Monday, January 26, 2009

A CEO's Guide: How to Get True Business-Driving Insights From Your Research Investments

A CEO’s Guide: How To Get True Business-Driving Insight From Your Research Investment

Are you maximizing your research investments to achieve your business goals? In today’s economy, this is a question worth exploring.

Your market research department and suppliers likely are experts in methodology, project management and findings analysis. The findings they provide help you make appropriate investments, launch new products, enter new markets, and address under-performing areas. However, many companies struggle to uncover insights that generate clear, innovative and differentiated leadership paths. But it can be done, and now is the perfect time to refine your approach so your company can capitalize on powerful strategic insight from existing research.

First, let’s start with a clear understanding of the difference between an insight and a finding:

Finding: A finding is “the result of a judicial examination or inquiry, the results of an investigation (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary). It usually is an observation or interpretation, much like one would find in a lab report, and provides answers to specific predetermined questions. Findings can describe consumer behavior/preference, and usually answer which business hypotheses are proved or disproved –in other words, the learnings tend to be highly rational, tactical and focused on history.

Insight: According to Webster’s, insight is “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things, or seeing intuitively.” Various industry definitions also cite fresh perspective, penetrating understanding, unexpected discoveries that unlock opportunities. All of these strongly suggest out-of-the-box thinking that challenges the status quo. Insights tend to focus on the emotional, psychological underpinnings of consumer behavior that are more forward thinking and predictive.

The reality is most business research is packed with findings that can provide great tactical guidance, but contains very few true insights. This is because implications are rarely put into a broader strategic context by looking for surprising patterns/disconnects compared to other data points, including historical research and trends. Changing the name of a department from Market Research to Consumer/Business Insights (a hot trend across the business community these past 5 years) and reconstituting the group’s mission to include insight generation, while a great start, isn’t sufficient to generate the change most CEO’s are seeking.

To ensure your research leadership is arming you with valuable, business driving insights on your customer and marketplace, critical barriers need to be addressed:

Strategy or Tactics? - Most research focuses on answering very specific tactical questions, not on strategic learning. In other words, we are not directing our research organizations to answer the “right” questions. By design or circumstance, most research departments focus on questions of a repetitive and tactical nature: which promotion works best, which ad resonates most, what do consumers think about program A vs. program B. So where is the insight going to come from that identifies your next golden opportunity? Most likely from out-of-the-box efforts based on broad strategic questions that use penetrating qualitative techniques (ethnography, consumer immersion, Delphi), combined with comprehensive historical research reviews that look for unidentified patterns and disconnects.

Square Peg In A Round Hole: Department heads hire skill sets to staff the questions they are expected to answer. Because we’re not asking the right questions, research departments tend to hire good research tacticians, but rarely great creative, strategic analysts. Strong insightful leadership may exist in your research department. But the right personnel are often not easily identifiable because they rarely get to work on projects that showcase the different skill sets needed to deliver insights vs. findings. So how do you find them? When you see a report you find particularly valuable and provocative, ask who wrote it and meet with them directly. Look for people who are particularly adept at: organizing large amounts of information into succinct frameworks, synthesizing many different types of data into a coherent, cohesive story or questioning commonly held beliefs and their implications.

The Politics of Politics: Even in research departments structured to be the “independent” voice of the consumer, truly insightful researchers often become too afraid to speak up, fearing reprisal for championing compelling thoughts that may contradict some powerful person’s “pet” project or idea. So companies quickly can become insular in their thinking, leaving potentially highly lucrative opportunities untapped. Allow the best thinkers to get to you directly. Nurture them with projects, reporting structures and managers that champion challenges to the status quo.

Dig In Your Own Backyard: Most people think it is easier and faster to contract for new research rather than digging through mounds of disparate data that already exists. Unfortunately, new research is usually narrowly focused, and cannot by its very nature uncover patterns. Some of the most insightful research comes from applying a new lens to old data: look for trends, insight and patterns that may reveal over time. The best was to predict the future is to look at the past. Assign a person that has the patience to plow through piles of information, strong general analytical skills covering many types of information, a willingness to challenge current thinking, and the ability to craft a story that can tell you something informative.

Make Or Buy?: Outsourcing can provide a fresh point of view and state-of-the-art techniques when barriers such as entrenched status quo thinking or mismatched skill sets are present in large organizations. Companies that mine their historical research investment to uncover true insights and turn them into a meaningful brand story with strategic innovation plans will succeed despite the current challenging economic environment - because insights are the secret ingredient to big ideas, new markets and new wealth. The key is to put the right resources with the right skill sets and an open-minded approach on the effort.

Driving your business and improving shareholder value are job one. Change and growth will follow by acknowledging what you know vs. what you don’t, listening for insightful nuggets of truth, and utilizing your historical research in new ways that may not have been originally intended or envisioned.

“Opportunities are often things you haven’t noticed the first time around,” Catherine Deneuve.

Call us to find out more tips for mining meaningful insights to craft a brand story that can drive your business.

Lisa Wolfe
Airlift Ideas Inc.
Chief Insight Officer


Tim Nicol said...

Lisa- great blog and wise words on Inisght. To develop the point about the capabilities within "Insight Departments", in our experience of running serious creativity sessions, it is multi-functional, diverse groups that perform best when tasked with insight development. The addition of tangential, unexpected connections often has the power to turn a finding into an insight.

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