Partner Management

Want to increase your impact? First, find the decision-makers.

Part 2 in the ongoing series on using Theory of Mind to increase your impact. For an introduction to Theory of Mind and overview of the series, check out Part 1.

What’s the first step to increasing the impact of your work? Identify the people best positioned to do something about it. These are the people you want to keep in mind when pitching, designing, and presenting your project. After all, how can you make an impact if the people making the decisions either don’t know or don’t care about your work?

Finding the right audience involves spotting the relevant problem spaces in your organization, identifying the decision-makers there, and targeting one person who will champion your work. In some cases, identifying these decision-makers is going to be simple — especially when the chain of command is clear. However, in many cases, finding out who really makes the calls might be more challenging than anticipated. Asking these three questions can cut down the guess work:

  1. Who is working on this problem space?
  2. Who do people listen to in this part of the org?
  3. Who stands to benefit the most from this work?

To reiterate, the goal of these questions is to identify one decision-maker to whom you can target your work. Why only one? Because you can’t be everything to everyone – and neither can your work. Targeting a specific audience allows you to hyper-focus on making sure your work lands.

Throughout this article we’ll talk about leaders and decision-makers. Keep in mind that these are not always official designations. Decision-makers come in many forms. Think carefully about what roles in your organization tend to hold the most sway. For instance, in creative organizations designers tend to have more say in decisions. In technical orgs, engineers often hold more power. Consider also what level of leadership is appropriate to target. Are ground-level folks empowered to incorporate these findings into their work? Or do you need someone higher-up to make a more official call?

1. Who is working on this problem space?

The single most important thing any researcher, data scientist, or analyst can do to boost their impact is to separate product work from problem spaces. Product work focuses on the features, services, and functionality that teams are building. Many companies organize teams around this type of work. Often, data specialists are assigned to cover specific product teams. As a result, it’s easy to focus only on these teams when delivering the output of a project. But research and data science findings often extend beyond a single feature  and reveal insight about a broader problem space. A problem space is an area of work defined by a shared business problem. Many product teams may be working on the same problem, each focusing on a different potential solution.  Knowing how to spot these larger problem spaces can unlock new opportunities for impact across the organization.

To find these problem spaces, start by looking for teams who are working on adjacent products to your own. Imagine, for instance, your team is working on a feature that involves AI. Your findings are likely to contain some broader insights about user’s perceptions of AI. Who else in the organization might also be using AI?

Next, keep an eye out for any research or data work that is asking (or answering) similar questions to your own. Reach out to the people producing those reports to find out if your work would be helpful to them or their teams.

Finally, take some time to imagine what recommendations you might make based on your findings if you weren’t constrained to your current product team. Which team or teams would you need to convince to take action on these findings?

Who do people listen to in this part of the organization?

After honing in on a specific area of the organization, it’s time to find out who holds the reins for that problem space. Once again, start by looking at the org chart. Who are the official leaders of this part of the company? Is there a team of leaders or a single product lead? Find someone who knows how this team works (often your manager or director can help here). Ask them to help you identify both the shot callers and trusted advisers on the team.

The shot-caller – This leader is often in an official product leadership role. They may have a title like “product lead”, “head of [problem space]”, or “executive producer”. In an org chart, they occupy the tip of the pyramid. In organizations where there is a clear accountability structure, this person is often critical to convince. Unfortunately, it may not always be practical to work with this person directly — for instance due to a lack of availability or hierarchy. In that case you may need to get a little bit clever and work with…

The trusted adviser – All good leaders surround themselves with smart individuals — subject matter experts — who can help weigh in on a variety of topics. It’s important to know who the top-level decision-makers turn to on a given problem space. If you can’t go straight for the shot-caller, convincing the trusted adviser is often a good workaround. Ask around in your organization to find the person whose opinion is most sought after for your area of work. Make sure to get this person on board early.

Who stands to benefit the most from this work?

If at this point you have already narrowed down the field to a single leader, great! You can stop now. However, in many cases, you’ll still have a few options. And, like I said earlier, you want to pick just one person to target with your work. To pick the best among them, identify the leader who is most likely to be a champion for your work. The easiest way to get your work acted on is to have someone else do it for you. This is what you are looking for in a champion.

So how do you spot a champion? A champion is someone who is motivated to get your work acted on. Again, find someone who works closely with these leaders. Ask about their goals and motivations. Whose incentives are most aligned with your findings? Whose personal or team goals could be reached by acting on your recommendations? The answer to these questions is your champion.

Once you know who you are trying to influence, you can zero in on how. Stay tuned for Part 3 in this series to learn more about applying Theory of Mind to understand how your decision-maker thinks.


Genevieve Conley Gambill is an insights and data strategist on a mission to do good with data. You can find her online on Twitter (@tiny_data_tech) or on LinkedIn.

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

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