Opinion
Forget evidence, it’s the quality of your decisions that matters

When the yellow-sky edges of storm Ophelia hit, BBC Radio resurrected Michael Fish to rake over his pronouncements about the Great Storm of 1987 (again). You’ll remember from the repeats, even if you weren’t around at the time: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way…’ he said. ‘Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!” The storm went on to be the worst in three centuries, causing record damage and killing 19 people.

In this recent radio interview, Michael Fish excused the error by describing himself as a mouthpiece of the computer. It was impossible for a single person to interpret the huge complexity of global weather systems and the impact they might have on a tiny island on the edge of the Atlantic. He talked as if there was no decision to make about what advice to give. As if the evidence was the decision.

Michael Fish is wrong.

Wherever evidence may be directing you, a decision is what stands between you and the actions you’ll take. And in an age where it’s never been easier to access the evidence, it’s the quality of the decision, the process of making it, which is now the essential component of success.

In in-depth conversations with more than thirty multi-national businesses – as part of some broader research we’re doing – we were surprised to see how little focus there was on decision-making quality. This, at the same time as there being significant complaint about poor quality decisions:

  • Lack of transparency and perceived fairness in decisions
  • Decisions based on network influence or authority rather than knowledge or expertise
  • Influence of decision-making biases, emotion and personal & team agendas
  • Loss of control over decision-making
  • Lack of balance between short, medium and long term aims
  • Evidence used to shore up decisions already made
  • A lack of creative thinking about what all of the options could be
  • Lack of conviction and follow-through, nothing really happens
  • The list goes on.

Disruption and change are the norm, which makes good decisions even more important. The availability of more evidence has made decision-making harder not easier. Many organisations are also working towards less rigid, more open, agile and adaptive business models which means that different types of decisions are being made by different types of people. Decision-making is more and more distributed.

Despite this, the majority of organisations had provided no training on decision-making. The individuals we interviewed – senior people – had often received no training themselves. Ever. Whilst they worked in a structured way to develop strategies, the way in which they made decisions was inconsistent and informal. They worked to accommodate the ways in which their seniors and peers made decisions: flexing around emotions and hidden agendas, seeking to create influence and win support outside of meetings, ‘talking’ their way into group decisions. Often evidence was used as a proxy for decisions. Like Michael Fish, it was the evidence that did it, not the people.

But evidence isn’t accountable, people are.

All this fuzzy decision-making has clear links to inefficiency, loss of productivity, wasted time, loss of opportunity, lack of innovation. Fuzzy decision-making costs money and exposes the organisation to risk. And, perhaps worst of all, it tries to make evidence accountable rather than the people who should be making the decision.

Clearly this needs to change.

Twenty odd years ago when I started out in the insight world, the major challenge was getting to the insight itself. Organisations were relatively remote from their customers. Pre-digital and Internet, useful data was expensive and hard to come by. Today distilling information to find the right insights is hard work. But the greatest challenge of all is using insight to make good decisions.

In too many organisations there is an assumption that decisions ‘happen’. That the evidence points you in the right direction. But this isn’t true.

Good decision-making follows a process. Processes have structure, components, steps that you have to walk through, as an individual and as part of a team. Evidence has a place in this structure but cannot replace it. Now you’ve got the evidence, it’s time to focus on creating the structure, so that your organisation uses evidence effectively to make decisions which deliver consistently better outcomes.

You’re asking the wrong questions

I ran a training course recently on Creative Thinking. In the afternoon we got to practical work. Our plan was for delegates to use the techniques they’d learned in the morning to solve some real-life problems in the afternoon. Step one was to share challenges.

There was a range of issues, mainly related to turning customer and market insights into ideas that would create value in the business: How to use insight to create a new product? How to prioritise the development of new propositions? How to influence senior management strategic decision-making with insight?

Last to share was Rob. ‘I’ve got a question which is much more personal to me,’ he said.

‘That’s fine,’ I said. ‘We can apply the same creative thinking techniques to personal and business situations.’

‘OK,’ he said. ‘My question is: what’s my next job going to be? I’d like to do some creative thinking about that.’

We spent the next 10 minutes or so discussing this as an issue. Some others in the group felt motivated to think about their next jobs too. How could their new capability in creative thinking help answer this question? The answer was it couldn’t.

It doesn’t matter how well you understand the creative process, how creatively you think, or which creative thinking techniques you apply. You can’t answer a question if it isn’t a good question.

Four or five years ago a friend of mine confided in me that he wanted to change jobs. He was keen to move from business to catering, with ideas about ditching the corporate world and setting up a café. He asked for my advice.

‘Why do you want to make this move?’ I asked.

‘I like cooking. I’d like to be doing something I enjoy more. I’d like to fill my days with something I feel passionate about.’

‘Have you ever cooked in a commercial setting?’

‘No.’

‘What do you think it might be like?’

‘Hmm. I guess long hours, quite pressured…’ he laughed.

‘Rather than thinking about catering as the destination, maybe we should ask a better question: what’s wrong with the job you have now?’

By answering this question, really understanding the problem, we were able to think more creatively about the solution. There was a lot of good stuff about his current job: the people, the company, the type of work he was doing. The problem wasn’t the content of his work, it was the lack of space that work left in the rest of his life. As a result of an intense five+ day week including long hours, he didn’t have the time or energy to follow his passion: food. He didn’t so much actually want to work in food as to have time to cook, to make and express himself creatively.

‘Can you work fewer hours in the job you have?’

‘I’ve never thought about it,’ he said.

‘Can you ask?’

He could and he did. Within a matter of weeks he’d moved down to four days from five. He was a valuable member of the team. His company knew he was clever, capable and committed. Of course it made sense to give him the balance he craved.

So rather than a new career in catering which may have turned a passion into a job, he has a career he enjoys with a day a week to play with food under no pressure. He invents, bakes for friends, family and the community, and blogs about food. His problem was solved, relatively simply, and without radical transformation.

The important thing is that we asked the right questions. Not: What do you want to do next? But: What is the problem you are trying to solve?

A vague question gives no useful answer. A precise question can provide multiple, practically useful solutions.

As with life and career, so in business decisions. A lack of precision in identifying and understanding the problem leads to the asking of vague questions. Hardly surprising that ideas generated in response then lack precision. Not surprising at all that the answers are often wrong.

If you want successful, creative outcomes? Start by asking the right questions.

Value is elusive: stop looking for it and you’ll find it

I’m an outdoors kind of person, but I don’t do structured fun. You won’t find me bouncing about on a mountain bike, going Ape or spending a long weekend at Centerparcs. The real value of the outdoors is elusive. It hides. And all that structure gets in the way finding it.

Early this summer I took a slow, meandering walk and stumbled (late afternoon) across two young badgers playing just off the path. For twenty minutes I watched quietly as they chased, tumbled and fought, grunting and squeaking. It was a small but life-enhancing experience. Not nearly as Facebook post-worthy as all that structured fun, but it was a genuine discovery. Something hidden which I’d never seen before, didn’t expect to find, and which added to my knowledge and understanding.

I’m a people person too. Endlessly fascinated by how we behave, what we think and feel, and what motivates us individually, in groups and across cultures. It has been on ethnographic equivalents of slow and meandering walks that I’ve learned things about people which have most value too.

The insight world, however, loves structure. Structured questionnaires, structured behavioural data sets, structured codifications of irrationality, structured technology platforms, structured activities and tasks, structured analysis. But the problem is that all this structure just isn’t very good at finding elusive value.

This we confirmed in a recent project for Channel 4 on Proactives.

A couple of years ago, Channel 4 had conducted an analysis designed to re-classify the outdated ABC1 audience. Through this re-classification they identified the Proactives, a group of consumers who are the most economically and culturally rich and therefore the most attractive to advertisers. They are discerning and highly likely to try new brands and services. Our task for Channel 4 was to understand how financial services businesses should target and communicate with Proactives.

Financial services brands tread two well-worn paths in branding and advertising: focusing either on product features (and price) and/ or the creation of an emotional relationship. The value is assumed either to be in what the product can do in a practical way, or what kind of emotional outcome the brand can generate. But would Proactives recognise this as value?

Our hunch was that real value for Proactives in their relationship with a bank, investment or insurance company might be more elusive. So we proposed an unstructured approach to research – through ethnography and life-story interviewing – to see whether we could find it for Channel 4.

The first thing we discovered was that Proactives are marketing and brand-savvy enough to see right through the ways in which financial brands try to influence them. Feature-led advertising is narrow and short-termist and emotionally-led advertising is cynical and manipulative.

Observing and interacting with Proactives across their lives in an unstructured way, something else became clear. The brands they engage with (in finance and in every other aspect of their day-to-day) are a diverse set, and defy definition into a clear typology. They are a mix of what could be considered as established and new, digital and traditional, offering original and ‘me too’ products and experiences. There is, however, one thing that these brands have in common.

Proactives engage with brands whose ‘psychology’ mirrors their own. They want to see their own optimistic, experimental, problem-solving nature reflected in the providers they use. This ‘psychology’ is expressed very differently through aspects of service and experience, elements of product or even through brand articulation. In one way or another, Proactives seek out brands in which they see their own qualities: they want to deal with themselves.

This insight wasn’t something that Proactives themselves articulated. It didn’t arise out of a structured approach to research, a set of tasks or exercises. It was hidden. It had to be discovered, an elusive insight that we came across while exploring their natural environment.

Channel 4 index highly with the Proactive audience. Our discovery explains why, because Channel 4 has this kind of ‘psychology’ itself, as a brand and a business. Now they are able to take a new story to financial services advertisers: forget features and emotional influence in your advertising, cut through with messages and experiences that demonstrate what the brand and the customer have in common, a shared psychology.

Structured approaches to research consistently thrown up the obvious: the value that we already know about; the value that consumers are easily able to articulate themselves. It takes courage to take an unstructured approach. Being somewhat aimless and meandering can feel like a risk. This is why it’s easy to revert to the standard approaches instead. But only by removing the structure straightjacket can you really get to the value that hides. And in the value that hides it the true advantage for your business.

The insight world’s biggest challenge is group-think

I was at an event for senior insight people recently. I’d guess we were a group of around one hundred and fifty to two hundred people. At the beginning of the day, sat in a lecture hall waiting for the keynote speaker to kick off the event, I was struck by our homogeneity as a group. A room full of middle class, urbanite men and women with a similar worldview: curious, thinkers, problem-solvers. All great qualities, but all a bit predictable too (me included, by the way).

Putting aside the general point that business needs to get better at diversifying its workforce to more accurately reflect the pool of talent and its base of customers, I asked myself whether this matters. After all, insight people are a channel through which understanding of people ‘out there’ makes its way to people ‘in here’. The channel doesn’t need to mirror the ‘out there’… or the ‘in here’. It just needs to deliver effectively.

What matters is whether this homogeneity in profile leads to homogeneity in thinking. And I’m afraid there is evidence that it does.

Back a couple of months we were working with a client on their pricing communications strategy. We’d conducted our own in-depth research and – given that there were parallel work streams relevant to our work – had the opportunity to see the work of other agencies as presented to the business.

I was struck by feedback on one, significant piece of research. It focused on the customer segment which was struggling financially; those most likely to be squeezed by rising, post-sterling-devaluation prices. The agency’s analysis was more a middle class interpretation of the reality of these people’s lives than a real reflection. It was well intentioned, contained lots of ‘insights’ about how the client brand could help people on low incomes, but entirely lacked any truths about what it felt like to be at society’s margins.

Rather than an exercise in satisfying curiosity, it was the result of an exercise in group-think. Insight agency staff working with the client’s insight team thinking in comfortable and obvious ways about people who were nothing like them.

The problem is with this type of group-think is that by the time it reaches C-Suite it’s anodyne to the point of being useless in its ability to transform senior-level thinking: give low income people cheap stuff, give them brands at prices they can afford so they don’t feel left out, give them everything they need under one roof so they don’t need to shop around. This isn’t insight, it’s the self-satisfied status quo, and it won’t open up business opportunity.

Compare this to some brand strategy work we did last year for a client whose customers also tend to be less well off. Our aim was to completely change the way that people ‘in here’ think, feel about and relate to people ‘out there’.

First, we identified existing, internal group-think: what were the assumptions that people ‘in here’ made about their customers? What did they think the differences were between them and the people they served?

Second, we challenged these assumptions: how was internal group-think different to the reality of life ‘out there’?

Finally, we went out of our way to uncover what we all had in common: C-Level, management, colleagues across the business and customers. In which ways were we all exactly the same?

The project was difficult, hard-work. At times it felt like we were bearing responsibility for changing a business culture that was resistant. But it worked. This approach now drives a completely transformed, and transformative, strategy

The problem is that group-think is easy. A path of least resistance. In order to avoid it, you have to acknowledge its existence. You have to be prepared to constantly challenge even your own most deeply held assumptions. This takes courage.

Amongst all that restless questioning that insight people do so well should be this question, asked on a weekly basis: how do I avoid slipping into the trap of group-think?

Our most recently won client put it succinctly when explaining why they’d decided to work with us on a major project, despite us having no prior experience with them or their marketplace:

‘You were up against the specialist consultancy in our sector. But we were worried that we would get the same old stuff from them. We wanted to challenge ourselves and to be challenged. We wanted some new thinking. Your approach wasn’t what we were expecting. Your team is a group of interesting people with very different backgrounds, outside of research. You deliberately work across industry sectors to keep your perspective fresh. And we liked that you do some interesting things to constantly challenge yourselves. We got the feeling that you’re not happy just to be comfortable.’

It’s not what you know about your customers that counts, it’s how you feel about them

Twice in my professional career I’ve witnessed groups of people who work for household brands laughing at their customers.

The first was an investment business. Laughter was caused by the fact that they’d developed a product designed to adhere to regulatory requirements but which customers didn’t fully understand. The product looked like a great deal, but it wasn’t. It heavily benefited the business and worked against the interests of the customer. They found this very funny.

The second was at a major consuming-facing business where we were asked to observe an internally-run workshop. Despite being warned several times by a senior person (possibly because they were aware that we – outsiders – were there) the majority in the room spent the best part of a couple of hours taking the piss out of their working-class customers: belittling, patronising and ridiculing them.

Twice in more than twenty years of working in insight-led consultancy is not a bad average. The vast majority of businesses I’ve worked with over that time, I believe, genuinely make efforts to understand their customers, respect them and try (often against a background of significant organisational and market challenge) to do their best by them. These two examples stand out precisely because they are rare.

Over those years I’ve come across a lot of people who have a pretty good understanding about their customers. They know stuff. They can pull on stats, high-level trends, they understand how customers think and behave as a group or groups. Lacking, though, is often a sense of what it feels like to be a customer: a direct, empathic connection with the ‘whole person’ rather than the part of the customer that engages with their brand.

Detachment, ironically, can be a feature of this knowledge, provided as it often is by quantitative data and qualitative research techniques that codify attitudes and behaviour.

Detachment can be as dangerous as ridicule. Because it’s easy to make bad decisions that appear to be based on knowledge, when you’re far away from the reality of a customer’s life.

That’s why, rather than simply understanding, you have to feel how your customers feel.

Innovative businesses have an instinct for this.

Feeling how your customers feel gets you to their fundamental problems and needs: significant, emotional, real-life. It motivates people within the business to solve these problems. And by solving these problems, a brand becomes truly meaningful in the lives of its customers.

Let me tell you another story.

We worked with the Board Member of a major UK business, part of the stakeholder team on a significant insight-led strategy programme. He (in common with everyone we worked with in the business) was hugely keen to make the emotional connection – not just develop a rational understanding – and to use feeling to drive brand strategy. This, by the way, in a cut-throat, highly competitive marketplace. The connection that he made with customers was so strong and deep that at one point, in a meeting relaying a story told to him by one of their customers, he was brought to tears. He really felt it.

This business built and implemented a very successful strategy. They balanced a genuine desire to offer a fair exchange of value with a determination to solve customers’ fundamental needs. All based on feeling. And it worked.

And the two businesses whose staff chose to laugh at their customers?

They were both subsequently hit hard by competition, by changing markets and by customers who got savvy to them: they leaked profit, shed staff and spent years in crisis mode. Now their customers are laughing at them.

Getting Closer to customers can be a waste of time and money

A prospective client asked us to look at a brief recently. They wanted our help in setting up a Customer Closeness Programme. We asked about the objectives: What did the organisation want to achieve? What behaviours were they looking to change amongst colleagues? Their response was:

‘We don’t want our people to do anything differently. We just want them to think differently.’

From a customer’s perspective, the fact that your staff think differently means nothing. Strategy and actions focused on delivering tangible benefits to them are what counts.

Customer Closeness programmes don’t work unless they form part of your framework for strategy development and implementation.

Somebody in an influential position in the business says, ‘We must get our people closer to our customers.’

This makes absolute sense.

So you build a Customer Closeness Programme.

You give it a cool name, develop a plan for interactive events through which staff meet customers, create a portal, and work with your communications or research agency to design a whole bunch of beautiful outputs – posters, cardboard cut-outs, insight walls, animations, newspapers. You measure the effectiveness of the programme by asking staff about how exposed they are to it and how it affects them in their role. You build up a picture of great energy and enthusiasm within the business, and share this at conferences and potentially win awards.

In reality, though, what changes from your customers’ perspective?

They don’t care whether your staff are ‘close to them’. They don’t care that they’re represented in your business using fabulously designed internal communications collateral. They don’t care that you run speed-dating events with them, watch them in focus groups, visit their homes or go shopping with them (except where they participate themselves). They certainly don’t care about conferences and awards.

The only thing customers care about is what you do for them.

Understanding is great. But it’s your customer-driven strategy and then the action that takes place as a result which makes a difference for customers. Customer Closeness Programmes often get so caught up (ironically) in being impactful from an internal perspective that they forget to be functional from an external, customer perspective.

The problem is that your programme is focused on process (albeit the process is great) rather than outcomes. Customer Closeness has become an end in itself rather than a means to achieve a business objective.

The hardest part is turning insights into ideas and ideas into actions in a consistent way.

A different client was frustrated with their existing Programme:

‘We do all this great work, run fantastic events in which colleagues interact directly with customers, but they go back to their desks and do the same old thing.

Their assumption was that the events and interactions they were running weren’t sufficiently inspiring. However, the real problem is that you can’t magically turn insights into action. You need a clear framework within which to do this. This takes time and effort to develop, test and implement. It’s just not realistic to expect a member of staff to be sufficiently inspired by even the best, most insightful customer interaction to go back to their desk and take transformative action.

If you don’t measure the right things, you won’t be able to see the impact on the business and customers.

Remember who your Programme is built for: customers not staff. Don’t get distracted by the pretty stuff. We came across an existing Programme recently. It was considered a resounding success because metrics existed which told the organisers how much staff valued it. However there were no business or customer metrics attached. No-one was able to say whether or how the Programme had created value for the organisation or the people it served.

Customer Closeness Programmes are a waste of time and money (unless you can clearly demonstrate that the one you’re running isn’t).

So next time someone influential in the business says: ‘We must get our people closer to our customers’ don’t just respond with the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ of process.

Ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ of business strategy, implementation and outcomes. Why are we doing this? And how do we measure its value contribution to the business?

 

In a broadcast-me world, is listening a thing of the past?

I enjoy listening. I’ve made a career out of my natural curiosity. Socially as well as at work, I enjoy ‘collecting’ people – the stories they tell, the things they reveal about themselves, their motivations, their needs. I keep a kind of internal insight bank as an ongoing analysis of what I’ve seen and heard. It’s a bank I dip into in order to draw out meaning and implications for business and for life.

After a drinks party over Christmas, my wife complained that she’d got stuck chatting to someone who ‘just talked at me…. didn’t ask a single question. It was like being on the end of his Facebook feed.’

I know what she means; the way many people talk about themselves now has a social media inflection. Parties in particular mirror social networks – some friends, a whole bunch of acquaintances, then a lot more people you don’t really know but now have a connection with (as a potential audience). People can start to talk in lists. Conversation is a continuous, one-way broadcast. What works in the digital worlds of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or WhatsApp takes form in real life.

I’m not criticising the guy my wife got stuck with. A listener isn’t a better person than a broadcaster. It’s more that broadcasters miss out on so much because they don’t listen.

Listening is fun. You have to dig in to get underneath the broadcast-me content. That means breaking through the feed, interrupting and asking questions, cycling over the content and allowing repetition to reveal hidden truths. These conversations aren’t frustrating broadcast battles, they’re interesting and challenging – you’re hunting for gems.

Listening is interesting. People’s hidden stories are fascinating, enriching, inspiring and occasionally appalling. For example: the gut-wrenching story of an American mother, battling with dementia, pulling a gun on her father; the lost-family sadness and regret of a super-successful multi-millionaire; or the deeply held love of a couple for their dog.

Finally, and for me most importantly, listening connects us to other people and it connects them to us. We all enjoy being listened to; there’s something magnetic, addictive about being the full focus of someone else’s attention. The more you listen, the stronger the connection you create.

In a world that wants to broadcast, the most powerful thing you can do is listen.

Is it better to appear busy than to be productive?

I was in a race across Waterloo Bridge the other day.

Not an actual race, but a kind of proxy one. Whilst I was walking at a decent pace myself (on my way to a meeting), I realised I was being overtaken on both sides by suited men and women with a longer, more purposeful stride. Then across The Strand, along Kingsway, and passing Holborn Station around lunch-time, I cut my way through crowds of shaking hands and double-cheek-kisses, assignations sandwiched between the morning and afternoon rush-abouts at work. There was a consistent refrain in response to the ‘How are you?’s: ‘Busy…’ or more often ‘Ridiculously busy’ and sometimes ‘…run off my feet…’

Being seen to be busy is a kind of currency at work in the UK. It is ‘business’ after all.

The problem is that all that busyness doesn’t necessarily lead us anywhere. Aside from causing stress and anxiety, being in a constantly busy state doesn’t leave much time for thinking. It’s more important to be seen to be doing things than it is to be thinking about how to do them better.

Despite every effort otherwise, there is still too much focus on the inputs (the doing) rather than outputs (the results of doing). An outputs or results focus allows time for thinking – planning, working out how to do it, how to do it better, more efficiently and then getting whatever it is done more quickly and to a higher degree of quality. It’s about productivity.

So maybe while crossing Waterloo Bridge, rather than racing to get to the next thing to do, it would be better to slow down and use the time to think about how to do that next thing. Making time for thinking ultimately means spending less time doing, and doing what you do better. And at Holborn, rather than the ‘How are you?’s being answered by ‘Busy’, one day they might be answered by ‘Productive’ instead.

A listening program for my kids

I’ve implemented a listening program for my kids.

I get feedback on my parenting skills and work out what I can do differently.

On a weekly basis, I ask them to fill in a structured questionnaire. They rate every aspect of their experience as one of my children, and overall questions on satisfaction and loyalty. I use natty software to run the analysis and feed it into my fatherhood dashboard. I get bonuses for improvements in my parenting performance.

I also monitor their social media interactions and derive data on their parent-related sentiment. I track this against the structured survey, and I can see a strong correlation between sentiment and satisfaction. If they’re unhappy with my parenting skills they absolutely share this with their friends, and this has an impact on my reputation as a father.

Regularly I hook them up to EEG and fMRI equipment, and calculate the neuro-engagement scores related to the different types of activities that I do with them. This helps me plan our time together, ensuring I get the biggest emotional bang for my time and money.

Finally, I’ve developed a set of cognitive biases which explain how and why my children divert from rational behaviour. That way I can begin to predict their decisions, and nudge them towards doing what I need them to do. They’re better behaved and more helpful around the house.

It’s a comprehensive, multi-faceted programme from which I get a significant return on my investment. It helps me understand my children and generate actions for improvement of my parenting. My wife, on the other hand, chats to them and listens to what they say back.