It is by now clear that the field of applied research is experiencing some very dramatic shifts. From mass layoffs, ‘silent’ re-orgs, ‘right-sizing,’ and many unknowns about the impact of AI, the pendulum for insight work has swung to an extreme I’ve never seen before. This is difficult for all of us in the industry, and is particularly challenging for anyone impacted by layoffs, or those who are in the early stages of their careers.
This post is dedicated to anyone facing these recent challenges. It’s mostly a loose collection of thoughts and insights that I might have shared with my younger self; including, most pertinently, questions I wish I’d asked of myself and others. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, and its applicability will vary depending on your circumstances. It is, however, an attempt to help you take advantage of this shift in the industry by pausing and using ethnographic thinking to re-frame your career considerations as you engage in conversations with prospective employers and your fellow travelers in life.
Let’s start with a few ways of looking at job-seeking in this field that often get overlooked. Regardless of industry, these considerations should help you steer around the hazards that could de-rail you and, worse yet, erode your confidence in a tough job market.
How does the company make their money?
This one is FAR more critical than I once realized; and it’s not about examining balance sheets or annual reports. It’s about understanding the core value of what a company does that enables it to exist. For example, a social media company doesn’t succeed unless it can offer a compelling platform for people to share content. Without that, it doesn’t make money. If people don’t come to the platform to share and enjoy content, the company has no clear way to attract either advertisers or memberships — which means they have no business model. So, their research needs encompass things like understanding what motivates people to create, share, and consume content, as well as how to best facilitate momentum for this ‘flywheel.’ If you’re talking with a company that operates in this space, ask yourself whether this is something that truly drives you to produce your best work. If yes, then great, this might just be the type of company where you’ll thrive, because this org will repeatedly look for these types of insights to help the business thrive and grow. If not, there’s no reason to think you’re deficient in some way. But it’s best to identify this early, and preferably well before you start the interview process or accept a position.
Beyond the matter of research focus, you should also consider that the core business model of most companies permeates nearly every interaction within it. When people talk about organizational culture, they often refer to things like whether the org has a ‘flat’ structure (I’ve never seen one that really does), ‘work-life balance’ (you should have your own definition of this), or even perks. These may shape a org’s culture, but they often pale in comparison to the overarching influence that the core business model has on how people prioritize, make decisions, influence change, or get rewarded. Want to know what really drives people and behavior in an org? Follow the money.
Is there room to be you?
To answer this question, you’ll want to think beyond identity categories to consider your own unique attributes and whether or not they’re a match for the org. Start with a solid understanding of what you bring to the table. Self-evaluations like Strengths Finder are one way to do this. However, what I’ve found to be even more useful over the years is to listen carefully to how others perceive your value. Ask them about what stands out in your work for them (good and bad) — maybe even propose a feedback exchange of some sort. Reflect back on things like previous performance reviews, casual conversations with colleagues at the bar, surprise compliments that stuck with you, or random comments about your work that resonated deeply for you for one reason or another. In a phrase: feedback is a gift — unwrap it.
Then, try to understand the org’s dynamics. Start with a focus on processes and practices. For example, are the org’s practices rooted in well worn orthodoxies or are they more flexible and open to change? Ask them about reporting structures and levels, operating procedures, and approval processes that will impact your work (e.g., research planning, budgeting, participant recruiting, collaboration protocols and practices, organizing workshops, reporting out, etc.), and listen for signs of flexibility or ossification. Compare their responses to your own thresholds for structure and process in your work.
You’ll also want to probe into how people are rewarded within the org. Even if you aren’t particularly career-focused, these standards will have bearing on your level of satisfaction in the role and your relationship with your peers. To get started, ask about success stories for people in roles similar to the one you’re considering. More specifically, ask them to tell you about the one thing that person did that stood out most? How were they rewarded? Listen carefully for signs of how the org positions and recognizes value, and make sure you gather as many different views as possible and take detailed notes on each.
Then, ask yourself what type of stories you heard. Are they sharing examples that focus on how this person successfully managed up?; about how they changed hearts and minds?; how brave they were?; how efficient they were? how radical they were? how they rallied colleagues?; how they systematized a practice? Each of these is an indicator of the values of the org. You may find that the greatest insights you glean are from the subtexts of these conversations. Pay close attention to these signals; they’re the interstices and the cracks where company culture actually resides. And those cracks are where you’ll be living…nearly every day. Listen for telling pauses, tone of voice, veiled judgements, elation, joy, team alignment, patterns of conflict, etc. Then, finally, look for themes across your conversations and ask yourself if you see alignment or gaps between your own values and those that you’ve seen signaled. If the latter, how big are those gaps, and are they deal-breakers?
Who’s in charge really?
There’s often a distinct difference between official org charts and actual networks of influence within orgs. Many of us have seen instances where “dotted-line reports” or “advisors” hold far more sway than those listed on formal team rosters. Informal networks will influence your experience in significant ways, since they often set the conditions and tone for how the team communicates, interacts, and makes decisions. To get past the party line, you’ll want to dig a bit deeper than a glance at the org chart. Ask about how the group identifies stakeholders, who they are in relationship to the team, and how they achieve buy-in with them (including examples of both successes and challenges). Then follow that up with “who else is critical in the decision making process” to get a more complete picture. Knowing who you’ll need to convince that your work is valuable, and where they sit in the org, is critical information for understanding where opportunities lie for the role, and whether or not the interactions needed will sync with your strengths, work style, and values. Will you be spending most of your time sharing insights and influencing decisions with designers?; product managers?; executives? Your approach to each needs to be different, and it will shape nearly everything about how you work.
In addition to reporting structure and understanding the network of stakeholders with whom you’d interact, you’ll want to get some understanding of how leadership is performing. For example, are they sending signals that indicate leadership gaps? The obvious first place to look is the job description itself. Read it carefully. Is it clear? Does it feel scoped correctly, given your experience in the field? Signs of leadership gaps are often reflected in job descriptions that are scoped too broadly (they want one person to cover a vast array of responsibilities that stretch across multiple different practices) or too narrowly (caution: micro-manager ahead). In addition, strong leaders have strategic conviction. Ask people to help you understand the top two or three strategic priorities for the year, and how they’re driven. If they give you empty platitudes instead of a strategic vision the includes at some indication of how goals will be accomplished and measured, the odds are high that you’re headed into a rudderless team.
Leadership gaps aren’t necessarily a bad thing, if there are indications that the team is open to new ways of influencing the org. This could even be an opportunity for you to help drive change and make significant impact. Listen for cues from people that demonstrate how change happens within the org. Ask about how someone in this position might shape the role once they’re in it, and whether the org is open to some early ideas you might have.
Finally, dig a bit further into the characteristics and approach of key leaders in the org. Ask about their leadership style, their tenets, what makes them unique? Probe for examples of how they affected change or drove impact, and how the org responded. Do some digging online to see if you can find interviews with those leaders, or guest appearances on podcasts, etc. Try to gather as many of these stories as possible, and then ask yourself one very important question: Given what I’ve seen and heard so far, can I imagine myself as a leader in this org? If the answer is no, this may be an indication of cultural misalignment, which could lead to feelings of indifference toward the company or even resentment. Either way, feeling like this certainly won’t inspire you.
What’s their approach to innovation?
Research is often tied closely to innovation initiatives within an org. However, there are many different ways innovation is approached and positioned within companies. I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredibly talented and experienced people in this space, and two conversations have really stuck with me.
The first conversation I want to share with you is one I had with someone who I sincerely consider a product genius. We were discussing our experiences with the different attempts we’ve seen to activate innovation insights within a company, which I’ll paraphrase here: There tend to be two main modes for integrating innovation within an org — the “looking for friends” approach, and the “shiny thing on a shelf” approach.
In the first of these, an innovation group is tasked with creating great new ideas. They might conduct exploratory research, carefully craft a set of design principles, and even cook up some prototypes. Then, they begin to look around the company to build relationships with teams that might want to take up the mantle and bring these ideas to life. If they find interested teams, they often eventually realize that those teams’ reward structures and workflows are simply not designed to ‘ingest’ thinking that’s so different from what has traditionally worked for them. The innovation teams’ insights eventually just become more work for which they won’t be rewarded. If they do find some alignment with those teams, they often come up against a game of odds: most new ideas fail, and those teams don’t want to be associated with a series of failures.
After a few attempts at this, these innovation groups will often shift to a “service model” where they begin working with another team that has some sort of mandate to innovate, and offer their skills as a means of helping them discover and develop the next big thing. Unfortunately, the objectives for this type of work are often constrained by the mental models and limitations of ‘tried and true’ practices. The team ‘contracting’ the services of the innovation team often frames goals and objectives in incremental terms that don’t align well with the riskier and more creative type of work that drives the innovation team. The result is frustration on all sides; and, often, a re-org or dissolution of the (non-revenue-tied) innovation team.
On the other hand, the “shiny thing on a shelf” approach follows a workflow much closer to that of an incubator. The innovation team is responsible not just for exploring, setting parameters or specs, and generating mock-ups, but for finding product-market-fit, and developing and testing workable prototypes in the marketplace. The idea is that once successes are clearly demonstrated in the ‘real world’ by these teams, they can more easily earn the trust of other teams in the org, who are motivated to integrate their successes and adapt them to their needs. This approach is much more difficult, requires high levels of buy-in from leadership, and often longer timelines — all things that are rare in lean times. However, I’ve seen it work first hand in the form of live model tests, pop-up stores, and new product experiments where teams develop and test offerings in real world settings. Research is critical throughout the process in this approach; and, because it sits much closer to addressing business needs in real-world settings, its value is self-evident.
The second story I want to share is from a conversation I had with a fellow researcher who’s seen his share of innovation practices come and go as a researcher within some very well-known large companies. His take?: a company that launches a dedicated innovation group in the ‘looking for friends’ model described above is likely not fostering the organic innovation that is already occurring within its product teams, and isn’t committed enough to give an innovation team a long enough leash to pursue the ‘shiny thing on a shelf’ approach. So, teams formed under these conditions often have the odds stacked against them right out of the gate.
So, where does this leave you as a researcher looking to find your next role? As you talk with prospective employers and teams, ask them how the org approaches innovation. Is it considered a speciality handled by a dedicated team, or is it an integral part of how products change and evolve? If they have a dedicated team, does that team operate as a discrete unit, a service model for other teams, or more like an incubator? What role does research play in the model they’ve deployed? What are the channels they have in place to cultivate and recognize research-driven innovative initiatives? What are their success stories?; their failures? Then, take the time to consider where your strengths would be most valuable in the context of the model they’ve chosen.
Do they prioritize humility?
This may be the most important assessment you make as you engage in conversations with prospective teams. You will make mistakes in your work. Your colleagues will too. It’s essential to understand the character of interactions within a team to determine whether you’d be entering an environment where teammates learn from those mistakes and offer one another support in the process. I’ve had two employers in the history of my career that made this a priority when recruiting. One did so explicitly (yay!); and, while the other may not have articulated it so directly, it was clear that they held people to standards that privileged authenticity, kindness, humility, and empathy.
It may be difficult to make an assessment like this with what little time you have to get to know a prospective team, but I would say that it’s a combination of gut feeling paired with some lightweight queries. When I talked with people in both of the companies referenced above, I was struck by how warm, sincere, and transparent everyone was. After seeing this across 10-12 different employees, a clear pattern emerged. In addition to looking for these qualities, you might also ask some questions that get at the matter somewhat tangentially. For example, you could inquire about how the team has responded to adversity and then listen for signs of humility, accountability, and openness to learn. Do they share stories about how people rolled up their sleeves and came together, or does their response focus more on internal politics or maybe conflict avoidance?
Another way to assess this is to explicitly demonstrate your own humility and see how they react. After talking about a project and your impact or accomplishments, wrap up with a short summary of gaps, challenges, or shortcomings. Talk about where it went wrong, and what you’d differently if you had a chance to start over. Maybe even prompt them for ideas about how they might have done things differently, just out of curiosity. Does sharing this experience seem to fall on deaf ears, or is this the moment where they engage even more with your work? Either says volumes about how they work and where they invest their energy.
What to do with responses
The job hunt can be a bit of a minefield. Managing a rapidly growing number contacts, context-switching, adapting to changing org needs, ghosting (just weird), etc. If you’ve been through a series of interviews with an org, and you’ve reached the point where you finally receive a response, I’d like to offer what I think is the healthiest response to each.
If they say ‘no,’ in whatever form, many companies aren’t in a position to share why. Feel free to ask them politely for any information they have about your candidacy, but ultimately your best reaction to a ‘no’ is to learn what you can, then let it go and move on.
If they say ‘maybe,’ prepare yourself for a ‘no,’ but try to dig for more detail. What’s delaying the decision? Is it a matter of budget? team match? waiting on a re-org? When will they know more about budget? What are their standards for a team match? How long do re-orgs typically take? Then, be sure to offer more of your time to clarify questions about your work and approach, during which you’ll want to get as much feedback as possible from them. No matter the explanation from their end, your goal is to use the ‘maybe’ response as a way to learn more about the org and their perception of your candidacy. You’ll also want to consider that a ‘maybe’ could also be a delay tactic while they court other candidates or wait from a response from someone they consider their top choice. All that sucks, of course, so try to use the ‘maybe’ as a personal learning and growth opportunity.
Finally, if you get a ‘yes’ response, congratulations, but make sure you have all the clarity you need going in. Do you have a clear understanding of expectations for the role? Have you taken the time to read between the lines of the role’s responsibilities to determine the higher order need they have? Are you seeing signs of humility and integrity among those with whom you’ll work? There’s no such thing as a perfect org, but you’ll want to ensure that you have optimized for your well-being before jumping in.
A few final thoughts
Most careers are non-linear, so give yourself a break and open your perspective to possibilities that aren’t at the top of your wishlist. In my career, I’ve run across projects, clients, and jobs that I initially felt weren’t that interesting for one reason or another, only to find out later that they included some of the greatest growth opportunities I’ve ever experienced. If you’re just getting started, this is particularly important. You may have your heart set on that dream company or job, but you may very well be limiting yourself. This is why I often recommend that younger researchers spend some time working in a consultancy, where they can get exposure to many different industries and types of clients. You’ll learn much more about your strengths and interests this way, and in a much faster timeframe.
Lastly, I realize that people have different levels of interest in, and tolerance for, playing the career ‘game,’ but I’ve never seen anyone who’s both happy and laser-focused on winning that game. In the end, you have far less control over what happens than you might think. Enjoy the ride, the destination is never what you think it’ll be.
Photo credit: Marcel Duchamp – Five-Way Self Portrait (1917)