Rethinking Research: How to Get the Information You Really Need

Do you have the information you need to make the important decisions you face? How helpful was your most recent research project with helping you understand the context for your deliberations and evaluating your alternative courses of action with fact-based information?

If your answer is “No!” and “It wasn’t helpful at all!” then it’s time to rethink how you are approaching research.

If you have ever taken a survey or participated in a focus group for a major corporation then you could probably tell what the corporation was up to. That’s because most for-profit businesses, particularly major corporations, invest almost all of their research dollars in projects designed to help them make decisions. They ask questions such as:

  • How well will this potential product be received in the market and who is our best target customer?
  • Why isn’t this product performing up to expectation and what do we need to do to fix it?
  • Which advertising campaign will perform best with our target market?

This type of research is decision-focused research because everything about the research is designed to help make an important decision. It’s a powerful approach to making sure your research dollars are well-spent.

Decision-Focused Research for Association Executives

Get Started With Decision-Focused Research

I developed an easy-to-read ebook that will describe how decision-focused research works and how you can get started. It is written for the association market, but the lessons are applicable to any organization.

Decision-Focused Research for Association Executives: How to Get the Information You Really Need will show you:

  • How decision-focused research can ensure your research is asking the right questions
  • What questions to ask as you develop your research
  • Best practices for writing a research plan
  • How to decide between qualitative and quantitative research
  • What types of decisions can be made with 12 different types of survey research
  • Six things to consider when deciding if DIY research is right for your project

Download the free ebook today. And contact me to learn more.

Four Practices of Focused Organizations

Focus Takes Practice

I have been practicing meditation every morning for 18 months. While meditating this morning I thought about what kind of cheese to put on my veggie wrap at lunch, wondered what happened to Sharon, my best friend from seventh grade, and reminded myself to update my subscription to the Wall Street Journal. Anyone who has tried meditating will tell you that this is what happens. The mind wanders off and our job as meditators is to bring it back to a point of focus.

unsplash meditation

Meditators often refer to their practice as “sitting.” It’s an apt description since quite a lot of our time in life is spent not sitting. Even if we are positioned on our backsides, we aren’t sitting, as in being still and being focused on a single activity. That kind of sitting has become quite difficult. After all, we need to check our email…There’s this new journal to scan…Telephone call!…What if?…Oh, I wonder if I have new email.

Most of us have gotten the memo that this lack of focus extracts a high cost. On a personal level we feel:

  • stressed,
  • overly-busy and
  • unproductive.

Organizations can have a lack of focus too. You know the symptoms of an organization with a lack of focus? They are:

  • stressed,
  • overly-busy and
  • unproductive.

Whether it’s you as an individual or it’s an organization you are a part of, overcoming stress, too-busyness and lack of productivity can’t be addressed by adding more items to already lengthy to-do lists. It requires focus.

Focus is a learned skill. As with many skills worth learning, it takes hard work and practice to improve. Individuals can improve focus by regularly setting aside time for meditation or reflection or whatever you decide will help you to filter out the things that are not important so that you can focus on the things that are important.

Organizations can also learn to improve focus, but again it takes constant practice. And as with driving a car, it takes continuous attention and numerous large and small course corrections.

Here are four focus-enhancing practices I have observed over the years.

Focused organizations stop doing the wrong things so they can focus on the right things. For every project, product, service or other time-consuming commitment the organization decides to pursue, managers ask, “What will we stop doing so that we can pursue this new activity?” And then they actually stop doing it.

Steve Jobs said “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Focused organizations allow time for thinking and reflection. I have a friend who works at an advertising agency that requires everyone to track time in six-minute increments throughout the day using a lengthy list of activity codes. There is no code for thinking. There are only codes for checking things off of lists. Staff turnover is high and people who stay are quickly burned out.

In contrast, I once worked at a place where creativity was highly valued. It was perfectly acceptable to spend time doodling or gazing out the window while contemplating an idea or client issue. It was a highly sought-after place to work with a clear focus.

Focused organizations value meaningful dialogue. A meaningful dialogue is a conversation with a purpose in which all participants’ views are considered and valued and which moves the group toward a goal. Meaningful dialogue does not take place at meetings that do not have a well-defined purpose and do not contribute toward a goal. Meaningful dialogue does not take place at meetings in which participants meander off topic, fail to listen to and consider the views of others and in which negativity and griping are common.

Focused organizations value teamwork and team spirit. Achieving a goal is much easier when people pull together. Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics describes the importance of teamwork in nine rowers’ quest for an Olympic gold medal:

“What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew.”

It is difficult to care about people who you do not know. Organizations that value teamwork create opportunities for their people relax, play and learn about their fellow team members. Many people have pointed out that the dysfunction in Congress can at least partly be attributed to the fairly recent implementation of their three-day work week (soon to change to a two-day work week!) that allows members to go home rather than stay in Washington to participate in social and other events that contribute to team building.

Focus can be learned, but it takes commitment and practice.

I don’t know that I’m any better—or worse—at meditating than anyone else who has been practicing for 18 months. But I know that I am better than I was 18 months ago. I’m also better than I was 12 months ago. Heck, I’m even better than I was six months ago. I also know that I have reaped the rewards from honing that skill through improved focus.

Just Tell Me What You Want!

Why Asking Members What They Want Doesn’t Work

“What product or service can the Widget Association provide that would make a significant difference to you and your work?”

What a great question, right? Associations want to give members what they want, so let’s just ask them!

Whining, overworked and tired businessman have problems at work.

Unfortunately, the responses to this type of question are rarely, if ever, enlightening or even useful. In fact, regardless of the association I can predict with about 99 percent accuracy the responses members will give. Those responses are, in no particular order:

  • Professional education
  • News and information related to their work
  • Networking with their peers
  • Advocacy of their interests with employers, legislators, regulators, etc.
  • Opportunities to grow their business
  • “Can’t think of anything”
  • “Keep up the good work!”

There may be the rare member who can articulate a novel or innovative idea that would make a terrific new member benefit, although I have never spotted this person by their responses to a survey–and it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

So why can’t we get good answers to this question?

The fact is, there are few future thinkers among us. Most people have difficulty answering questions about things they have not experienced, much the ability to think up a dazzling idea in the middle of a 15 minute survey. As a result we get answers about the things members know and expect an association to provide. While careful analysis of responses to this question may reveal themes about education, information, networking or advocacy that can suggest incremental improvements, the what-would-make-your-life-better questions aren’t likely to suggest breakthrough innovations or ways to increase the association’s value to members.

Henry Ford supposedly knew this. Most of us have heard the quote attributed to him. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Steve Jobs also claimed to never do marketing research (although Apple does indeed spend a prodigious amount of money on surveys, focus groups and the like), saying, “It isn’t the customers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

So what is the alternative? How do associations–or any other business for that matter—achieve the insight to drive new product and service development and increase value to the customer?

True innovation takes hard work and a lot of time. It starts with an in-depth understanding of the customer, how they work, what problems they face, how they feel, the environment in which they work, what they are trying to achieve, what their employers and customers need from them.

It is precisely because associations need to ask “What do you want?” that I think qualitative research is sadly underutilized. It is qualitative research that can shed light on just these types of topics. Traditional focus groups, in-depth interviews, ethnography, online focus groups, activity-based online research, customer journey mapping—all of these help to shed light on the world of our members or customers, providing the information we need to inform the work of innovating.

Surveys seem to be the default methodology too much of the time. It’s time to start expanding the playbook so we can finally answer the question “What do members want?”