When people think of innovation, they’re often looking externally at products and services, but there’s so much innovation that can happen within companies. Oftentimes we create systems that we think have one outcome, but they can often have another or implications that we haven’t seen. Workplace anthropologist and lead inventor Erin Hersey talks about her work as an innovation consultant. Erin goes into organizations and help companies understand their employees. She says the outcome of her work is often organizational insights, the same as what you would have with consumer insights, but these ones tend to be more focused on your people, your organizations, and the systems and structures that are in it. Erin shares some techniques on how to get top clients as an innovation consultant.
I’m excited to have Erin Hersey joining us. Erin, welcome.
Michael, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
One thing that intrigued me as soon as I came across your profile was you’re a consultant, but your title says anthropologist, tell us more about what that means and what you do.
My title says workplace anthropologists and as well as lead inventor, because that’s my title here at ?What If!. The workplace anthropology part is, I think when people think of innovation, they’re often looking externally at products and services, but there’s so much innovation that can happen within companies. To take a human-centered lens of that mean to understand what’s happening within organizations now. With the lens, not necessarily of either it’s right or wrong, or needs to be fixed or be better, just the starting point of empathy of what’s happening now and maybe a bit of why.
From that, that’s what the anthropology part is. I go into organizations and help companies understand their employees. Oftentimes we create systems that we think have one outcome, but they can often have another or implications that we haven’t seen. We pour ink over the invisible parts of your business to help you see them. That’s the anthropology part. The outcome of my work is often what we call organizational insights. The same as what you would have with consumer insights, but these ones tend to be more focused on your people, your organizations, and the systems and structures that are in it.
Do you consider yourself to be an innovation consultant or what would you most maybe closely associate what other people would call a more typical term as opposed to anthropologist? How do you see yourself as an innovation consultant or something a little different?
I definitely see myself as an innovation consultant, but it’s one of those funny things that when you say you work on innovation, it doesn’t really tell anyone what you do. I find that the workplace anthropologist starts to give you more of the type of innovation that I’m focused on. It might be innovations that I work with companies that tend to be within their own systems. Looking at innovative ways of doing talent programs, whether it’s developing your talent, sourcing your talent, innovative ways of looking at your space, how the human element interacts in a space and how that impacts the experience of your employees.
Also, looking at the difference between flexible working and mobile working, which are different things and trying to understand and thinking in its most idealized version. What brings joy to your employees? Realizing that it’s the people within a business that make the business run and make the business grow. Unlocking them is really my key, whether it be individuals, teams or executives.
A paragraph on your bio that caught my attention as it said, “Working with people and teams to help them identify their innate capabilities and existing resources and better understand the larger business realities. Then, applying this information to crack any challenges they might face.” That to me could be very broad. There are a lot of challenges that companies could face, but how do you go about doing what you just shared that you do? Take us through an example of a project or details of how you do your work?
A lot of the way that I approach my work comes from the fact that back in the day I worked in international development. What I learned from international development is that when we have challenges, we often focus on our needs and the things that we don’t have. When you start with that lens it can be difficult to solve problems. It’s better to start with looking at what you do have.Leverage what you have and focus on how you can use what you have to solve the problem versus focusing on what you don't have. Click To Tweet
From international development, that’s called asset-based community development. Stealing from that line of work that I previously did, taking the principles of that work and applying it within my work is how I start to look at organizations. There’s a lot of work that we do to make sure that we’re framing up the right challenge. We start by understanding what is your ambition around where you want to go? Why is this the challenge that you’ve chosen? Framing up what that ambition and status, and painting a clear picture of where we are now.
Part of that is both understanding the motivations of your people, which can mean there are lots of different ways that we go to gather those insights. I’ve gone into people’s homes with them, met them at their homes at 7 AM. Shadowed them through their day until eleven, I met their family and started to see them as more of a whole person and really understand their context. We also do mobile missions where we use digital platforms that are apps that can live on people’s phones and we give them challenges relevant to that challenge. If it’s a productivity challenge that we might be working on, one of my favorite questions that we got asked was how can we bring joy to our people’s lives?
I have them capture moments in their day of things that are either inhibiting their productivity or boosting their productivity or we have them capture things that are bringing joy to their life or detracting. The reason why that’s so powerful is with people you only think of so many things. It’s those little nuance moments that we finally unlock the insights that unlock challenges. Being able to use the technology, we’re able to capture moments that wouldn’t necessarily rise to the surface otherwise and it gives us a different view in. That becomes my data set and from that data set we can look across all of the different moments that they submit. We have them tell me how either much of a blocker it is or how much of a booster it is and what’s the why behind it.Make sure that you have the right understanding of what's happening and what the end goal is. Click To Tweet
Then, I can start to synthesize insights from that. When you combine that with the work of shadowing them, living in the context with them for a bit, and getting to know their whole lives, you can start to see implications beyond just the in the office experience. We think it is important because I look at things as a work-life integration, not a work-life balance. If something happens in my personal life, it definitely comes to work with me and I can tell you that when I have a project that I’m thinking about, I take it home and I’m thinking about it at home too. It’s that integration point. We want to make sure we assess as well. That’s the starter how.
For the assets piece, as we uncover different assets, I look at that as whether that’s your tangible and intangible assets, whether that’s your net worth tools that you use, models and ways of thinking, or spaces that you have. We start to map those out so that as we think about the challenge, we’re leveraging what you have and focusing on how we can use what you have to solve the problem versus focusing on what you don’t have. That’s just a frame of mind and a framework that I like to use to start to solve those challenges.
We recently posted on Consulting Success® Our 10 Guiding Principles, the ten things that we believe and follow that make our business and our lives successful. One of those connects with what you said, which is less is more. From a marketing and a business perspective, you’re right. A lot of people tend to default when they’re encountering a challenge or they want to see greater results. The first thing that they ask themselves is what else can I do and what else can I add. What you just shared and what I’m a very big believer in as well is, before going off and trying to add something new or add something different you already have the answer and solution to what you’re looking for.
It is contained within your assets or your business or yourself right now, and looking for ways to strengthen or improve what already exists before having to go and do something completely different. From a marketing perspective it would be, “We want more clients.” The first thing that a lot of people default to is maybe we should go do some advertising, but what if you already have more clients sitting within your existing clients or within your referral base or things of that nature that you haven’t even tapped yet. That’s a powerful principle and I like how you’ve applied that to the work that you’re doing.
I would say as you look at getting more clients, oftentimes, the best way to find new clients is to be introduced from people that you already know. People don’t know how to introduce you. If you think about your network as your intangible asset, then you can start to say, what are the ways that I can activate that network? Then you can think about what do I have? By thinking, it’s almost an expansive moment. First, we think about mapping extensively with the assets we have or if you can map them out into something. For me, I’m very visual. It helps me to have a visual map of them like little landscape map of my assets. It helps me be more creative because then I can go back to it and say, ”What maps to this challenge, what can I leverage, and how might I be thinking about those assets in a way that’s locking them away and their potential away because of the way I’ve framed them up.”
Sometimes what we do for different challenges is we’ll take that asset map and start to collide the assets. We start to think about what if I put this with this and how might that help me solve this problem in any way. Part of that also means backing away from your assets once you’ve met them to think about what’s the real purpose of them, oftentimes, the solid point, maybe it’s a digital tool that we’re using within our company and we think of it in one way of use. If you can back up and say what’s really the purpose of it, and then you might be able to see how you could use that exact same technology somewhere else and not have to go buy something new or not have to reach out for something because you’ve probably already got it.Everyone has a different way of showing up what works best for them. Click To Tweet
We’re talking about getting clients and you’ve worked with some very well-known, well-established brands and organizations. What have you found to be the most effective approach to getting new clients, to winning appointments with people where you have then the opportunity to engage in a conversation with them?
Everyone has a different way of showing up what works best for them. When I sit back and think about who I am? I’m absolutely extroverted. I love to chat and think. For me, it’s about when I meet people through the different events that I put myself. Every year, I go to a select number of conferences. I’ve chosen them because they’re the events where you can have conversations where the people on the stage are as interesting as the people who are in the audience. That’s one place. There are a few conferences that I always go to. PopTech is definitely one of my favorites plus a few others that rise up, Dent is an interesting one.
I look for ones where I’m going to be able to have real conversations with people. It’s not, because I know that there’s a selling opportunity, oftentimes these tend to be a bit more long-term. At any of the events that I go to when I meet people, I’m always focused on how can I add value to them and sometimes that’s an introduction to someone else. Sometimes it’s not working with me, but I feel when I engage with people and we start to have conversations, I’m always thinking about what’s the value I can add to them versus what’s the value I can extract.
Are you able to attribute a direct ROI from the events that you go to?
If I look at clients that I’ve engaged after these events, absolutely.
That’s important because a lot of people go to events with the idea of they’re going to go learn something and learning and self-development, professional development is very important. I’ve also observed that going to events and having a focus of meeting other people who can be prospective clients is depositing value into that relationship bank is powerful. If you put in the work to actually attend them and to actually network and not just to sit in and intake information or to go to the bar and have a drink.
The thing I’d say is that inputting value oftentimes we’re looking for the client and if I look at the ROI on those conferences where my biggest relationships have come from introductions. It’s not that I necessarily meet the immediate person. Too often, we’re looking at conference badges. We’re looking at what’s your name and where are you in. While it’s important to have a line of sight into who you want to meet at these conferences, it’s also important to be open to realizing that the people you talk to have their own networks. If you make an impression with them and they understand what the value is that you add, they’re going to introduce you as well.
Do you find that you typically will ask the people that you know, to make an introduction, say, “I’d love to connect with anyone that meets this criteria,” or is it just naturally the people that you know are making those introductions for you without you even asking?
It’s both. I’d love to think that it was naturally happening, but it’s definitely both. When I think about the conversations that I have with them and we often start the conversation off by understanding what are you interested in right now is one of my favorite questions to ask people. It’s a question they’re excited to answer and two because it lets them speak from their own place of knowledge to quickly think what else in my world is tied to that. It gives you a broader place to talk from. Within that I can normally position what I do about what I find interesting about what I do. It gives me a way to make what I do relevant to them and their interests.
Within that I’m giving them enough data about me for them to be able to make connections. In talking to people, I always after conferences follow-up, LinkedIn people, and then I quickly look at who do they know, who I might want to know. I always make sure I do mind the thought if I ever say that I’m going to introduce someone or if I’m going to connect them with a piece of information, I make sure that happens. I use that as part of my follow-up because I want to make sure when I’m providing value before I’m extracting it. If they do have connections that I’d love to meet, I’m also very clear about why I want to talk to that person. I make that introduction for them as easy as possible, which is often saying, here’s what I think is interesting, here’s why I’d love to talk to them, would you mind connecting me. I even will go as far as to give them a piece of introductory text if it’s helpful.
What other tactics or actions have you found that work well for you and your company to win business and to generate leads?
As I think about what has been helping us with pitches lately, I think that making it real for people about what you’re going to do, giving them some starter ideas and provocations, it’s better than just talking process to people. I think everyone has a process and while it’s important to understand how you will work together, it’s not the most inspiring part of the work that we’re doing. Framing up the interesting provocations that you could solve together, giving them some idea, some forces that might be impacting their business internally, and how they might be able to change.
Setting that bit of inspiration at the front is useful and it helps set you apart because it shows that you’re not just thinking about following a process and being a slave to the process, you’re focused on that end goal. I know that for the work that I’m doing, what if that is absolutely part of what we do. The impact of the work is the core of what we do and what we’re focused on. That helps as far as I would say winning the work and making it real. Wherever you can bring real mess to it to give them an idea of what it might feel and look like. That’s super helpful.
And how about outbound? Any other strategies or tactics that you found to be effective in generating those leads? Just even having the opportunity to get in front of someone and have a conversation. What’s working well for you?
For ?What if! as an organization we’ve been using a chat bot which has been helpful to allow people to connect with you on amount of time. For other outbound, it’s making sure that you are present in different places. My work doesn’t span one industry. It goes across sector and making sure that I’m going to different events. One of the things that I am working on getting better at is in general my writing and making sure that it’s not just showing up in the typical faces where you might expect to find it, but that it’s reaching new audiences.We talk about failure versus learning, but it comes down to being open to iterate. Click To Tweet
One of the great things that you can do is if you have content that you can share that’s really interesting, I often am not just sharing just my content. I’m doing a lot of research and reading. What I think about is, who have I connected to and who this would be interesting to? I have a running list of people who I’m just pinging every once in a while, not for an ask, but to provide my value, just to check up, check in. I find that most of my patient comes from is just following up. It sounds so obvious. It’s rather time-consuming so getting a system around it that works for you is important.
Erin, when you’re working on a client project and running to a client that isn’t cooperative or that you feel is draining your energy and things aren’t going smoothly, what is the first thing that you do? How do you handle those situations? I’m sure that we’ve all encountered them.
I was going to be like, “That’s never happened.” A big part of the way that we work at what is important is that we always work in pairs and actually we believe in the brand trust. Whether you’re in an agency or whether you are solo, making sure that you have people that you can reach out to think about new ways in and to give you a bit of inspiration of how you might deal with situation is important. I always try to sit back and think about what is the underlying emotion that’s driving this person. They have a lot on their plate and they’re worried about being the bottleneck so they’re pushing. There’s a lot of pressure for them and there’s fear that’s driving some of their reactions.
Trying to understand what those things are. If you haven’t done a good job of it at the beginning of the project, making sure that you take a pause moment and check in. Making that check in a bit more personally helps. Otherwise, if you are able to work more on a team, even sometimes just changing the person, you’re still involved, but making sure maybe the next time it’s a different person on your team who’s talking to see if you can change the dynamic. I find it really helpful. Personally, when that happens, I give myself twenty minutes of venting a week where I’m allowed to be negative and that’s it. I put it all in that twenty minutes and my goal is always to see it, focus on it, and let it go.
You’ve worked as a consultant and played several roles, I’m sure you’ve encountered work with many other consultants as you’ve risen up in your career. What is one of the biggest mistakes that you’ve seen consultants make that you feel holding back? Maybe it’s something you experienced yourself or something you know, that if people corrected they will be much more successful?
When it comes to organizational change and making organizations more responsive and adaptive, it’s wanting to go for perfect at the gate and not doing anything until it is perfect. So much of the work that we do is about experimentation. It’s about rapid prototyping, and trial. Those principles seem like they make a lot of sense in the consumer world and have taken on from products, but we don’t think about how we might do that from the more internal colleague lens. Before we create these talent programs, there’s always a desire to move fast and get it to scale quickly. I think there’s a need to say, “Let’s make sure we try this out, so we understand everything that’s happening within it. What are our most critical assumptions? Let’s identify those and make sure that we solve for them.”
In the work that we do, oftentimes, we talk about failure versus learning, but it comes down to just being open to iterate and so much of that means making sure that you make it real. The more you can make it real, the more often, whether it’s moving from paper prototypes and putting down how something might work to trying it out with a smaller group before you go and just launched the whole thing at scale, that’s the biggest mistakes that I see. They’re the hardest ones to pull back from because you’ve used a lot of your clout within an organization.
What do you say to the consultant who agrees with you? They understands conceptually or instinctively that they should not wait for things to be perfected, who probably tend to be perfectionist a little bit too often, yet they look at an opportunity to reach out to an ideal client or put something out there into the marketplace and feel concerned. They hold back taking that action because they see it as, they have one chance and one chance to make a good impression. What has been your experience and your perspective on that and how would you counsel them?
There’s always ways when we start to get started to think about how you can do something small to take some of the risk out of it. I would always say, if you’re worried about putting something out there, where is that worry coming from, let’s outline what those assumptions are, and figure out how we can learn quickly. If it’s a time-based situation and if it’s about making an impression, that’s more personal rather than project-based. Start with an open and honest conversation. The more that we can operate in transparency about, this is what I’m excited about, this is why, and I’m actually looking to build this with you and making it feel more like the partnership has been where I’ve found the most amount of success. As a consultant your job is to be a partner.
We often talk about our clients as partners, but we’re the partner, we’re the one who’s coming in to help them do something. Yes, we have responsibility because of our organizations and our own budgets, but we’re also impacting their jobs, we have to remember that. The more that you can start to be transparent and find the moment to build more transparency in a more transparent way, I find it helps. Whether that’s finding the right level of bringing them into the sausage making so that they can see how things are growing and changing and they can give their feedback early and often. Whether it’s from a personal level or whether it’s from a project level, finding that level of transparency that allow someone to build one you’re thinking, it creates that partnership that makes successful relationships and successful projects.As a consultant, your job is to be a partner. Click To Tweet
You’ve talked quite a bit about providing value to a prospective client and buyer, thinking of ways to show them a more tangible, going beyond methodology and process and giving them some insight into what it will look like to work together and what you might tackle. How do you deal with organizations or prospective clients who want to get your expertise, your knowledge, your skills applied to their situation but may just be tire-kicking? They want to get your perspective on something and you want to provide them with a lot of value in response to that. How do you or your company ensure that people are qualified so that you don’t spend too much time giving out just information, your expertise, and your knowledge if someone truly isn’t an ideal client?
This is a tough challenge. Part of the pitching process is making sure that you’re not just pitching yourself, but that you’re also betting that relationship to make sure it’s a good fit and that’s definitely hard to figure out. We often look at that as making sure that as we’re pitching and beginning projects that we always start with a series of questions that help us. Make sure that we have the right understanding of what’s happening and what the end goal is. Making sure that our end goals are aligned and what we’re saying is the goal really is the goal.
Some of that is sometimes talking with them to make sure that you understand whether it’s their risk, really take on and transform quickly or go after a disruptive solution. If you’re not willing to take the risk that goes along with that, there’s a dissonance that you need to be able to either close or address because it can cause a lot of problems in the project later on. That’s just through conversation. Making sure that you ask those questions at the beginning.
I believe in the idea of best questions not best practices because practices are context specific, but questions are the thing that we’re answering based on the context that gets us to the answer. As we step back and start to think about what are the right questions to ask at different parts of any journey with a client, capturing those, and there’ll be different depending on what your industry is or what your challenge is, those become the cornerstone of the ways of working that help us make sure that we set up good relationships with clients at the outset.
Erin, I want to thank you for coming on here and sharing with us. Before we end here, I want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. What is the best place for them to go to?
I would say if you want to learn more about me, my LinkedIn is public and out there. If you want to learn more about ?What If!, WhatIfInnovation.com. It’s a website address and a lovely company. Definitely check that out. I post on Medium occasionally if you want to find my posts.
Erin, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you so much for having me. This has been really fun.
- Erin Hersey
- ?What If!
- Our 10 Guiding Principles
- LinkedIn – Erin Hersey