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.’