Working with stakeholders is one of the most important (and challenging) parts of being a researcher. How you handle the initial request from a stakeholder can make or break a project. Here are 5 tricks I’ve picked up during my time as a researcher that have helped me ensure that I am getting the most out of my project kick-off meetings.

  1. Listen – Start by asking powerful questions of your stakeholder. Repeat back what you hear, focusing on key themes and ideas. Try to avoid thinking about solutions before you have the full context.
  2. Focus on their goals… – Make sure to understand not only what your stakeholder is asking for but why as well. Often there is more to the story than the initial request. Start by understanding the goals of the team, then work down to the specifics of the question before jumping to methods or measures.
  3. …and fears! – Now that you know what good looks like for the team, make sure you know what failure looks like, too. Knowing both sides of the equation will likely make your insights more actionable.
  4. Involve them in the process – As much as possible, give stakeholders the opportunity to clarify their needs. Check back early and often to make sure you are going down the right path.
  5. Take your time – Avoid the temptation to promise a solution in your first meeting. Take the time you need to come up with the best method.

1. Listen

You’ve got a lot of ideas and solutions but that doesn’t help if you don’t understand the problem. One of the fastest ways to build trust with a partner is to make sure they feel heard. This is your chance to demonstrate that you care about their needs.

Listen carefully. What are they saying? What are they not saying? Take notes here and write down specific themes or phrases that stand out or are repeated. I spend the first half of any kickoff meeting just listening. An opening as simple as ‘Tell me all about your project’ or ‘What does your team want to accomplish’ can fill up a good half hour.

Try to avoid drawing parallels to other problems you’ve faced in the past until you hear the full context. This is, by the way, very hard for me. I find that writing these thoughts down allows me to move on without dwelling on them because I know I can come back to them later if they prove relevant.

Similarly – don’t worry about solving the problem just yet. It can be tempting to want to jump right to the solution — but you may miss critical details if you head down that path now. Just focus on your partner to get the full scoop.

One of the fastest ways to build trust with a partner is to make sure they feel heard.

2. Focus on their goals…

Once you have the background context on the project your working on, it’s time to dig into the nitty gritty of what they want to accomplish. This is a critical part of any insights discussion, no matter how broad or specific the question. Take, for example: “how many shares are we getting on our social media posts?” This is (hopefully) an easy thing for an analyst to look up. But why does the stakeholder want to know this? What decisions does it help them make? How will they act on it? Is there a better way to measure what they care about?

This might feel like a lot of overhead but I like to think of it this way: You’re ultimately responsible for making sure that your analysis adds value. If you answer a completely irrelevant question, you’re not adding value. You want to understand what they are trying to do to make sure they are asking the question at the right level (Do they first want to understand if their social media posts are reaching the relevant audience?) and that the information they are asking for actually answers the question in their head.

In this example case, the partner actually wanted to understand whether the posts were resonating with the audience. Shares were only one way we could measure that and wouldn’t have given us the whole story.

3. …and fears!

It’s not enough to understand what your partners want to achieve, you also need to understand what they want to avoid. There are many things that look very similar to success that are actually a negative in the eyes of the stakeholder.

Take for instance a partner who wanted an animated video to feel fun and irreverent. If we stop there, we might consider both ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Best in Show’ to be favorable comparisons in terms of tone. However, if we ask our partner what they want to avoid (“what are you afraid customers might think?” “What have been internal criticisms of the piece?” “What does close but not-quite-right look like”) we might learn that they are actually trying to avoid ‘campy’ — which puts a big stake in the heart of our “Evil Dead” comparison.

This is a critical part in helping demonstrate the value you bring to the table. Being able to sell your partner on what you can help them achieve as well as what you can help them avoid paints a clearer picture of why they want you involved in the process.

4. Involve them in the process

Remember in 5th grade math how Mrs. Belcher would always tell you to show your work? The same goes for your work today. As mentioned before, I encourage you to take notes while listening to your partner. Once I’m out of the initial listening phase, the first thing I do is repeat back what I heard – focusing on any themes or takeaways – to make sure I understand the problem space and haven’t jumped to any inappropriate conclusions or assumptions

I also invite them to correct or clarify anything I’ve said by reassuring them that this part of the discussion is all about what they think and I am just ensuring that I understand what’s in their head. As part of this, I often sketch key themes (including the problem space, goals, fears, and assumptions) on the board or a shared Google doc so they can see how I am interpreting the problem. This goes for work outside the first meeting as well. I frequently share WIP outlines or diagrams of problems I am working on to make sure I am heading down a good path .

5. Take your time

So now you’ve listened to the problem and clarified your understanding. Time to solve the problem, right? Well, no, not necessarily. In 90% of my meetings these days, I walk out of the room without telling my partner how I’m going to solve their problem.

This is, admittedly, not easy to do and somewhat counterintuitive. A lot of partners will expect you to tell them right the and there how you are going to go out and collect the data. In fact, many partners will have started the conversation by telling you how and what they wanted you to measure in the first place.

In all likelihood, you’ve just been asked to investigate or measure something pretty unique. Why should you think that the first solution you think of will be the best? So I don’t usually give them a solution right away.

What I do give them is a clear sense of my next steps, a timeline, and a due date for my next check-in when they can expect to get a clearer sense of my approach. This due date, by the way, can range from a few hours (I’ll shoot you an email later this afternoon) to few days (let me look at what has already been done in this area and get back to you by next Friday).

Next steps for me often include sketching out the problem using a problem solving framework , conferring with other folks on my team, talking through the problem with my manager, or just taking sometime to quietly think.

So there it is — 5 general tricks I’ve added to my kickoff meetings to try and be a better insights partner. Got any additional suggestions for how you’ve improved your kickoff meetings? Share them below!

Photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash


Leave a Reply