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Invention, Not Convention: Thought Leadership Research That Spawns Big Ideas

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” -- Albert Einstein

“Basic research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.” -- Wernher von Braun

 

Primary research is at the center of novel and substantiated ideas that get managers to act differently. With that goal in mind, many professional services and other B2B firms in the last few years have turned on the research spigot. The results of their efforts have been showing up every week in our inbox.

From what we read, we predict most of the studies will be ignored because their findings are not novel. Many quantify what is already well understood and sometimes has been quantified before. These studies are conventional thinking wrapped in attractive packaging.

In our experience, this happens when a study’s authors design their research to confirm what they already believe, rather than explore what they don’t know. They use rigid survey questionnaires and interview guides that lead the witness. They exclude simple but revealing open-ended questions such as “How did your firm solve the problem?” or “What was crucial in solving it?” And in analyzing the data, they ignore patterns that could point to a very different set of “best practices” than the ones that they sought when they designed their research streams.

 

The Goal of Thought Leadership Research Should Be to Discover, Not to Confirm

This research approach isn’t the type that Einstein and von Braun alluded to in their quotes, the kind that leads to big scientific discoveries. I see research on business practices as being no different – whether it’s on what makes for better digital strategies, more successful new-product introductions, higher-efficiency supply chains, more profitable social media campaigns or improvements in any other management endeavor. To move clients en masse, any study’s findings must be a major departure from conventional wisdom, not a relabeling or tweaking of well-worn ideas.

Thought leadership research that moves markets and makes a company a magnet for client attention must be designed at the outset to explore (within boundaries, of course), not confirm. That only happens when the researchers aren’t forced to prove a starting set of hypotheses. Rather, they must be given the license to invalidate some or all of the initial hypotheses if necessary.

In fact, an explicit goal of thought leadership studies should be to identify best practices that weren’t anticipated at the outset of the study. That is, what business practices that no one else has talked about distinguish the successful companies from the less successful companies that are studied on a particular topic?

 

How One Company Revisited its Data and Saw Something Different

In 2002, Deloitte Consulting asked us to write a research report on a study it had conducted about companies with innovative business models. The firm had done substantial financial analysis of leading companies across numerous industries over the prior 20 years. It found a number of them had met its definition of a “business model innovator” – a firm that brought a whole new product/service offering, to a new customer base, and with a different way of delivering that offering. The firm then conducted substantial secondary research to find details from press articles that would confirm its point of view going in: As Deloitte found, some of the most successful business model innovators brought a whole new “who” (customers that were targeted), “what” (the product/service offering) and “how” (the way that offering was delivered) to the market (Amazon, Nike, Apple and others).

They then asked us if we thought the research was worthy of a Harvard Business Review article submission (one we would help them with). After considerable thought, we told them no – we felt the research didn’t have any new and big insight that would interest HBR. We told them they needed to drill down on their research. They asked us to help.

What both of our firms found was a subset of their “business model innovators” who were distinct from the rest. The subset had built highly successful businesses catering to customers that others had regarded as being marginally profitable or unprofitable. They included Wal-Mart (starting in the 1960s with the rural poor), Paychex (payroll services for very small businesses), Wellpoint Health Networks (selling health insurance plans to individuals and small businesses), Progressive Corp. (auto insurance for high-risk drivers), and Dermalogica (providing skin care products and training to estheticians – beauty salon professionals who in the 1990s were at the bottom of the salon pecking order).

Thus we had a new hypothesis: Some of the most successful business model innovators focused on markets that few others believed were attractive. But that warranted more research, to understand exactly how these companies had created big businesses by catering to seemingly marginally profitable or unprofitable customers. We then interviewed many of these companies to answer this question. And, indeed, we found many things, including the fact that these firms marketed to customers in extremely low-cost but highly effective ways.

The result of this additional research and analysis was a 2003 Harvard Business Review cover article for Deloitte entitled “Bottom Feeding for Blockbuster Businesses.” Had we not done the qualitative research – the interviews with these companies – Deloitte would not have been able to generate the new insights that it did. They saw patterns of best practices from those interviews, and those patterns led them to their novel insights.

 

From Pain Can Come Gain

To be sure, this kind of research can be harder to do. It demands more qualitative research – especially illuminating interviews at companies that are succeeding and struggling at the issue at hand. (Studying what leaders do differently than followers is where the big insights come from.) It can also take more time – trying to discern patterns of best practices from those interviews. The ideal moment to conduct the quantitative research stream (e.g., an online survey) is after a round of qualitative interviews.

Furthermore, this research approach can be more worrisome; you don’t know what the core findings are going to be at the outset. And it is more likely to fly in the face of conventional thinking at your firm. Thus, it may be resisted internally – even if it’s embraced externally. I’ve seen solid studies squelched or marginalized because they didn’t confirm the beliefs of an influential partner in the firm.

Despite those barriers, studies without fundamentally new and important insights are bound to disappoint. In an ever more crowded market of studies, being heard above the noise requires would-be thought leaders to double down on their research methods and strive for invention rather than confirmation. From our experience, the rewards can make such skillful explorations worthy of pursuit.