A conversation about establishing trust and meaningful connections inside a client organization with Josh Clayton and Kathi Hendrick, Directors at Peer Insight
Interview by Thomas Brandenburg and Twisha Shah-Brandenburg
“It is an act of vulnerability and courage to let go of the beliefs that have been anchoring your way of thinking and being open to whatever data comes back from research. “I don’t know but let’s run an experiment to find out” are powerful words, but it is a journey to get to this mindset.” —Josh Clayton & Kathi Hendrick
What are ways in which you establish trust with your client organizations so that you can create meaningful outcomes that go beyond your engagement?
At Peer Insight, we have established a firm guiding principle to “Be Radically Open.” This means that we share our IP, process, and insights freely, because we want to build our client’s capacity to run their own innovation projects and make this way of working a sustainable practice at their organization.
We feel strongly about treating our clients as true partners throughout our engagements. Meaning, they come along for the ride from day one, starting with co-creating the project Design Brief, to joining field research, as well as wrestling with research data and insights in order to make strategic decisions about how to move forward. We find that in doing so, they gain the important, nuanced context from directly interacting with the market throughout our research, as well as the rationale behind each decision that’s made, which allows their teams to continue to make decisions with users and strategic priorities in mind well beyond the end of a formal engagement.
What are the barriers or biases that stakeholders have that you have seen show up across different organizations?
Everyone starts out with certain beliefs they think are true, either because they are, have been in the past but may not be now, or sometimes just aren’t. Distinguishing between the three can be tricky, particularly for someone who has a lot of historical context with an existing way of looking at a challenge. It is an act of vulnerability and courage to let go of the beliefs that have been anchoring your way of thinking and being open to whatever data comes back from research. “I don’t know but let’s run an experiment to find out” are powerful words, but it is a journey to get to this mindset. That’s one of the ways we help our clients: to offer new frames that may break their existing ones and then go get the answers from the market to confirm or disconfirm their existing and evolving beliefs so they can create breakthrough experiences for their customers.
We’ve found that after clients experience this way of working, the pressure to have the “right answer” at the beginning of the journey fades away, which is such a relief and an empowering moment. They quickly go from trying to have the right answer to trying to ask the right question, which is where we love to play.
Can you share with us your perspective on the dynamics of trust and decision making, (power) in the design process when working with stakeholders?
We talked about establishing trust between our team and the client core team in question 1. We also help our clients establish trust more broadly at their organization in a couple of ways:
We build upon their existing research. We don’t want to spend time and resources exploring a question they’ve already satisfactorily answered, so we make sure we are steeped in all the existing research and we use that as a springboard to generate new questions based on where they have confidence and where they don’t. This helps to create value for everyone who touches the challenge rather than just those involved in the project, and engenders trust that the full context is understood before the exploratory work begins.
We hold up and maintain a trail of evidence. As we said before, we invite our clients into the field with us, but when they can’t come, we share the raw, sense-made data so they can track all the insights back to the direct quotes from their customers. We also think about compelling ways to socialize the salient themes with the broader organizational audience. We use audio files, video, and photos to help bring the insights to life before the workshop, during the gallery walk, and after. This helps the larger organizational audience trust the findings and build the necessary empathy along the way.
We bring others beyond the core team into the process at strategic moments. We also invite the relevant stakeholders to the larger decision-making workshops, and, along with our client, we thoroughly consider the power dynamics that may be present in the room and put strategies in place to address them. We may ask senior-level participants to speak last as to not influence the group. We make sure we have lots of silent reflection and writing time to capture a diverse set of reactions. We also use dot voting (sometimes tracking participants with the color of the dot) to assess energy for the entire room while still being able to track reactions from key decision makers. Our goal is to make the process inclusive, meaning including all the necessary stakeholders while also making sure all voices are heard.
In order to be effective what are signals that you pay attention to before accepting a new client/project?
There are lots of factors that play into whether a project is successful, but two of the most important ones we see are project framing and people.
Project Framing: We often say, “Getting the framing right is 50% of the battle.” At the start of a project, we spend a lot of time thinking about whether we’ve identified the right challenge statement. For example, “How might we reduce wait time at the doctor’s office?” is a very different challenge than, “How might we create a more pleasurable waiting room experience?” We take the time upfront to talk with clients to truly understand the opportunity space they’re looking at and whether we could benefit from adjusting the size or shape of the project frame.
People: Innovation work comes down to confronting risk and uncertainty; uncovering unknown, unknowns. For that reason, the people on the team need to be ready to sit in that uncertainty and think about how to place strategic bets that pull out as much risk as possible from opportunities or new concepts. Every organization needs optimizers, but we caution project teams from bringing those folks in before a concept is ready for it. For that reason, we spend a lot of time with our clients helping them think about the right people to bring in throughout the process.
“We’ve seen the best success when teams bring in people from both sides and work together to think about challenges from start to finish (rather than bringing in the business person at the last minute to bless something).” —Josh Clayton & Kathi Hendrick
As you think about the future of service design as a profession, what are norms that need to be established so that we can gain trust and momentum within the business community?
There’s risk in thinking about service design and business (or business design) as two separate things. A beautifully designed service that delivers a delightful experience to users but can’t sustain itself at scale just won’t work (we often say, if it doesn’t work on a small scale, it doesn’t work). Conversely, a business plan might work well on paper, but without a deep understanding of the users it’s serving, it’s likely to fall flat. So, we advocate for exploring both pieces in parallel, which means both communities need to continue to find common languages and approaches that allow them to serve their individual and each others’ interests. We also co-create and experiment with the business model using the same approaches we use to design the service. Each affects the other, so exploring multiple options in tandem allows you to make strategic choices, ensuring your new offering is desirable, but also feasible and viable.
We’ve seen the best success when teams bring in people from both sides and work together to think about challenges from start to finish (rather than bringing in the business person at the last minute to bless something).
It’s also worth noting that through our work, we’ve noticed that many companies are good at coming up with new or disruptive ideas, but they have a harder time exploring and accepting disruptive business models. We believe service designers have an opportunity to help facilitate exploration behind just the service or experiential side of an offering in a way that feels non-threatening to the core business.
What advice do you have for a young professional entering the field?
Get out into the field and start experimenting! Service design isn’t formulaic, so thought experiments on paper only get you so far. The best way to cut your teeth as a young professional is to expose yourself to lots of different challenges and contexts in order to experiment with how to pick and apply your different design tools to serve the unique needs of the problem.
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