Editor’s note: Yvette Wikstrom is owner and client partner at strategy and insight firm Mercury Strategy, Denver. She can be reached at yvette@mercurystrategy.com.

I am a passionate reader of leadership literature and have been a loyal fan of Quirk’s since I first came to this country in 2001. One of the reasons why I appreciate Quirk’s is that it takes a practitioner’s view on the industry: what our clients need and what we need to do for them. Over the years, though, the dynamics of the research industry have changed. When I peel them back to isolate a common factor, I see that a new discipline is emerging as a critical success factor: change management. It is no longer enough to lead with a closed-loop process and ensure a strong link between objectives and actionable insights that tie back to ROI.

Without an appreciation for the change characteristics and the firm’s readiness to embrace the change, change will not happen. I’ve observed this over and over again. When I look at how we were successful with clients in the past, it was not because of excellent methodologies but our ability to engage stakeholders and find a way to integrate the research process into the everyday business rhythm. To do this, I developed ways of working the research process with a focus on the change from the client’s point of view. I broadened my attention to all business units and individuals who would be touched by the effort.

Let me share with you a real story to bring this to life. A few years ago, I worked with a global technology firm helping redesign its B2B customer satisfaction survey. The firm faced declining satisfaction with C-suite customers and unrealized revenue opportunity. The survey also faced slumping response rates and the firm strongly suspected that it was not measuring the right aspects of the relationship. Here’s the textbook situation for a closed-loop process where we revisit the key objectives and the associated relationship measures, improve the sample methodology and look at ways to make insights more actionable. A research program at its best; a done deal. Boy was I wrong. We had all the research expertise necessary to guide the firm and yet everywhere we turned, we were met with resistance.

To enable buy-in I realized that we had to understand the organization’s readiness for change versus the complexity and scope of the change itself. As we began to unveil the shields of resistance, we became aware that the researchers who designed and implemented the original program felt attacked and criticized. This was their baby and it was under siege. On the sales side, we found that the incentive plans reinforced the status quo and would not encourage behavioral change. To make matters worse, the account executives did not have the competencies to meet C-suite needs, nor was there any training in place to equip them with the right skills to help them pivot with the change. We also found that there were some ingrained beliefs on C-suite needs that were not founded in the most recent feedback from the C-suite. All in all, it was thought of as a top-down-enforced effort that did not have any bearing on the daily realities of successfully running the business.

If we fumbled this company-wide change effort, the firm stood to fail in its ability to meet C-suite needs and secure a leading position in the industry. In turn, external stakeholders and investors would be disappointed. With a polarized sales force, HR expressed concern that they stood the risk of losing the highest-performing sales executives and being unable to attract the right talent to execute the strategy.

So what did we do? Simply speaking, we knew we had to do four things:

  • bridge the research schedule with the path for change;
  • build awareness of the need for change;
  • collaborate with all impacted stakeholders; and
  • put the customer front and back of the change.

Bridge the research schedule with the path for change

We quickly recognized that the activities necessary for leading the change were different than the activities needed to manage the research project. I think of change as yin and the research project as yang. Yang represents the overt and tangible aspects of the project. Yin represents the covert and intangible aspects of the project. Change is about how people feel about the change and their level of confidence to embark on a journey that will take them to a new destination. By recognizing that yin and yang are inherently intertwined and interdependent, each with its own set of activities and path throughout the life cycle of the engagement, we could deliver a broader and deeper value.

The research part of the project involved: determining research objectives; developing the right method and operations; designing the analytical framework; and planning for insights and recommendations. Doing this part of the job well is important but does not guarantee that the sales staff, HR and the research staff will adopt the changes when actually doing their jobs. Consequently, project results and outcomes depend on how individuals successfully adopt changes.

By treating change as its own path within the project, we can focus on repeatable actions to catalyze individual change and thus the achievement of organizational outcomes. The change platform provides structure, direction and empowering tools throughout the project life cycle to improve change implementation – as well as a realization of expected improvement and benefits if it parallels with the accomplishments of the research deliverables.

Build awareness of the need for change

One of my personal “aha” moments happened when I was talking to John – one of the research experts – early on in the project. John was upset and told me he had heard that the current customer satisfaction survey would be abolished. As I queried him, it became clear to both of us that no one had taken the time to explain the need for change and what could be in it for him.

Most individuals object to change because they don’t have the full picture or a clear view to how the change will impact them. Feelings of uncertainty and not being in control cause resistance to change. In our situation we drove the awareness of why change was necessary by giving stakeholders a voice. We engaged the stakeholders in several workshops to capture what was in it for them as well as their view on early wins. We also invited feedback on their reasons for resistance and their thoughts on which pitfalls to avoid and how to avoid them. These activities were all part of a thoughtful communications plan aligned with the key milestones in the research plan.

Collaborate with all impacted stakeholders

In facilitating change in this complex environment, we understood that each for stakeholder, group and individual, their experiences and expectations – and the change itself – would come with different consequences. For example, the research group needed to rework something they already sunk thousands of hours into – their hearts and minds over a one-year-plus process. The sales force faced new key performance indicators. Many of them did not have the skills to be able to count on immediate success. The executives needed to rework the performance incentives and provide training to equip the organization with the right skills to be successful.

We undertook an easy, two-by-two analysis by assessing stakeholders and individuals on two dimensions. The first dimension had to do with seeing if the stakeholder had the right skills for change. The second dimension had to do with their desire for change. This simple analysis allowed us to partner with each stakeholder based on their needs and their role in making change successful.

The analysis rendered four groups. The individuals who rose to the top with a high level of change skills and desire for change became our change ambassadors in the project – the eyes and ears to the ground. For the individuals who expressed a desire for change but did not have the right skills, we provided support by giving them new tools and training. With the individuals who had limited skills and no desire for change, we started at awareness to figure out the tie between an individual’s knowledge of the upcoming changes and his or her desire to change. Often this presented a point for them to pivot from rejection to acceptance.

Individuals who expressed limited desire to change but had the skills to accommodate change were the toughest to build trust with. They possessed crucial experiences and perspectives that could both sink or sail the ship. We felt that this group deserved a voice and we made it a goal to better understand their objections and frustrations. By inviting them to collaborate closely, we received input that proved to be invaluable as it helped us to mitigate risk by learning from their mistakes and successes.

Put the customer front and back of the change

At this point there is one stakeholder group we have not talked about and it is actually the most important one: the customer. Parallel to the internal change dynamics, we needed to understand what change would look and feel like from customers’ points of view. We developed a customer change plan with communications across all planned touchpoints during the duration of the project. This involved strategic communication from the most senior executives, promotional communications, monthly update calls from the account executive, the annual sales conference, other industry conferences, marketing material, reports, etc.

Unlocks the key

This is just one example of how change leadership can raise the profile of marketing research within organizations. In my career, I’ve shifted focus from spending 80 percent on research and 20 percent on change leadership to 80 percent on change facilitation and 20 percent on the insights generation. With change leadership, the insights stand a significantly better chance of impacting the success of the organization. But maybe more importantly, change leadership unlocks the key to individual adoption. A willingness and ability to change can form the foundation of new learning, inspiration and innovation – all of which will make you and your team relevant not just today but also tomorrow.