The Moment of Clarity

Last week I had the great pleasure of speaking with Christian Madsbjerg, co-author of The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems.  In their book, Christian and Mikkel share case studies from their consulting work at Lego, Adidas, Coloplast (a medical device company), and others.  The wonderful, rich examples show the ways in which research methods from the social sciences can help troubled companies transform themselves.

I don’t think it makes sense to recap the book when it’s such an accessible read, so here are two examples that Christian shared with me that are not in the book:

  • One of their clients is large pharmaceutical company.  ReD Associates was engaged to help with the salesforce – which is a project very similar to one we might do at my current employer! One of the big pressures pharma reps are facing today is rapidly diminishing access to physicians and healthcare providers.  The average sales call now lasts only 90 seconds.  This  makes the role of reps increasingly challenging, and, frankly, discouraging.  Not surprisingly, at the start of their research,  reps were describing their frustration, and they were focused specifically on the lack of understanding on the part of the doctors.  Over and over again, the research team heard from headquarters and the reps being interviewed that doctors only have 8 hours of training in this disease, and as a result of their ignorance the reps are unable to gain meaningful access.  But the reality is that physicians have thousands of hours of experience!  So it’s not ignorance, but rather something else going on.  In talking with the physicians, the researchers learned that their patients have a terrible time convincing people to change their routines to achieve better health. So, what if the reps started providing relevant materials, and building sales calls around information that is helpful and relevant to the physician?  In doing so, the call went from 90 seconds to 9 minutes, just by changing the introductory statements!  Further changes led to an average of 18 minutes’ dialogue with the physician.  A real reciprocity emerged, which in turn improved reps’ access to physicians.
  • In a very different example, Christian described the challenge of working with a company that makes grooming products for men.  In meetings with his client, they heard a lot of internal discussion about their ‘franchises’ or brands.  Unfortunately, those internal distinctions were irrelevant to their customers; no men choose between original or sensitive version of a brand – it doesn’t register!  Men believe that shaving is about skill, not about having the right products.  So the way that the shelf was organized was based on the brand managers’ understanding of how women shop – where packaging and color influence decision making.  But the approach didn’t work at all for men (and the brand managers presumed it would).  In fact, it was so bewildering that many men got lost in the process and ended up not buying anything!  The ‘take rate’ was 8-10%.  What men were interested in, as it turns out, is what products to use, and in what order – a very practical approach.  So without any changes to the packaging, ReD helped their client reorganize the shelf consistent with how men think about shaving – put oil on the beard, then apply shaving cream, then apply aftershave.  From that change alone, the take rate rose to 23%, simply by organizing the retail shelves in a way that is aligned with how men think about grooming and related retail products.

In talking with Christian about their work at ReD Associates, I realized that what is most compelling about their work is that – while their focus is helping companies make significant, lasting change – they are not doing so by simply looking at their clients’ customers and the context in which they work, play, sleep … or make purchasing decisions.  In fact, what I found so compelling in the book was the commitment to understand the underlying discourse and culture at the client.  Only by deeply understanding both can they help make a bridge between the challenges their client is facing, and the outcome they’re ultimately seeking in the market.

Looking inside

In retrospect it is so obvious!  Deeply experiencing both the client and their customers becomes a critical success factor.  This was really interesting to me, because at ZS we do have rich, longstanding relationships with our clients, so we are capable of those kinds of insights.  Today we talk about the culture at our clients and how it might enable or prevent success in the endeavors we’re undertaking with them, but we’re not looking at their internal discourse in this way.  My conversation with Christian got me thinking about how we could do more of that, to enable us to achieve more meaningful change both within and on behalf of our clients.

Both in the book and in our conversation, Christian described the work of Genevieve Bell at Intel.  She is a living legend in my intellectual circles due to the work she’s done there!  (You can read more about her here, and watch a YouTube video too, if you like.)  At Intel, Genevieve built a centralized research team whose goal was to provide the human and cultural understanding needed to imagine a future generation of micro-processors.   Over time, as the executive commitment to her approach grew, her team expanded and dispersed into the different divisions of the company.  They continue to play a significant role in shaping both technological futures at Intel, and social sciences’ understanding of technology and human behavior.  (There is, for example, a small team devoted to the study of the Quantified Self movement.)  What I have found the most interesting about Genevieve’s work is that she continues to reflect as a researcher about the culture of Intel, what makes it so, and what she and her team need to do to overcome or reshape that culture in order to drive change.

In a similar fashion, in my dissertation I described my observations and experiences at a software company (SAP).  Over a number of years, I observed this massive (70K people), engineering-centric company try to shift to a more client-centric way of thinking and working.  I chronicled the ways in which employees became a locus for control to achieve those business goals, and how those changes affected the lives of employees (including myself).  In retrospect, I think that cultural backdrop played a significant role in enabling me to grow the User Experience team as quickly as I did. We were working on large scale business transformation and technology projects, so understanding employees and their needs was obvious to us – but was also consistent with the prevalent internal discourse at the time.


Since leaving SAP, I’ve spent the past four years getting to know ZS Associates.  I wrote about my initial impressions of ZS when I started.  Since my arrival, the company has continued to grow (from 2000 to 4000 people in four years), evolve, and change in ways that I was not sure were possible.  It’s easier to have a sense of a company as an organic, living, breathing thing when it is not so large!  And yet, even a small company gets stuck in it’s ways of thinking.

I also discussed with Christian how many of his clients don’t want to change, or they fail to realize the full benefits of the insights brought to them by ReD.  I have had similar experiences.  Clients want our help, but when it comes time to let go of their deeply held beliefs, there are many times that they would prefer to do things in a way that is familiar, comfortable, safe … and wrong!

ZS has been through a really interesting, self-reflexive period in the past year or so, and I hope it continues.  We’ve researched how we’re perceived in the market, and reflected on how we would like to be perceived.  And we’re gradually changing how we talk about ourselves – and even the kind of work we want to do – based on what we’ve learned.

Christian said that one of the biggest challenges are companies who think of themselves as experts.  This is often the case in management consultancies, and ZS is no exception.  We are terrific at what we do in part because we have staff that are deeply knowledgeable about the healthcare ecosystem and its many players, disease states and related patient experiences, and even the intricacies of the data that drive those companies’ operations.  But Christian said to me that “expertise is the devil”.  Christian is relatively soft-spoken, so it was a pretty strongly worded opinion – I was shocked at first! But he went on to say that the only way to do this this work effectively is with a level of epistemological humility that is often hard to find in a management consulting context.

And now that he said it and I see it, I can’t unsee it!  There are so many conversations around me where people are emphasizing their expertise to justify their perspective on one thing or another.  I admire and respect all the crazy smart and talented people I work with – it is part of what makes ZS great, after all!  But it also makes true dialogue a challenge, sometimes.  I find so many conversations are about building walls – “I’m an expert and this is my space, so let me tell you how it should be”, rather than bridges – “Oh wow, interesting, if we did this and that together, imagine how much more we could do for our client!”.  I do find it discouraging at times, especially in contrast to conversations with other social scientists and designers, who are so much more inherently curious and open and generative … and ultimately interested in a dialogue, rather than protecting a territory or an intellectual stance.  And I find myself justifying our unique value and expertise in the same way – explaining the scientific nature of UX through the ISO9241, our understanding of cognitive science, and more.

As we continue to grow our research and design capabilities at ZS, I asked Christian for his thoughts on team composition, on the kinds of design skills he felt were the most valuable, and any feedback he had around methods or engagement model.  His experience is that the best work is largely research – “95% research and only 5% design”.  The management consultancies refer to the creative and design teams that they’ve acquired as ‘the ponytails’ – they are dismissed for their lack of business acumen, and their inability to contribute in a meaningful way to the analysis and transformation at hand.
ux culture 2

Although I have been at ZS for four years, our consulting capability is still in it’s infancy – we hired our first offshore team members in 2014, and our first onshore team members joined this year.  So as I prepare my plans for 2016, I have been reflecting on how we’ve done (great – demand is through the roof!), evaluating what we’re doing well, and identifying things we could do better going forward.  I now feel increased urgency to make sure that the growing number of people in my User Experience team and in other design roles at ZS aren’t marginalized as ‘ponytails’ in the future.  When my team met for a global All Hands meeting in August, one of the major themes that emerged from our discussions was the urgent need to do more user research to inform our work.  We’ve made lots of progress since my arrival four years ago, but we still have a long way to go.
Through those conversations with my team, I realized that I didn’t face the same challenges at when I was building the UX team at SAP, perhaps because my first projects were research-based, and only later did I introduce design as a way to begin generating solutions.  In our projects today, ZS teams bring so much pre-existing knowledge to the problem space that it’s not clear to them how we could possibly discover anything new.  I have been working hard this year to educate about user-centered design in a way that will resonate … though with my new-found understanding about expertise, I’m not sure how successful I will be.  Our concern is that absent that empirical grounding, the user experience services are just well-executed design, informed only by our prior work in the space.  This is, frankly, not the work any of us want to be doing in the long run.

grounded in research 2Thus,  User Experience teams’ engagement today (both in product and in consulting) with project teams does sometimes leave us feeling like ‘ponytails’, until they realize that we do have that business knowledge, and that we do much more than ‘make it look nice’.  Our clients and our project teams want design, they just don’t understand that good design is user-centered design, which requires research, not just design best practices.  Once they can see past their own expertise, they get it, but it seems to be harder to overcome those objections – both internally and externally – than it should be.

In closing

Christian said the only way to make progress with clients is to deeply, deeply understand the problem space, and to ensure you arrive at a rich and nuanced understanding together.  Only then can you have those thoughtful – and thought provoking – conversations that really enable you to drive business transformation.  There is no need for walls of rainbow-colored stickies, which are often paraded as a tribute to innovation that never actually takes place!  (There is a tragically hilarious chapter in his book on this.)  A deep conversation grounded in research and shared understanding will allow that moment of clarity to come, and for the path forward to emerge.

The reality is that ethnographic methods are not impartial, and anyone who says they are impartial is doing it wrong!  When the research is done the right way and you effectively immerse yourself as a participant observer, you can’t help but develop empathy, and to feel some emotional investment in the outcomes of your work.  It is inherently messy.  As researchers, our own experience shapes what we say, hear, and reflect back into the analysis and synthesis process.  That is both the power and the challenge of the data collection and the work that follows.

I have this vague sense that I’m not truly able to do our conversation or his ideas justice!  For me it was a really powerful conversation that reminded me of the value of an anthropological perspective, and the deep personal belief I have in those methods as a means for making meaningful change in the business context.  Christian suggested that I should keep a notebook so that I can begin to collect stories and reflect on ZS as a participant observer, as I once did at SAP.  And perhaps I will.

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