Don’t obsess over raw data, take a reality check instead

Smart business leaders know they must face unpleasant truths even though the idea-generating process can take time and be painful

A sample of one. We all know samples of one are dangerous. Mere personal opinions that may have very little, if anything, to do with the real situation.

Some decisions made on the basis of samples of one are brilliant. But most are disastrous, which is why modern marketers work so hard to avoid them.

Indeed one of marketing’s biggest contributions to business is the realisation that just because we happen to think, feel or do something, it doesn’t mean that other people will think, feel or act in the same way.

It’s simply not good enough for an outer-directed person to assume everyone is as obsessed by aspirational status as he is, or for the miser to assume that a low price is universally top of the priority list. In fact, very few people are like we are. So we have to find out what they are like. And to do that, we have to conduct research.

So much so that nowadays, marketers’ first instinct when confronted with a problem is to ask “what does the research say?”

The question is, has this pendulum swung too far? Does today’s dependency on research also bring its own drawbacks, such as a retreat from taking personal responsibility, aloofness, and a stifling of genuine insight?

A suggestion: marketers need to leaven research-based decision-making processes with the raw emotional power of direct, personal experience. Why?

In his monumental research into the differences between successful and less successful global firms, Insead Professor Jean-Claude Larr??dentified cocooned corporate executives as a chief cause of poor performance. Surrounded by flattering acolytes and with no evidence to the contrary they end up seeing their corporations performance through rose-tinted spectacles.

Ultimate Averaging Machine
They believe customers are more satisfied, that staff are more motivated, and that their chances of beating the competition are much greater than they really are. They think they know whats going on, but they haven’t a clue and their underlings know it. Result: not only poor decisions, but poor communication and high levels of mistrust.

On the other hand, successful companies such as Toyota have always insisted that executives experience the front line: to “go and see”. Taiichi Ohno, architect of Toyota’s lean production system, made a sharp distinction between “data” and “facts”.

Data, he argued, is always one step removed from the facts. Data is just an indicator. It is not the reality, and reality has to be experienced first hand. “Observe the production floor without preconceptions and with a blank mind,” he declared. “Repeat why five times.”

Feargal Quinn, founder of the SuperQuinn chain of Irish supermarkets, took a similar approach, requiring executives to do their households shopping at least once a month. “The marketplace looks totally different from where the customer is standing,” says Quinn. “When youve stood in a queue for four minutes when you’re under pressure to do something else, you discover just how long four minutes can be.”

Contrast that with Sainsbury’s at its stock availability nadir when head office staff started avoiding store visits. “You don’t really want to go into a shop when the availability is as bad as it was,” remarks ceo Justin King. “Why would you want to go and get beaten up by customers? So, on the whole, people never visited shops. The very reason they should have been going   to see what it’s like and do something about it was the very reason they were not going. Because it was so horrible, it was too painful.”

The trouble with insisting on direct personal experience however, is that it easily descends into gimmickry. You know the form: where the ceo makes a great show of spending an hour or two in a call centre, for example. What’s needed is for personal experience to become part of a disciplined, idea-generating process that informs and complements other forms of research.

Generate a Hypothesis
In Mexico, for example, every member of Procter & Gamble’s marketing department is required to spend at least three days a year living in the homes of customers. They then pool, sift and test ideas generated from these experiences.

 Last year the programme triggered 200 such ideas, says marketing director Stefano Volpetti. Five became significant market initiatives. Examples: a one rinse fabric softener that minimises water use; a single dose, easy-to-open hair shampoo sachet for customers who cannot afford to buy a full bottle.

One consultancy, The Foundation, has turned this idea of personal “immersion” into a carefully structured idea-generating process. It starts with internal and external research to generate a hypothesis. Executives test this hypothesis through personal experience: of what it is like to be a customer of your own or another firm, or an employee, or even of a manager in another firm dealing with similar problems.

 The one thing executives are not allowed to do during this process is justify or explain themselves. Here, their job is to listen, not tell. They are only allowed to ask why people feel or do as they do. Even if what some people say seems crazy, observes Foundation founder Charlie Dawson, “They are still telling their truth”.

Overall, the immersion process is not only valuable for generating new ideas, argues Dawson, it also challenges people at the level that really matters: their beliefs. “Market research may provide you with new information, but it doesnt provide you with a different world view”.

Also, when it comes to following through with changes, it is people who believe that get things done, not people who merely agree intellectually.

But what is so important about personal experience? The answer is: it is how human beings learn.

Recently, researchers were stunned to discover that the human senses process about ten billion bits of information per second, of which just ten bits per second are processed consciously. A million times more information “goes in” under the radar of consciousness than is consciously thought about. This is what people are missing when they just look at data rather than experience the facts.

Researchers have also discovered that the same “molecules of emotion” (peptides) are active when we think as when we feel emotions such as anger or fear. For human beings, thinking rationally is an emotional process. And being emotional is rational. The old saying “seeing is believing” has scientific truth at its core.

Why doesn’t every business do its own form of  “go see” or “immersion” not to replace market research but to inform and complement it? One answer is that it reaches far deeper into corporate ideology and cultures than many executives would care to admit.

Facing Unpleasant Facts
If you have been trained to worship “rational” decision-making where rationality is defined in terms of decisions made objectively on the basis of 100% full, comprehensive and accurate information you look to data as your essential raw material.

And if you have been trained to believe that any decision that falls short of this criteria is “irrational”, then you have also been taught to be suspicious of the biases, beliefs and emotions that personal experiences bring to the party.

You have been taught, in other words, to deny the validity and credibility of the most sensitive, nuanced and expert information processing device ever invented: the human being.

On top of that, facing up to unpleasant facts is much harder than hiding away, as King noticed at Sainsbury’s. Its often much easier to be arrogant, complacent and aloof than inquisitive, committed to improving things and exposed.

Whether or not a company embraces “go see” or “immersion” probably says an awful lot about its culture. There again, if Dawson is right about that qualitative difference between understanding and believing, perhaps the best way to change such a culture is to persuade people to go see what effects it is having.

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