Want empathetic leaders? Take them to the source

A leadership immersion trip can bring decision-makers closer to the people you build products for.

Have you had a hard time convincing your company’s leadership about actual customer needs?

Ever worry that product strategy decisions are made in corporate offices far from the people who actually use your product? 
 
Do you sometimes feel like leaders across cross-functional product disciplines don’t quite appreciate research or the rigor it requires? 
 
If you said yes to any of these questions, you should consider making leadership immersion trips part of your research roadmap.

What’s a leadership immersion trip?

Leadership immersions are research trips geared toward company leaders, often those who are a step or two removed from day-to-day product decisions and issues people face. Unlike traditional product research trips, immersions are typically based on insights from research that’s already been done. They give leaders a chance to experience firsthand what people who use your products experience. 
 
For leaders like Andrew Bosworth, who used to run the Ads organization at Facebook and currently Vice President of the Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality organization, immersion trips have been invaluable. “Every year I travel with members of my team and spend a week in another part of the world being immersed with our customers and clients,” he says. “It has been eye-opening for me to observe the entrepreneurial spirit of people as they find clever solutions to their particular set of challenges. These immersion trips have been inspirational and have had a deep influence on my thinking and the way we approach product development.

Why should we do this?

A successful trip can deepen leaders’ empathy for the people who use your products — and yield insights that spark new ideas and strategies. Leadership immersions can also:

  • Create shared experiences and context: Leadership teams often return from their trip with a powerful common experience. They know they’re speaking the same language and talking about the same problems. This can help teams articulate their shared vision more clearly.
  • Establish alignment on key topics: Immersions can challenge assumptions about distant users, establish alignment on key topics, and facilitate product strategy and decision making. The more diverse your audience, the bigger these benefits become.
  • Build relationships: Sharing a new experience helps build relationships among different leaders, and between leaders and product teams. Attendees spend a lot of time with each other, brainstorming over hot pot (for example) and making daily decisions about the day’s activities.
  • Strengthen understanding of our research discipline: An immersion can help leaders understand the rigor and depth research requires. Leaders get to see research in action: planning, execution, how insights are pulled together, and how different disciplines interact. In many cases, this can impact all future research by helping impact product strategy and direction, and strengthen a researchers’ sphere of influence.

A well-run trip can remind everyone involved of the core purpose of their work. After a recent immersion in Brazil, Deb Liu, VP of Marketplace at Facebook, said, “We met with people who use our platform to make a living or supplement their income. It was a powerful reminder for me and my team of the impact our work has to improve the economic well-being of people.

How to run a leadership immersion?

There’s no one correct way to run an immersion trip. They can range from a brief visit to customers in a nearby neighborhood to an extensive journey overseas. But whatever the destination or duration, some basic guideposts can help ensure that your trip pays off. Here are 9 key tips:

1. Set the right goals

Attendees may be satisfied with a general goal of gaining empathy for the people who use your products. As researchers, we shouldn’t be. Make sure you set goals and design the immersion trip so it ensures product impact and has a measurable outcome.

2. Select the right number of attendees

It’s always tricky to decide who attends a leadership immersion (beyond the leaders who are your core attendees). Unlike a traditional product research trip, in which research is the sole purpose, leadership immersions can have many other purposes, as stated above. Keep this in mind when deciding on the size of the traveling team.

3. Use a mix of research methods

Leaders tend to “get it” quickly. Once leaders understand something, they want to move on to the next thing. Instead of repetitive lab sessions, plan a mix of research methods to keep attendees engaged and energized. For example, plan an immersion activity where leaders travel to different parts of a city to experience the culture, in-home visits, focus groups, or dyads and triads.

4. Keep it real

In an effort to make leaders feel welcome and comfortable, local offices that help plan the trip may want to bring out “star performers” who demonstrate best practices and success. Researchers should pay special attention to participant recruitment to make sure leaders see how products are truly being used. 
 
You should also make sure your leaders have an authentic experience that reflects the particular market. For example, when we planned a leadership immersion to Brazil last year, we wanted our leaders to get a broad understanding of how Brazilians buy and sell things. In addition to in-home visits, we also took our leaders to a favela for a true experience of how e-commerce affects lives there.

5. Expect complications

Striking the right balance between VIP treatment and authenticity can require some extra effort, especially when you’re taking leaders to unsafe areas. In many areas, keeping your leaders safe by hiring security or having special cars is paramount.
 
Be sure to stress-test your entire research plan to determine what you’d do if something goes wrong. What will you do if transportation is late, or participants don’t show up, or the wi-fi goes down? Being a pessimist will help you think through contingencies and ensure everyone has a smooth ride over any potential bumps.

6. Don’t overschedule

Researchers tend to pack as much into a trip as we can. When you plan the immersion trip, make sure you include plenty of downtime and less-structured activities that let leaders make discoveries and connections on their own.
 
On a recent trip to Asia, our sales team scheduled elaborate banquet lunches and dinners almost every night. By the fourth day, our leaders wanted to get a “real” experience. So we cancelled that day’s banquet lunch and took everyone to a local food court, where everyone had fun ordering and trying new dishes.
 
Downtime has very practical benefits, too, as it gives leaders a chance to connect with the home office and resolve issues that might otherwise distract them during research sessions. Setting up a “control room” in the team’s hotel can also help. Leaders can use this reserved, private space as their travel conference room for ad-hoc meetings, team debriefs, and confidential discussions, all of which can be hard to do in the hotel’s restaurant or bar.

7. Give everyone a job

A researcher can play a number of roles on an immersion trip: notetaker, videographer, collector of follow-up tasks, and so on. In many cases, researchers also foster engagement by assigning everyone a role to write debrief notes for each session, just as you’d do for a regular research trip. This helps leaders experience the process of synthesizing insights and gets them invested in the outcomes of the trip. Even if most of the tasks are being handled in other ways, simply handing out notebooks can be a way for everyone to record their observations, stay away from distracting electronic devices, and help to facilitate debrief discussions.
 
You can also assign roles based on interests. If your VP has a photography hobby, for example, ask them to help document the experience visually. In addition to getting them more absorbed in the trip and making use of their skill, this can even help you learn more about your leaders as individuals.

8. Plan creative hands-on activities

To encourage leaders to truly empathize, be sure to have them roll up their sleeves and actually use the products they want to learn about. Try to come up with creative exercises that make learning a fun and shared experience. 
 
On one evening of our Brazil immersion trip, for example, we divided our leadership team into different teams and gave them each a local commerce app and a fixed budget. We then asked them to buy a product using that app. Our leaders gained a deeper appreciation for what Brazilians experience when they buy a product online, what payment instruments they use, the communication tools they need, and the shipping services they have at their disposal — all while having a good time.

9. Share the insights

When product teams learn that their leadership is out connecting with customers, they naturally want to know what those leaders are learning and how it might affect decision making. Make sure to have a solid communication plan in place before you’re out in the field. Roughly determine what will be communicated and when.

Resurfacing

After the immersion, it’s important to package and share what you’ve learned with the entire organization. For example, you might create printed booklets and place them on people’s desks, ask leaders to summarize and share their learnings, or even create a highlight clip to share at the next “All Hands” meeting. 
 
The most powerful sharing method, however, requires no further effort on your part. If the trip succeeded in giving leaders a truly eye-opening experience, they’ll be moved to share anecdotes and insights from the trip long after it’s done, helping to ensure that the experiences of the people who use your products resonate throughout your organization.
 
Have you conducted a leadership immersion? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Please share them in the comments.


Authors: Omar Vasnaik, Research Manager at Facebook; Pete Terrence, Research Manager at Oculus; Seran Chen, Research Director at Facebook (from left to right); Min Katrina Lieskovsky, Research Manager at Facebook (not pictured)

Illustrator: Drew Bardana