It’s hard to uncover insights when you don’t know what questions to ask

I once had to train a mixed group of English and Japanese speakers which was a daunting task even though there was simultaneous translation running throughout the session. It was one of those training sessions where the facilitator gains much more than the participants do because I had the opportunity to observe certain cultural nuances at work when working within teams to develop a course of action. When asked a question, the English speaking group would take the question as the true definition of the problem and immediately embark on providing an answer, while the Japanese speaking group would break down the question in order to uncover the real problem before they attempted to answer it. The latter’s method was more time consuming and was initially irritating due to the time constraints, but eventually we understood their approach and found their intuition to be remarkable.

On examining the question, they were able to define what was truly important and what was not, thereby allocating enough time and resources to find a final solution, and after they had fully laid out the problem, the answer was plain for all to see; truly a work of beauty. We face the same challenge in research where most clients don’t realize that defining the question and being crystal clear about what they want to know and how they will use that knowledge, is just as important as the results themselves. Without clarity, much time will be wasted collecting irrelevant information and convening uncomfortable meetings with the research agency to rubbish the findings and discredit the methodology.

For example, several years ago a the mid-tier bank commissioned a general study on the banking sector where the objectives of the research were so broad that it seemed that the banks executives wanted to have God-like infinite knowledge about the sector. The outcome was a mind-mumming 340 page report on banking that was distributed to the marketing team and our agency and being the account manager, the report dropped all the way from the top, through the various departments heads, and with a great big thud onto my desk! Evidently I picked the short straw and had the undesirable task of reading through the entire document and extracting hidden insights that would be incorporated into the banks marketing communication strategy.

Researchers love their data — I mean they really love their data! The annoying thing though is that they think that everyone else loves their data just a much. Obviously they didn’t learn anything from David Ogilvy, who was a researcher turned ad man by the way. Ogilvy said that the customers don’t want a drill, but what they really want is a hole in the wall. In the same vein, we don’t really want tonnes of data, but instead we would appreciate penetrating insights that unlock growth.

So, I embarked on my task with the enthusiasm of a root canal patient and one week later walked into the agency chief’s office with one sheet of paper printed only on one side. That was it — that was all the insight relevant to our task that was painfully extracted from the 340 page report. The insight was potentially powerful because it defined the state of multi-banking in Kenya where customers bank with more than one bank, but because only one page out of the entire deck was dedicated to this data, it was not sufficiently covered.

What would have been really valuable for our advertising strategy would have been a thorough interrogation of that issue, finding out why people felt that it was important to hold accounts and use the services of many banks, how they make their decisions about which set of banks to work with and what considerations they use to select their main bank. When we pointed this out to our client, they were not ready to consider extending the scope of the study because they were research-fatigued, as I was, and they were already over their research budget.

It is worthwhile to think through the reasons for conducting any research and understand how the insights will improve the organizational performance. Some advertisers commission focus groups to uncover possible trends before they commission a full-blown quantitative study, while others conduct desk research and look at existing literature as they develop their course of inquiry. The method that I personally find most fulfilling is when senior leadership sits down and talks at length with customers in their category.

I’ve met many investors who are disinterested in research because on every occasion that they have commissioned a survey, they have learned only what they already know, so they deem it a thorough waste of time and money. In reality, the quality of insights can only be as good as the brief and a good brief requires clarity of purpose that is derived from the overall business objectives and the one thing that keeps you awake at night.

As Voltaire said ‘judge a man by his questions, not by his answers’.

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