, or helped a customer do a job that needs doing...but we don't know who that customer is"?
If you've got a product or a prototype, and you haven't yet validated that there are customers, and who those customers are, you're investing an awful lot of effort in something that may never fly. Wouldn't you rather have a product that really does "sell itself", because it:
Worse yet, what if we can?
It's a funny thing, idea generation. Once the first idea comes, it can sometimes feel like a floodgate has been opened - and it leads to another, and another. Before you know it, you've generated more ideas than you know what to do with. How will you ever rein them all in?
Next time, you might want to start by putting some constraints on your ideation process. Take time to frame the session with any limits that are non-negotiable:
1. We only have a thousand dollars to spend
2. There is a one-week timeline to complete the prototype
3. We have to be sure that students can complete the projects without parents' help
Each constraint allows for a bit of sorting along the way and, surprisingly, often result in even more imaginative solutions.
That's not the problem at hand, though, so how can you prioritize? This is where frameworks come in handy. Using something like Conteneo's Product Tree will let you use metaphors to narrow down that overwhelming pile of ideas. As an example, the trunk of the tree can represent the job to be done. Branches can stand for approaches, and leaves for ways of implementing that approach. Where the tree really becomes useful, is when you start looking at the roots - they're the resources, effort, or infrastructure required to actually bring the ideas to fruition. We've found that getting people back down to ground level, looking at the roots, is one of the most effective ways we can think of to eliminate ideas that are not possible (or not possible for now).
Every great idea has limits - so the next time you're planning for creativity, you may want to make life a little easier, by using a framework to establish some constraints.
If you're one of our loyal followers from The View From Here, welcome! We've recently done some freshening up and housecleaning of our site. If you're new to PANOPTIKA's blog, welcome to you, also! We hope you'll share your thoughts and visit us here for ideas on how to explore, collaborate, and grow.
Megann and Steve, Partners in PANOPTIKA, are working for our clients every day to help they need to know to make better decisions in their complex business environment.
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