As researchers, we’ve all come across instances when our work doesn’t quite land well with clients or internal stakeholders, even though we might think that the research findings were good.
Common refrains that we’re all familiar with are “I already knew that”, “How do you know this is true?”, “What am I supposed to do with this?” and “This isn’t robust enough." In this blog, I’ll therefore shed light on why researchers need to be more than an investigator to avoid some of these common pitfalls.
The First Key: Understand culture and language
Stakeholders - both external clients and internal organisational members - engage with us because they believe in our ability to understand, speak to and represent their customers well - typically to inform an organisational plan of action.
To excel in this, good researchers invest a significant proportion of time to investigating existing behaviours and the cultural and linguistic nuances of target customers.
For example, if the research topic was focussed around a certain medical condition and the target customers were doctors, you would first need to familiarise yourself with medical terminology and cultural practices within the local medical field to gain access to these customers (and not make them feel you’re an idiot!).
This is something that is often overlooked by researchers. However, spending time with stakeholders is important if we are to establish credible access. Failing to establish this understanding and credibility usually results in a mismatch in how findings are represented and how stakeholders react to them.
Additionally, we must consider what kind of information stakeholders are familiar with, how they share information and with whom they usually share it? In this sense, the researcher needs to educate the stakeholder and clearly articulate the differences in processes and provide distinctions in terms of the deliverables they are used to receiving.
The Second Key: Understand the varying shades of truth
What is true for one may not be true for another - our assessments of what is true and what is important can be highly subjective and beholden to biases.
There have been many instances where a researcher gets challenged by stakeholders on findings that address particularly sensitive topics or “sacred” truths. An especially common one is when the researcher produces contradictory findings about the service/product that stakeholders have already invested in. To land this message well, the researcher needs to consider their audiences’ tolerance limits. The researcher must also consider what can be accepted as truth and how it would be perceived.
Within organisations, it is also not uncommon for stakeholders within the same team to hold opposing views and weights on a given topic. This actually points to a need for a calibration of expectations between stakeholders and needs to be addressed as soon as possible during the project. The role of the researcher would then shift to facilitator of this exchange and diplomacy would become the name of the game.
Doing this may not resolve or align views overnight but it would bring about an awareness of differing views to all concerned. If done incorrectly it becomes very tricky to manage later on because of the amount of investment - time, money and effort - being put in. There is also a real risk of producing outcomes that are deemed to be of little value by the said stakeholders.
In my experience, I’ve also found out that ‘truth’ doesn't only vary by individuals, but extends to groups as well (e.g. teams and departments). This partly explains why projects become exponentially complex when multiple stakeholders are present – because multiple truths exists.
Under such conditions, and in order for the researcher to do well, he or she will potentially have to invest additional effort to shift the views of the many. The researcher needs to bear in mind that this is all on top of the research work they have been commissioned to work on.
Fortunately, this does not have to be done solely by the researcher and can be strategically pieced out to other team members. Having said that, team members do need a certain level of interpersonal maturity to do this well.
The Third Key: Understand the Threats to Identity
Unbeknownst to many, human-centred research is a reflective process. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of having an individual undergo a 360-degree assessment. Organisations embarking on such a program of work have to confront how others are labelling their products or services. This can be uncomfortable on an existential level, particularly for organisations who have never previously conducted research.
By default, organisations are not made to pause and reflect, and the research process becomes the means to a self-assessment/intervention process. The researcher needs to understand how closely held that identity is with stakeholders and plan messaging around it. In addition, the researcher needs to consider the safety of the organisational environment and do what is required to ensure it becomes a safe space. Learning facilitation techniques from the world of coaching could help the researcher in this endeavour.
I hope that, by now, you can see that there is a lot more to being a researcher than what LinkedIn job specs will tell you. To land the best outcomes, a researcher will need to play the roles of an educator, diplomat and – at times - life coach. This is in addition to being an investigator of ‘truth’.
As an educator, the researcher will need to help stakeholders understand what the research process is, how it is different from other types of research, what it would do, and more importantly, what it would NOT do.
As a diplomat, the researcher needs to understand the different perspectives held amongst different stakeholders and how to speak to and convince them.
As a life coach, the researcher needs to help stakeholders understand, and sometimes, confront different belief systems across the organisation in a way that invites openness rather than tension.
Of course, doing all these things doesn’t necessarily guarantee success but the attempt itself will ultimately enhance the researcher and their skillset.