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Analyze This! Lessons learned: The ‘get-with-the-program’ problem

The importance of building relationships with client staff members and allies.

Vijay MehrotraBy Vijay Mehrotra

Early in my career, I was working on a project team at a very large software company that had conducted a preliminary analysis of some newly captured data. Our executive sponsor “Chuck,” who was the company’s vice president of Operations, asked us to meet individually with a few key managers in one of the business units to discuss our initial results. More than a decade later, I still have a very vivid memory of one of those meetings.

“Troy” was in his mid-forties and had been at the company for several years. We arrived at his office well prepared, with a meeting agenda, charts and talking points. Nevertheless, the meeting did not go well. Troy did not bother to understand our newly captured data or our statistical estimation methods. After barely a cursory look at our handouts, he quickly discounted the new data, questioned the validity of our analysis method, and disregarded the insights that we offered. Throughout our conversation, he was extremely condescending.

Later that week, while giving a quick update to our executive sponsor, we took the opportunity to describe our meeting with Troy. Unexpectedly, Chuck immediately picked up the phone and asked Troy to come to his office. As we looked on, Chuck proceeded to berate Troy for how he had interacted with us and told him in no uncertain terms to “get with the program.” While this was a somewhat uncomfortable experience, we could not help but gloat, for suddenly we felt like we had decisively won this battle.

This turned out, however, to be a hollow victory. Within Troy’s business unit, news spread quickly about what had happened in Chuck’s office. Thereafter, Troy and his peers were always careful to comply with requests from our team – but none of them ever volunteered anything beyond the bare minimum that we asked for. Moreover, we were never able to establish a modicum of trust with any of those managers, and our inability to tap into their knowledge and experience made our work much harder. Eventually, we also realized that we had used up some valuable political capital with our executive sponsor.

Looking back, I can certainly understand why we had handled the situation in this way. We were young, ambitious and eager. This was the first project with this new client, and we knew that we had Chuck’s ear. At some deep level, we were confident that our academic training and our intelligence would lead to success in the business world. At the same time, we were also feeling real pressure to deliver results in order to help establish a lucrative long-term consulting relationship. We were also frustrated and angry at how Troy had treated us – and we did not hesitate to express those feelings to Chuck or to anyone else who would listen.

If you are an experienced analytics professional, you are likely already familiar with this kind of story. If you are a student – or perhaps just starting out in the business world – you should expect to encounter people like Troy and situations like this early in your career.

But let’s also take a minute to consider Troy’s viewpoint.

Troy and most of his peers had been at this company for several years. They had their own sense of what was working, what was going wrong, and how things might be improved but had not felt empowered or engaged to make significant changes. Meanwhile, management had chosen to bring in consultants to gather data, build models and conduct analysis. In addition, like most executive sponsors, Chuck had an enormous array of responsibilities and pressures, and so he had had little time to explain the motivations and goals for our project to middle managers like Troy, who well may have been concerned about losing their jobs (the business unit was going through a significant transition at the time).

Troy was surely confused and concerned when we came rolling into his office. He saw us inexperienced kids 15+ years younger than him, armed with little more than our fancy academic credentials. Undoubtedly, we also brought our own kind of “pros from Dover” swagger [1] as we casually described our statistical methods, though I am sure we thought we were successfully hiding our condescension behind our tight professional smiles.

As Troy saw it, we did not know him, his peers or their business – and neither did the executive who had sent us in to start poking around. We were taking up some of his valuable time, and he already had too much to do. Our project was surely going to be intrusive and disruptive, and we almost surely would not be around to clean up the mess afterwards.

Is it any wonder that he did not really want to bother with us?

My experience with Troy taught me quite a few lessons about the important process of starting to build relationships with client staff members and would-be allies. Lessons learned:

  1. Be as humble as possible about who you are and as transparent as you can be about why you are there. Note that this is a way of being rather than an affected posture, as most people have very strong instincts for how others actually feel about them.
  2. Do as much as you possibly can to try to understand who the different players are, and what their roles and responsibilities and incentives are. This knowledge can be very valuable in helping you proactively appreciate concerns and/or avoid sensitive topics.
  3. Come prepared with open-ended questions, rather than just an agenda or a presentation. Do ask “why?” a lot, but do your best to express wonderment and curiosity rather than condescension and ridicule.
  4. Be thoughtful about the specific language that you choose to use, for this makes a surprisingly big difference in how you are perceived. In particular, the more concrete and familiar (rather than abstract or mathematical) your terminology is to those you are speaking with, especially non-technical people, the more likely you are to be perceived as empathetic and trustworthy [2].

In almost all analytics projects and roles, you will need to interact with – and rely on – people whose backgrounds, responsibilities and world views are quite different than your own. From my experience, you will find it much easier to achieve your goals if you are able to earn their trust. Often, it will be impossible to succeed without it.

Vijay Mehrotra (vmehrotra@usfca.edu) is a professor in the Department of Business Analytics and Information Systems at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management and a longtime member of INFORMS.

References

  1. From http://www.urbandictionary.com/: “An American slang term for outside consultants who are brought into a business to troubleshoot and solve problems. The term comes from the 1968 book “M*A*S*H” by Richard Hooker. In the book, the character Hawkeye is described as using the guise of being the ‘pro from Dover’ to obtain free entrance to golf courses.”
  2. For example, see: Hansen, J., and Wänke, M., 2010, “Truth From Language and Truth From Fit: The Impact of Linguistic Concreteness and Level of Construal on Subjective Truth,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 36, No. 11, pp. 1,576-1,588.

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