Researcher’s Voice: Relationship Management: The Art of Successful Research

Relationship Management: The Art of Successful Research

Approaching nearly 20 years as a researcher, I’ve come to find that conducting research is actually a small part of my role.

Human behavior has always fascinated me, as far back as I can remember. I can hear my mother now: “Krista, stop staring at people, it’s not polite.” Call it what you like, but my keen sense of observation, combined with an authentic interest and incessant need to ask ‘why’ have inevitably molded my career. Lucky for me, my personal attributes led me to my career in research: I am curious about what people do, why and how they do it, who they work with to accomplish tasks and goals, and how the individual contributes to the collective. Over the course of almost two decades, I have spent countless hours honing my craft of ethnographic qualitative research techniques and methodologies across a plethora of industries. However, I’ve come to find that an integral piece of my research success has been in cultivating the art of bringing internal stakeholders together and along for the research journey.

Conducting research can often be a lot like constructing a puzzle on a windy day. Fortunately, there are some best practices that can provide grounding in the process. Two of my best practices involve stakeholder management and gaining buy-in into the research findings. Fortuitously, successful stakeholder management can easily facilitate both present and long-term research buy-in. In every organization I’ve been part of, from boutique to enterprise level, human connection is key. And while it’s imperative to quickly form a safe space for sharing with your research participants, it’s equally important to nurture this relationship with your research stakeholders. My work is grounded in empathy & relationship building, which form the foundation for my style of research project management.

For me, stakeholder engagement begins way before the first participant interview ever occurs. Typically one or two stakeholders are initially part of the conversation in order to shape and discuss the research proposal. Often during this time, these conversations highlight other individuals who could offer insight and/or might benefit from the research inquiry at hand. Before you know it, the number of stakeholders expands, and all are included in the project kickoff. Stakeholder engagement is relationship management – creating, nurturing, leading by example, practicing inclusivity and transparency, and instilling partnership and collaboration. No one person can do it all alone – it truly takes a village. And the secret? Engage stakeholders early and often.

In my opinion, research is most impactful when it is a collaborative effort. Working sessions are planned so that the stakeholders and researcher can agree and align on the goals, users, and timeline of the research, coupled by a frequent cadence of communications (e.g. weekly status emails) to keep everyone informed and engaged. I’ve found that creating these partnerships with stakeholders is integral to the success of my research as well as cultivating and perpetuating a culture of user-centered design. It is also key to setting expectations and making sure the project adheres to agreed upon timelines and goals.

As I mentioned earlier, stakeholder engagement is vital to research buy-in. Partnering with and bringing my stakeholders along for the entire research project journey both lessens surprises during research readouts and creates more empathy for our users. Inviting my stakeholders to all of the research sessions, and encouraging them to attend as many interviews as they can, opens them up to hearing common themes and sentiments shared by users. Quick debrief sessions post interviews with all of my stakeholders who attended is a great tool to level set. This also gives us the opportunity to discuss any outlier and/or one-off learnings that while interesting, were not reflected in the majority of the sessions. Then, by the time I present my research, stakeholders aren’t confused or surprised by any of the findings.

In moments between research engagements, I’m constantly building relationships with associates across the enterprise. I’m always curious about what projects are underway, who’s involved, how I might be able to help, and the research supporting these projects. I create these relationships so that I don’t have to invite myself to the conversation — but rather I’m invited to be part of the collaboration. As I mentioned earlier, research isn’t a solo gig, so why not make the journey a benefit for all participants both internal and external to your company.

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