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The Innovation Trap


I have written the "Innovation trap" as an article for the October issue of the  Research World .  I received a number of  emails from people (agency and client side) who read it and who are also tired by the frentic (and usually pointless) search for new research methodologies.  "However", asks one of the emails, "where is the money in pure "consumer understanding?"  Great question. I am thinking about it, discussing it with people around me.  What do you think?  

Meanwhile, here is the article:

Researchers need to focus on understanding people instead of constantly inventing ‘new’ methodologies.

 I have spent the last ten years on the client side, where innovation and growth go hand-in-hand. Unilever or any other manufacturer innovates in order to grow its brand’s share, turnover and profit. The research industry has learned from its clients and has adopted this model: it measures its growth in value terms and  attributes a large portion of its growth to innovation of market research techniques.

 If innovation is at the heart of the research business, we should all frantically search for new ways of doing research. It is a seductive proposition for any creative researcher. However, I believe that the search for research innovations is a dangerous trap into which most of us have fallen.

 Market research is about understanding people and why they do what they do. Unfortunately, typical innovations in research obscure this understanding because they generate growth through developing research tools that can be sold quickly and in great volume. Again, it is exactly what the manufacturer does when selling its innovations.

 For instance, we might develop a new toothbrush designed for brushing the tongue. We know that the consumer might not have a genuine need for tongue brushing but we are smart enough to create the need. Rather than selling a product we are selling a myth.

 The great myth

What is the myth that market research sells to its consumers – the research buyers? The key myth is that of certainty and control over a world that is completely chaotic and unpredictable. Fear of the chaos out there has forced us – on the client side – into a make-believe world of benchmarks, persuasion scores and scales designed to measure emotions (the latest hype). We have subjected consumers to our reality of tongue-brushing while we are ourselves subjected to the reality of the major research agencies.

 A few years ago, the market research function on the client side tried to break free from the prison of benchmarks and scales. It re-branded itself and market researchers became insight managers. We promised to gather insight, transmit knowledge and educate our clients. If we had succeeded in this transformation, there would be less market research and more educated clients acting on gut feelings. The growth of the research industry would have halted as a result.

 Instead, the industry is thriving and its growth signifies our failure on the client side to listen to our intuition, take risks and come up with truly disruptive product innovation that would genuinely surprise and delight consumers.

 True research is about understanding people. And genuine understanding of people comes from years of learning, experience and true intuition. It comes down to talented individuals who are semioticians, ethnographers, and great qualitative researchers. These are the people whose insights add tremendous value to the business and who are able to energise and guide clients.

 I have a lot of respect for people who have established small agencies to fight the big players. The problem is that they soon adopt the structures of the large agencies and start their own frantic search for fast-moving research products. This seems to be the only way for a research agency to grow in size: they create the need for a new, high-tech, silver-methodology that will deliver pre-packaged ideas for innovations to clients' desktops.

 It used to be hard to challenge the agency system as agencies owned the necessary technical tools. Then came the internet revolution and today the tools that researchers need are either already out there or are being developed – not by research agencies but by the likes of Google, Facebook or Twitter.

 Because of this, there is no need for new innovative research methodologies. The true job to be done consists of unlearning, of throwing the obsolete research tool sets away. Instead of building new methodologies, we should build networks of creative people who can work together and truly help us to understand the world’s people and cultures.