All of our strategy projects usually begin with a series of discovery interviews, usually involving people we’ve identified as “key stakeholders.” The roster usually includes people from a company or organization who can provide insights into the inner workings of the business and how customers make decisions, engage with the company, and use the products.
These people usually think they’re getting on the phone with us to talk about what’s wrong with the website, or what collateral they’d like to see developed for their marketing. But for the first 45 minutes of the conversation, we talk about everything but those topics. Sometimes I feel like we need to prep them for the windy road we’re about to take them down. This doesn’t feel like the trip you thought you were taking, but trust me, I’ll get us to where we need to go.
If my journalism background has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes just letting someone talk for awhile, and following them where they lead, can reveal the best and most unexpected insights. The invaluable gems are hiding off in the hard-to-reach parts of the mine — and it takes time and a little meandering to uncover the clues that will lead you there.
Why it’s so hard to get to the big reveal
People get stuck when they think too hard about a problem. First of all, they’re limited by their perspective — they are frustrated by a problem and think they know a way to fix it, or hear others (such as their customers) complaining and offering advice, but they don’t always have the benefit of seeing the problem in context. Many people, when they feel stuck, describe this as “being too close to it” — we all feel this way sometimes.
In these interviews, many of the people to whom we speak are laser-focused on the get-er-done: driving the day-to-day business ahead with the blocking and tackling necessary to close sales, get projects done satisfactorily and maintain strong customer relationships. It leaves very little time for stepping outside the workflow and thinking about business strategy in the abstract. Spending an hour talking about opportunities, challenges, the marketplace, competitors and other topics is a rarity — and often that hour gives interviewees a chance to articulate things they inherently know but rarely spend time addressing head-on.
But if you ask directly, it still may be hard to get to the real insights. That’s why brainstorming sessions — which creative teams have always believed to be the magic bullet for uncovering great ideas — are not always successful. Brainstorming team members are so focused on solving the problem within the time allotted that they don’t take the time to reflect on the business realities and naturally make the connections that help them arrive at a real breakthrough. (Scientists have even found that brain activity when arriving at creative a-ha’s is very different from the activity involved with traditional problem-solving.)
6 interview tips that help you discover the good stuff
1. Understand the person’s point of view early in the interview.
I always start interviews with: “Tell me a little bit about you: your background and your roles and responsibilities at the company.” Even when the person has provided a professional bio, even if I’m interviewing the CEO, I ask that question — because it’s always telling to hear what information the interviewee chooses to present in the answer. Then, I often follow up with this question: “If you are at a barbecue with friends who aren’t in your industry, and somebody asks you what you do for a living, what do you say?” This helps to get people unstuck from their traditional way of explaining things, especially in industries where people automatically slip into jargon. And if I still can’t get them to explain themselves in plain language, I always follow up with: “And what exactly do you mean by that?” or “Give me an example.”
2. Start with big questions.
I’m a Midwesterner, which means I am hopelessly addicted to the card game euchre. One of the strategies I favor in this game is, when I’m holding the most powerful card, to throw it down knowing that everyone else around me must follow suit, thereby “weeding out” most of the other trump cards so they can’t come back to haunt me later in the match.
I use this technique when interviewing too. Sometimes I like to start with an open-ended question that can be almost comical in its ambitiousness — such as: “Where do you see your business heading in the next five years?” Sometimes it elicits a little bit of a laugh, because it’s such a broad question there’s no easy way to answer it. But it gets the interviewee talking, even rambling, and it’s in the margins of that monologue where the insights start to pop out.
3. Listen hard for clues, and come back to those items for further exploration.
As I take notes furiously, I put in boldface or highlight in yellow any statements that warrant further discussion. Sometimes, they’re off-the-cuff things people say that may seem obvious, or innocuous, to the speaker, but that pop out at me as a soft spot in the earth that may later reveal amazing treasure.
For example: in talking about a recent project, a project manager might say something in an offhanded way about how his client company recently went to a new procurement system and now evaluates RFPs and vendors differently than before. As he continues to talk about the project, I’ll plan to return to that, because it’s critical to understand how that relationship and decision-making process will change, and whether that’s an overall trend that’s taking shape in the industry.
4. Stay nimble and ready to go where the conversation takes you.
We always start with a questionnaire that has about 25 common questions (see the 15 most essential interview questions). But the questionnaire usually gets thrown out the window within the first two minutes of the conversation, because based on what the interviewee talks about in the intro, I’ll know which areas I should spend time digging in to and which areas aren’t that important. Listen very carefully, take great notes, and be prepared to follow your interviewee down the windy paths.
Many times, I find that stakeholders can get a little self-conscious when I do this — “I’m just rambling, am I giving you too much?” I always assure them that I’m thrilled with the context and the amount of detail they’re sharing — and then am poised with a good follow-up question to steer them where we need to go next.
5. Always finish by asking where you didn’t go.
My favorite question of the discovery interview is always: “Is there anything we haven’t covered, or that I haven’t asked about, that you think might be important for me to know?” This takes care of any areas that the interviewee thought we were going to discuss but didn’t, but it also lets them get closure on any of their thoughts or feelings. Recently, when I asked this in an interview with a customer of my client, the man paused for a few seconds, and then unleashed a passionate speech about how he hoped that the company would hold steadfast to its values and culture as it grew — and how he’d be less inclined to do business with them if they didn’t. That’s gold for my client, but not a topic that was on the agenda to discuss with this customer whatsoever. And it never would have appeared if I hadn’t made space for it in the interview.
6. Relax and have fun.
When I was a young journalist, I was so terrified of making a mistake in interviews that I hated doing them. But over the years I learned that you simply can’t get the real-world perspectives you need without talking to the people who live this stuff day to day.
Now, I love doing them — and it’s because they can be fun. View them as a way to learn fascinating things about the business you’re working in, and to mine the knowledge of the very experienced people working within it. Relax and go with the flow. Your stakeholders so rarely get to sit and just talk for an hour about themselves and their business, so this is kind of fun for them too. And it’s the best way to put together a strategy that integrates real business needs with real customer needs.