Trying to move ideas through large organizations can feel like a war of wills. It takes finesse, courage, and a whole lot of teamwork. Often, the process gets flooded by red tape, can send you in the totally wrong direction, or might even kill off a great concept.
The process is just like the quests that demigods take on to save mankind. Well, maybe a little less dramatic. Let me explain:
I recently read the Percy Jackson series with my nine-year-old son. Percy is a dyslexic teen who turns out to be a demigod. As he enters the world of Greek gods, superpowers, and monsters, his teenaged life morphs into a testosterone-filled adventure with battle and death around every corner.
Sometimes innovation work can feel like a treacherous quest, one in which we wrestle with forces beyond our understanding, in a universe with unclear or inconsistent ground rules. I was reminded of that when I read Percy Jackson with my son.
I suspect my boy doesn’t know this, but demigods are in the same position as I am, as an innovation design consultant at Continuum. We are the conduits between powerful stakeholders. We need to find a common ground. And we both end up engaging complex systems of power before we fully understand them. It’s no wonder I nodded my head as I flipped the pages. It was easy to commiserate and understand young Percy’s trials and tribulations, minus the blood and disintegrating monsters.
So, how are stakeholders like classical gods? They can be capricious, absent when we need them, and then suddenly violently present. They have a constant need of appeasement and can harbor unclear motivations. And of course…they wield the power to crush our quest.
The Oracle: Understanding Organizational Expectations and Aligning Perceptions amidst Ambiguity
The demigods at Percy’s camp, Camp Half-Blood, have a tradition of consulting the Oracle of Delphi before any great quest. The oracle comes to life to deliver prophecies filled with ambiguity. Percy and his friends try to decipher their meaning, which they know will change over time. As the demigods embark on their hero-journeys, the prophecies take on new meanings. The deepest truths from the oracle’s prophecy shift as Percy and friends gain experience and wisdom. What’s called for is the ability to tolerate ambiguity—a skill one also needs when negotiating the evolving goals of a project or client engagement.
When working with clients to define the ideal experience of a product or service, goals are often mandated from internal stakeholders (business goals met, consumer base expanded, net promoter scores raised). As we begin talking to consumers, we often see misalignment between what consumers want and what companies think they want. What we find, after getting into the world to see how consumers behave, is that project goals must often be reframed. It’s okay to reframe a project goal—but first you have to tackle the misalignment head on. Conducting stakeholder interviews and capturing their key assumptions, then interviewing consumers to see if those assumptions are correct, can help you see the gaps. The key is to deliver that information back to stakeholders without the sugarcoating. I’ve found that using quotations (unattributed, of course) and definitive language helps. It is the only way stakeholders will let go of their long-held beliefs and change their own behaviors. Otherwise they’d still expect consumers to conform to their way of thinking.
Appeasing the Gods: How to Align Stakeholders and Keep Them Playing Nicely with Each Other
The first time Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood eating a meal, he’s surprised to see all the other demigods sacrificing a portion of their food to the eternal burning flame. He learns this is a traditional offering to one’s godly parentage, and that it’s expected at every meal. Percy follows suit. Better to sacrifice a bit of his meal than risk angering the gods. He is surprised when the burning food smells distinctly of his mom’s chocolate chip cookies, his favorite comfort food. “Hmm,” I thought, “seems Percy’s getting something in return for his sacrifice. A bit of affirmation that the gods have accepted his gift and appreciate his contribution.”
It’s just like the tradeoffs we make with stakeholders during a project. Large companies are rarely organized to support easily the ideal consumer experience. They’re organized to be operationally efficient. That often means separating functions that should be streamlined or tied together from the consumer’s point of view. Merchandising is separate from Product, which is separate from Operations. Makes sense from a workstream point of view, but when you start putting the consumer first, you realize all these elements must function harmoniously. Working across verticals is a bit more difficult but can still be done. Collaboration becomes key. Large corporations like to stay in their verticals where they can maintain control of their budgets. To help stakeholders embrace new ways of working, you need to take the time to understand their individual priorities. One approach is to brainstorm ideas with stakeholders, allowing each member to feel heard and valued. It’s about giving stakeholders a sense of ownership. It may be harder than sacrificing some food in a fire, but helping stakeholders work together is a necessary step in moving concepts into reality.
Unexpected Battles: How to Keep Your Idea Intact as You Negotiate Hurdles
No surprise, but rarely do quests go off without a hitch. Percy understands that when something seems too easy, it’s probably a trap. There’s never just one Cyclops waiting to roast you in the fire. And demigods rarely encounter a crossroads in which either direction is the easy way. Having an arsenal of tricks up your sleeve is one effective way to combat the unexpected. Another is being flexible and allowing yourself to react to the changes around you. This may feel unnatural and even slightly scary, whether you’re fighting monsters or not, but it’s the best way to navigate the unknown. In order to create concepts that are desirable to the consumer, and viable and feasible for the business, there’s got to be some leeway to figure out the best path. And that’s fine, as long as you don’t stray too far.
Guidelines are a common deliverable in the consultancy world. They are often dense with a lot of detailed information that document the ideal experience. While these are important, stakeholders are making decisions and tradeoffs on a daily basis. They need the executive summary of guidelines—the three main takeaways or a sticky catch-phrase that is easily remembered and repeated. Because it’s rare that a stakeholder will pull out a large deck to help make every decision.
The teams on the ground are the ones using the guidelines but they’re rarely part of the project. Providing concrete examples—imagery, vignettes, scripts, scenarios—helps people see the do’s and don’ts in a more tangible way. And helping organizations understand the “why” behind decisions is more helpful than just giving them the answer. This gets us away from individual interpretation. It allows stakeholders the flexibility to continue creating the right solutions as the project goes on and circumstances change, empowering them to make necessary changes and tradeoffs without losing the core idea. Or angering the gods.