Vive la révolution!

Research is a tool that has very little value until its actually used.

In the early Nineties, we did an assignment for a pet food company to come up with some innovative new products to take to market. It was an altogether happy experience. We enjoyed it, the new products were listed by the major supermarkets and our client made even more money. As a thank you, I was given a book I’d have never bought – would probably never even have come across in those days before pop-science bestsellers in Waterstones. It was “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Professor Thomas S Kuhn, published in 1962 by the University of Chicago – any of which would normally have kept my eye moving along the shelf. But no, this was a gift, a thank you from someone who knew me well and, by implication, thought I would be a better person (or consultant?) from having read it.

So duly read it was.

I don’t want to overplay its impact. It didn’t change my life. It didn’t transform our business. It didn’t give us a radical new approach to strategic consulting. But it did provide another bit of raw intellectual stimulus to feed into the complex mix of knowledge, expertise, intuition, experience, capability, imagination, aggression, inspiration and attitude that, together, drive the analytical, creative and entrepreneurial strengths of the best consultancies.

At its core, Kuhn’s book sets out a view of how new thinking happens. His material is science, or more precisely “Scientific Revolutions”, but his subject is big, new ideas – “paradigms” is his word – that change, indeed replace our previous views of the world. He is primarily interested in how they come about and become accepted.

Scientific revolutions

Kuhn reviews the history of science and reaches some unexpected – and, for anyone working in a business where ideas are an everyday currency, genuinely exciting – conclusions about how new thinking happens. Crudely summarised, his thesis is that progress is contingent on people attacking (cf. “revolutions”) accepted scientific wisdom.

Kuhn says this is because scientific breakthroughs invariably give us a better way of understanding and explaining our world – but the price of progress is to destroy what previously seemed to make sense. Then, it gets better…

Kuhn wants to understand how such new thinking happens. That’s what most of the book’s about – he looks at the importance of examining the paradigms themselves, at the way that anomalies can give us the thread to follow into a better cave, and at the role that both crisis and necessity (remember, the original mother of invention) can each play in bringing about paradigm shifts.

Among other things, Kuhn concludes that a disproportionate number of breakthroughs come from people who are new to the field. That is, people who haven’t unconsciously absorbed the accepted wisdoms by growing up, or being steeped in the field. He also – and how fabulous is this from a historian of science? – points out the crucial role of non-rational thinking in achieving scientific revolutions. After all, what is a theory when first articulated, if not a fusing of intuition, observation and imagination?

Read Kuhn for yourself. It’s a good subject and a big subject – and one that the world of market research would do well to glance up from its navel to think about.

Two views of research

After which comment, good manners say I should properly introduce myself.

I am not a researcher, nor am I from the research world. I’m a strategy consultant by background and mindset, who has commissioned and used an enormous amount of research over 20-odd years. And yet, since 2005, my fellow partners and I have deliberately and carefully moved our core business away from strategic consulting to focus on research. Why? Not to put too fine a point on it, we think there’s a different, better paradigm to understand and explain research than the one used by the research world.

The research world understands and explains research in terms of what it, the research world, does. That is, in terms of data, findings and insights generated by carrying out and analysing various types of qualitative or quantitative research techniques using a repertoire of face-to-face or mediumbased methods.

The way the research world thinks about, organises and categorises what it does is completely dominated by this view of research. The basic cleave is between qualitative and quantitative research, closely followed by methodological distinctions. So it instinctively talks about agencies (and people) as being “quant” or “qual” and approaches client work through a methodological door.

Look closer, and you’ll see that the whole value set permeating the research world – what it focuses on and sees as important – derives from the same paradigm. Indeed, the real surprise would be if it were anything other.

Consultants understand and explain

research in fundamentally different terms. That’s because our relationship with research is fundamentally different – it’s what we use, not what we do.

Here, the metaphor of research as a tool is helpful. Tools are categorised by what they do, not how they’re made. Tools are fit for purpose, in that they’re designed to do specific things. Above all, tools are bought to be used – their value is in what they enable.

A consulting mindset sees research in very similar terms – as a tool to be used to achieve other, more important things. Bluntly, our view is that research has no value until it’s used.

Liberating research

I profoundly believe that seeing research in these terms both liberates it and transforms its status and importance. It redefines and promotes the role of the research practitioner as being to give management the tools they need to achieve other, more important things. It leads to a new basis of categorisation of research – by purpose, not methods – and a new value set, one that derives from the impact research has in its use.

Kuhn’s analysis argues that the research world is incapable of liberating research. That needs people from outside to not just destroy what previously made sense, but who have the ambition, energy and ability – the necessary mix of analytical, creative and entrepreneurial strengths – to replace it with something better.

So that’s what we’re doing. Vive la révolution!

CV John Gambles
Quadrangle Group LLP
Chairman, Quadrangle Group LLP
1998 Co-founder, FieldWorks
1987 Co-founder, Quadrangle
1981 Account management, WCRS
1979 Account management, JWT
1974 Management trainee, British Steel


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