Institutional Insights

By Kevin Swann, Strategist

Learning to work together effectively is one of the most difficult parts of partnering with a new client, or if you’re on the client side, an agency. Like developers and designers, clients and agencies have different capabilities, concerns, and points-of-view that can make working together frustrating if they’re not taken into account. Effectively partnering with a new expended professional team requires a super power I call “institutional insight,” an understanding of a new working partner’s context, norms, technologies, and interests as a business and how all of those things manifest in the behaviors, needs, and interpersonal styles of people.

Anyone who has thought about “workplace culture” or “corporate culture” already understands what institutional insights describe.

  • How do people communicate with each other?
  • Who makes decisions and how are they made?
  • How much or little/how well or badly do departments work together?
  • Is the workplace competitive and career-driven, or collaborative and egalitarian?
  • What tools and technologies do people use?

The list of questions is endless, but what matters is that you need important details about your new partner if you want to communicate effectively with them. The challenge is that learning these details is not what companies are paid to do. They have to gather this data impressionistically—piecing together dozens of small interactions, observations, and stray encounters into a portrait of a client’s culture.


Why institutional insights matter

Smashing’s clients are typically Fortune 100-500 companies with deep histories of excellence. But the people who contact us are change agents within those companies: people who want Fortune-level companies to think more like startups. They’re outsiders who are trying to change institutions from inside. The problem they face is that institutions are hard to change.

There are a host of reasons that institutions are hard to change, but the important ones are these:

1. Institutions produce cultures and cultures are hard to change.

Institutional cultures result partly from codified rules, but mostly from vague, unstated values and norms that shape what people want and how they try to get it. While cultures develop invisibly, changing them requires effort. You have to hire experts or devote relevant staff to identifying and implementing changes, develop new rules, and potentially retrain or turn over staff. And there is no guarantee that these changes will stick or even have the desired outcomes. The recent work to remake Uber’s culture shows how difficult cultural change is to achieve in a flexible startup environment. Imagine trying to change the culture of a multi-national behemoth.


2. Institutions tend to have deep memories

Start-ups have an origin story, but big companies have biographies. The bigger and older the institution, the deeper its institutional memory is. Like personal memories, institutional memories shape decisions and values, norms, self-perception, and self-description. Memory also has a force of inertia: the deeper that memory is, the more it shapes a company’s identity, and the harder it is to change.


3. Institutions use technologies that have been fine-tuned to their needs.

By technologies I don’t mean machines or software, but rather “machines, software, and any other means of organizing and manipulating information, people, space, and time,” a definition that includes things like dress codes, office design, and corporate structure. Technologies exert subtle but profound influences on individuals and institutions and, because they are costly to acquire and learn, they resist changes that do not account for them.


4. Institutions find it hard to see themselves

You can pick your metaphor—“fish don’t notice that water is wet” is my favorite—but it is difficult for someone accustomed to a particular setting to describe what makes it particular. Where an outsider might see too many meetings with no purpose (or too many purposes), too much siloing and too little communication, an insider simply sees another day at the office.


Of course, agencies have their own cultures, memories, and technologies too—and they can be just as blind to their own peculiarities as an institution. But in general agencies are more adaptable than institutions, making it comparatively easier for them to adapt to their clients’ needs. But to know how to adapt, agencies have to quickly develop institutional insights about their clients. This is why it is critical to be attentive to a client’s institutional culture: being able to define it helps you to work with it.


How we do it

People spend their lives bouncing between institutions—schools, hospitals, government offices—but few people master the skill of operating between them. In his book, The Utopia of Rules, the anthropologist David Graeber argues that most people become momentarily stupid when they interact with institutions because the demands, logic, and rules of institutions are usually opaque and peculiar. His point is that only the savviest of operators knows how to successfully navigate in multiple institutional contexts—the rest of us just get dumber. Operating in institutions is its own super power (if you don’t believe me, ask a social worker if their job is easy).

So how does a successful operator navigate institutions?

They are attentive to a variety of pain points

I once overheard a client’s research coordinators venting about how being left out of the loop made their job more frustrating. This confirmed a suspicion of mine: information was being hoarded instead of shared. Simply CC’ing the research coordinators on planning emails unblocked important information for my friends at the research center (who are now more willing to help me out when I need it), while modeling a more efficient workstyle.


They share knowledge with their peers

Lean development teams and their clients work together, but they don’t all work together at the same time. As a Strategist, I don’t work with our client’s developers. Since I don’t work with them, I don’t know what problems they encounter. Taking the time to debrief with my developer colleagues lets me learn more about our client.


They don’t compete; they empathize and include

Bringing an agency into an institution can unsettle existing staff. This is especially true in highly competitive workplace cultures. But competition between people working for the same goal is inefficient, taxing, and emotionally draining. Empathizing with clients, rather than competing with them, not only includes them in the work, it sets them up to succeed by removing emotional and workflow barriers.


They find ways to proactively meet basic needs

While Smashing’s process doesn’t rely on excessive documentation, we do keep the artifacts that cross our path. This gives us a sense of our clients’ technologies and lets us use them to help clients proactively. For example, one of our clients’ legal department requires a research protocol to conduct user research. After collecting them, we saw that we could easily include them in our workflow, easing our client’s workload. We also learned about how we could account for our client’s legal concerns by adjusting our research design.


They design their workflow around others’ calendars

The workflow of a big institution is never as direct as an agency’s “prototype, test, iterate” ideal style. Heavily-siloed departments or workflows that include frequent “alignment meetings” can grind work to a halt. Release dates that impact bonuses can create sudden crunch times. Knowing a clients’ calendar lets you rearrange our own timeline to account for our client’s idiosyncrasies.


They know a guy

Need a research plan approved by legal by tomorrow? I know a guy for that. Need participants for a last-minute usability test? I have a friend at the research center. In any institution there are power-brokers and gate-keepers, and knowing who these people are (or better, knowing what makes these people happy) is the best and easiest way to make things happen.


There is a harder to define, psychological or anthropological element to an institutional culture that requires patient observation and communication to figure out. But I think painting that picture comes from the same methods as above: empathize, listen, learn procedures, know the gate-keepers. These tasks give a “broad strokes” understanding of a client that can be filled in with finer, more qualitative details over the course of the client relationship.


Making institutional insights a part of a lean strategy

The importance of institutional insight is that it helps to understand how to communicate actionable, understandable, and relevant research between clients and agencies. It helps us work inclusively and empathetically, to form our research insights around shared contexts and capabilities, and to communicate insights to the right people, in the right language, at the right time.

When partnerships learn about each other, they tend to do it implicitly: by trying and failing to communicate effectively and then trying again in the hopes that they do better. I am proposing to turn this on its head. This early period of communication breakdowns and misalignments should be taken as an opportunity to get explicit about how your partners work and think, and how you can work and think with them. By treating this as an element of lean strategy—a process of observation, validation, and iteration—teams become more effective and indispensable partners to each other.


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