Overcoming Skeptical Stakeholders with a Little Contextual Conversion

Author Date March 13, 2019 Read 4 min
You would expect the topic of being a change agent to be appealing to me, as an employee of a company that helps our clients transform. As such,…

You would expect the topic of being a change agent to be appealing to me, as an employee of a company that helps our clients transform. As such, I found myself in the presence of Carmen Medina (@milouness), of MedinAnalytics LLC, as she presented at SXSW Interactive 2019 on the topic of surviving in an organization as a change agent.

The concept of “survival” was an interesting notion to me personally. I don’t have to worry about survival in my role. I work for a company where innovation and change is encouraged, in fact required, to be successful. As a professional services consultancy, we are paid to be change agents for our customers. They seek out our expertise in experience-driven design and development as a way to transform their product or organization. But the idea that others still have this problem was a hook for me to question how I could leverage Ms. Medina’s tips and tricks to better relate to my clients.

I won’t steal Ms. Medina’s thunder by regurgitating her presentation here, but I highly recommend attending one of her sessions given an opportunity. However, I do want to leverage an idea that surfaced in the follow-up Q&A. As the presentation wrapped, an audience member came forward to ask a question about how to convince stakeholders to change when it was in their vested interest to NOT change. Whether through a sense of tradition, job security, fear of the unknown, or other reasons, there are always individuals within an organization who are hard to convince that there might be a better way to tackle a problem and that change can be positive.

In her response, Ms. Medina talked about finding a way to help those dubious or reticent stakeholders to have a “conversion moment.” I am sure a lot of the audience was asking themselves, Exactly how do I do that? Part of the challenge in answering that question is that the strategies are numerous, diverse, and dependent upon your unique situation. So, instead I asked myself, How do we do it?

For that answer, I turn to one of the more memorable experiences in my time at projekt202. In 2015, we were hired by a large healthcare management company to perform research into ways to improve medical billing and consumer payment through the application of digital and experiential tools. One of our sponsors was a somewhat dubious executive from the Data Science department, who was not initially convinced of our proposed qualitative research approach to refine the opportunity definition. What did we do in response? We invited him to join us in the field and experience it for himself.

Through the course of a day or more, he joined our researcher and designer in multiple end user Contextual Interviews in people’s homes. He sat and listened as person after person described their very real, very human experiences with complex insurance forms, opaque healthcare policy, financial stress, family loss, and anger at the system.

The experience was transformative and I feel two key changes occurred in his perception of the value of our work:

One, there was a human connection to the services provided by his corporation, which went beyond operational strategy, market analytics, corporate financial statements, and data science. The problems posed by the current process and solutions now had faces and stories. Helping people is a powerful motivator!

Second was being energized to solve those problems. Numerous potential solutions surfaced and there was a sense of urgency to act upon the best of those ideas. The simple process of listening to end users was a form of creative outlet, surfacing ideas not previously considered in internal brainstorming sessions. Instead of defining a solution in the boardroom and hoping it solves the market need, the company’s end users directly provided a wealth of product opportunity on a platter.

This stakeholder’s experience wasn’t unique. We repeated the exercise with several other members of the executive team with similar results. Not all required conversion to advocating for user-driven solutions, but all left with an appreciation for using Contextual Inquiries as a research technique and renewed confidence in the direction we were going as a project team.

An even better part about providing opportunities for this is that it need not be the realm of the privileged project sponsor. Invite other skeptical stakeholders as well. I can’t tell you how many developers I have met who have fundamentally approached their role with a different perspective after meeting the people who use their software and watching them use it to perform their jobs or tasks.

While there is no magic solution that will move all entrenched stakeholders 100% of the time, having witnessed the power of this one technique in changing quite a few, Contextual Inquiries have become a go-to motivational tool. Try it the next time you have the chance!

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