Posts by Carol Shea

Aligning Insights with Business Objectives in a Design Thinking Ecosystem: A Case Study

In the last decade, Design Thinking has gone from buzz word to relevant business process for customer-focused businesses. Insights professionals working where Design Thinking processes are in play need to be clear about how the process works so that they can meet the needs of their business partners and achieve a successful outcome.

This case showcases how one team found success working in this environment. They started with a Smart Insights Brief to plan the inspiration and ideation stages of an Emergency Room (ER) redesign project that was using Design Thinking principles. Then they provided the strategic decision support so that ideas could be immediately prototyped and A/B tested, all while tracking the ROI of the research investment. It’s how today’s insights teams must respond to the need for insights while working within ever-changing parameters for problem solving.

Design Thinking requires a business to empathize with consumers and design around their needs and wants. I can’t imagine a management philosophy more closely aligned with how insights professionals already think!

Design Thinking

What do Apple, IBM, Fidelity, Intuit, and Herman Miller have in common? They all rely on Design Thinking principles to guide them in creating products and services that meet the needs of their target audience.  Design Thinking requires business to empathize with consumers and design around their needs and wants.  I can’t imagine a business management philosophy that would be more closely aligned with how insights professionals already think!

Design Thinking adapts the creative process used by designers to provide a problem-solving framework for creating human-centered products, services, and internal processes. Its proponents point to benefits such as:

  • Reducing the risk associated with launching new ideas.
  • Reducing the time it takes for organizations to learn.
  • Producing solutions that are innovative, not just incremental.

Design Thinking utilizes elements like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions focused on what future customers want. The focus is on relentless questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. Insights professionals are likely to run into Design Thinking in projects where the problem to be tackled is ill-defined or requires creative solutions.

Marketing Research in a Design Thinking Ecosystem

Here’s what aligning insights with business objectives looks like in the Design Thinking ecosystem.

The Scene

An inner-city hospital wanted to redesign their ER department. They assembled an ER Design Team that decided to use Design Thinking for the process. The existing ER had a less than stellar reputation. It was perceived as slow, dirty, and even scary. The Design Team turned to the Insights Department for assistance with obtaining patient input.

Insights Project Planning

The Insights Team used the Smart Insights Brief with the ER Design Team to get clarity on the current situation as well as their goals and expectations. The teams jointly identified the learning needs necessary to build a best-in-class ER. In the process, they established success metrics that identified ways to improve the learning process in the future and how the insights process impacted the newly redesigned ER.

Empathize Stage

Design Thinking always starts with defining the problems to solve. The teams already had a leg-up on this stage because they used DecisionAdvancer’s Smart Insights Brief process. So, the Insights Team was ready to jump into action starting with deep-dive research to identify their target audience’s needs and wants. This included:

  • Secondary review of ER best practices and several interviews with benchmark ER departments across the US
  • Observational research of the ER, including some very brief, in-the-moment interviews with ER staff and patients
  • Focus groups with past ER patients and their family members
  • Focus groups with ER staff members

By the end of this stage, the teams had a clear understanding of the challenge and a human-centered statement of the problem.

Define and Ideate Stage

The Smart Insights Brief process upfront helped the teams maintain focus while mentally “going wide” to look at the ER redesign from many different angles.

Next, the ER Design Team and the Insights Team brought in all key stakeholders and held convergent and divergent sessions to identify ideas, solutions, and alternative ways to looking at the problem. Convergent sessions clustered and identified pain points while divergent sessions ideated solutions. These creative sessions generated many ideas that were then filtered. The Smart Insights Brief process upfront helped the teams maintain focus while mentally “going wide” to look at the ER redesign from many different angles.

Prototype/Test Stage

Several of the ideas coming out of the Ideation Stage were tested immediately. The Insights analysts helped set up several A/B split tests to evaluate new processes. This iterative process continued until the best processes were identified. Where appropriate, visual concepts were developed and quantitatively tested.

Because success measures were identified in the initial research planning stage and careful track was kept of how learnings informed decisions, both the ER Design Team and the Insights Department were able to measure the ROI of the research investment.

Redesign Success

Throughout the process, the Insights Team was able to guide the Design Team to make the optimal customer-based decisions. The redesigned ER Department saw improved quality outcomes and higher patient satisfaction scores. Because success measures were identified in the initial planning stage and careful track was kept of how learnings informed decisions, both the ER Design Team and the Insights Department were able to measure the ROI of the research investment. As a bonus, they identified new ways to improve the insights process for future projects.

The DecisionAdvancer Difference

This Insights Team was up to the ER redesign challenge. They knew they could rely on the Smart Insights Brief to keep the teams focused on the right problems and opportunities from the very beginning of the project. The Insights Team confidently delivered actionable insights that were properly aligned with organizational objectives. The ER team was appreciative of a process that resulted in an improved, customer-centric ER using Design Thinking principles.  The sponsoring academic institution was assured that their research resources had been used wisely.

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Why Measuring ROI Will Be Essential for the Future of Insights Pros

Do you measure the ROI of your research expenditures?  If you are like 90% of insights pros, the answer is “not exactly.” Insights teams typically rely on softer key performance indicators (KPI’s) such as meeting timelines and conducting more research on stagnant or reduced budgets.

However, the marketing function as a whole is getting much savvier about measuring ROI.  Methodologies can include single attribution with revenue cycle projection, attribution across multiple programs, and full market mix modeling. That said, marketing management isn’t actively challenging the insights function to provide them with ROI. So, should the insights function take ROI measurement more seriously?

We interview Brett Hagins, who has spent the last decade studying, writing and supporting insights teams with ROI for his opinion.

Why isn’t ROI a widely accepted and reported measure of success for the MR/Insights industry?  After all, just about every other marketing-related function is subject to ROI-type KPI’s and we are a numbers-savvy group!

It is difficult and inexact to isolate the net contribution from research as part of the process leading to incremental revenue, market share, cost reduction, or risk mitigation. However, it is critical to justifying budgets and staff and prevents research from descending into a perceived commodity.

As an industry, we’ve managed to get along for the last 75 years without measuring ROI.  So, why bother with it now? 

Marketing ROI is a lot more scientific now than it was decades ago and research ROI has to follow. When the IOT is truly mainstream in a few years and the distinction between the digital and analogue world becomes meaningless, behavioral measurement of all marketing activities will be constant for most enterprises. Many traditional researchers believe that survey research will always be needed because it tells us the “why.” A focus on Return on Investment means the “what” is more important than the why and if companies don’t take action on the why it becomes academic.

What would you advise insights professionals do if they want to get started in ROI measurement?

Start tracking baseline attitudes and decisions in the absence of research using some kind of regular process so that you can document changes or uncertainty reduction as a result of the research. Learning often seems obvious in retrospect and showing how collective thinking has changed over time which led to different decisions or reduced risk is important.

What are the biggest cultural barriers to measuring ROI?

Getting a commitment from senior management that research will be used to drive decisions rather than validate them is important. Insights and analytics departments must negotiate a process for decision-making independently of any specific project. How will executives go about making decisions? What are the action standards? Establishing a system for this at the outset and then integrating research as a part of the larger system is what leads to ROI.


About Brett: Brett Hagins served in leadership roles on the client-side for Texas Instruments and EDS. He has been published extensively in Quirks and conducted top-rated webinars on quantifying the financial impact of research. Hagins was a top rated speaker at the Corporate Researchers Conference and his work on linking research with financial performance has been referenced in two market research textbooks. He has a Master of Science in Market Research from the University of Texas where he has served as a guest lecturer and Research Innovation and ROI, Inc. was the first company to be an approved provider for PRC training credit through the MRA.


Are you interested in offering your thoughts on the marketing insights ROI topic? Email if you’d like to participate in a Q&A article on the topic.

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Prepare Business Partners for the Unexpected to Increase Insights-Based Decisions

No one likes to be unprepared. We may complain about the accuracy, but we still check the weather forecast on our phone.  Business partners are the same. Insights may not lead to action when the results leave business partners feeling caught in a torrential downpour without an umbrella.

But you can increase insights-based decisions based on alignment of research and business objectives by getting your partners ready to expect the unexpected. How? By recognizing that they are human with expectations that can be so firmly held it is impossible for them to believe otherwise.  It’s your job to provide proverbial cover and prepare them for all eventualities.

After all, often it’s hard to tell the difference between good news and bad. Sometimes bad news is good news. It’s all in your perspective.

All News is Good News?

Tell someone they owe the government $577 million in taxes and they hear bad news. Tell them they won the $1.5 billion Powerball lottery and they are ecstatic. See the difference? Your challenge is to create the environment and relationship where business partners understand that all news is good news.

It starts by learning that different value judgements are possible for any given results and preparing your partners for various outcomes. How? You must uncover underlying or hidden assumptions and hypotheses. Use probes to identify expectations upfront. By laying the groundwork to shed light on beliefs in the beginning, you can find out exactly what it would take to disprove them. Addressing credibility issues also saves resources. If nothing could possibly disprove a hypothesis, why perform the research?

Here are some ways to increase insights-based decisions by preparing business partners to expect the unexpected.

Value Judgements on Insight Learnings

Humans are meaning-making machines. We instill meaning in everything we see and experience. At the same time, we assign value judgements along with those meanings. Have you ever heard the expression, “It is what it is, and that’s all it is”? It distills the concept that when it comes to meaning, the only meaning is the meaning we choose to assign. What does that have to do with insights? A great deal.

Most people don’t like surprises in business. Don’t surprise your business partners.

See, as insights pros we must sometimes share learnings that we perceive as “good,” but business partners perceive as “bad.” It’s just a matter of perspective. But that difference in perspective can be the difference between delivering insights that form the basis of decisions and insights that go on the trash heap of wasted resources. If you’re going to increase insights-based decisions by aligning insights with objectives, you’ve got to be prepared to unmask “bad news” as “good news”.

The Packaging Problem

Let’s say your insights team was tasked with studying new packaging options. You complete the study and find that consumers do not like any of the new packaging options being explored.  Now, when it comes time to deliver the report, your insights team perceives the results as good news. You’ve added value because you helped the company avoid a waste of resources and expense on packaging that consumers don’t want or like. Your perception isn’t influenced by the sunk cost of the unpopular packaging, it’s influenced on the resources saved by not launching an unpopular packaging.

“In the business world, bad news is usually good news for someone else.” – James Surowiecki

But your business partners have a different perspective. They’ve invested considerable effort and resources to the new packaging design options. Not only is their perception influenced by sunk cost, they also have an emotional connection to the new package design options. So, the “good news” you deliver is received as “bad news”.

Instead of embracing the learnings, they complain about the study design and the participants included in the study. “It must be wrong!” they insist.  You are blind-sided, the business partners are disappointed, the insights are dismissed.  What a waste of precious time and resources of your insights department. Your credibility with the business partners take a hit too. The packaging problem has turned a real problem that ironically could have been avoided by packaging assumptions into the project design on the front end. The consumer product isn’t the only product with a packaging problem.

Increase Insights-Based Decisions by Addressing Assumptions

So how could an insights team avoid this situation? By better preparing business partners for this potential scenario right from the start.

Let’s say that the business objective of the study was “identify which one of three package designs to proceed with” and the corresponding research objective was “identify the best package design based on consumer purchase intent, shelf visibility and appeal.”  With the perspective of hindsight, it’s easy to see there was a huge assumption in these objectives:  that at least one package design would meet consumer needs and proceed.

Sometimes its hard to see assumptions at the front end.  That’s why it is crucial to spend sufficient time during the start of design and focus on the underlying assumptions that may be built into project objectives. 

How to Prepare Business Partners for All Possible Results

Uncovering assumptions should be done in the very beginning, when you are still focused on the business needs. Along with defining the current situation, business objective, business decision to be made, and identifying all business units that will be impacted, probe to uncover covert assumptions as well as the overt hypotheses.

Scenario Planning-Based Probing

Identifying underlying assumptions could be as simple as asking the business partner if they have any expectations about the results.  For example, they may have intelligence from the sales team about competitive package designs that leads them to believe one or two of the proposed package designs will be preferred.

The time you spend on the front end pays off on the back end with insights that get action.

Another approach is to develop and share potential scenarios for results and ask how they would use the learnings. Specifically, ask what decisions would be made. For the packaging design example, three scenarios might be provided:

  1. One package of the three is clearly superior in meeting consumer needs
  2. Two or three of the packaging designs equally meet consumer needs
  3. None of the packaging designs meet consumer needs

By probing how business partners would use the information in each scenario, you would identify a major negative reaction to scenario 3.

Determine Believability

By using the sample probes above, you can uncover business partner reaction to results before the study is even designed. That’s important. The insights team should understand why business partners won’t find results believable and find out in advance what it takes for results to be credible and believable.

“The truth will set you free, believability will give you credibility.” – Garrison Wynn

For some it might be a larger sample size, for others it could be a study that includes retail partners as well as consumers.  These can all be included in the design if known up front. Equally important, if business partners won’t find certain results believable at all, is there any value in expending the resources on research?

Include All Stakeholders

Be sure to ask these probes not only of your direct contact business partner, but also of other company stakeholders. You could reveal differing expectations.  In the packaging example, if you were working directly with the brand team, it would have been very valuable to probe the expectations of the operations and R&D teams about the packaging designs.

Having these expectations fully expressed before the study means that results can be compared to expectations to identify existing gaps (e.g., expectation that customers will like packaging, when in fact they do not) and these gaps can be addressed during analysis and reporting.

Help Leaders See All News is Good News

The best way to deliver bad news is after you’ve already laid the groundwork during the initial brief preparation to prepare business partners for all outcomes. You will find that even though disappointed, the team will be open to the learnings and see the value in the research. After all, in the packaging scenario, the sunk cost of poor packaging design is nothing compared to releasing the company’s product in packaging that annoys or alienates its customers.

Want to Know More About Aligning Insights with Business Objectives?

When insights are aligned with business objectives they are more likely be used to make decisions. Decisions aren’t made on insights because the alignment was missing from the beginning. By focusing on business objectives before research objectives, you are primed to deliver insights that get action.

Decision Advancer is a cloud-based productivity tool that allows you to increase the amount of time spent on strategic and consultative tasks and minimize the amount of time spent on analysis, reporting and administrative tasks. Tools inside the platform, such as the Smart Insights Brief, guide insights projects to align with business objectives from the very start.

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5 Methods to Align Insights Projects with Business Objectives

It’s a never-ending challenge in your insights department: getting business decisions made based on completed projects. If it’s any consolation, you aren’t alone. A recent Quirk’s Report found that 85% of researchers can’t get action based on insights at least some of the time. So, how can you increase insights-based decisions? They key is aligning the  research and business objectives at the start. That’s one way to  produce insights that get action.

So how do you do that? By becoming a strategic partner. It’s not easy, but if you start asking probing questions that challenge assumptions, you will find it easier to identify hidden assumptions and hypotheses. When you bring in all stakeholders, you get a 360° view of the actual needs. With that understanding in hand, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for commitment up front and in return, commit to keeping in touch in case things change. If you want to produce insights that get action, use these five methods to align insights projects with business objectives.

1.      Challenge the Assumptions

Just because your business partner identifies a challenge doesn’t mean it is the gospel. Imagine this situation: you come into the office early and start browsing your email.  There’s an urgent email from the brand team. A competitor has dropped prices and they need to decide if a price reduction is in order.  They ask if you could “do some groups” on pricing.

Now on the surface, that may seem like a straightforward request. It would be very easy to immediately start building a focus groups plan around this problem. You might cover exploratory topics like consumer belief about the competitor and your products and explore how they feel about the price cut and its impact on quality perceptions.

But imagine how you would feel if as you are reporting results, you find out that the competitor lowered prices as a preemptory move because they were under investigation for poor business practices. The price drop was just a move to get a better foothold on their market share to offset losses incurred when the bad news was revealed. The price decline wasn’t based on a marketplace need, as was assumed by your brand team. You would know in an instant your research results aren’t valid.  Consumers might have had different opinions if they had known all the facts. Why didn’t you know the “rest of the story”?

“Assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov

This may be an extreme example, but “surprises” at the reporting stage are an unfortunate fact of life for many insights teams.  It happens because either business partners aren’t fully aware of the situation they face, they don’t think a certain fact is relevant, or they simply forget to share all relevant information with the insights team members. When this happens, the insights aren’t used to make business decisions and the resources used to conduct the research are wasted. So, ask probing questions to get better understanding. Use clarifying probes (tell me more about…) and elevating probes (let’s take a step back…) to make sure you completely understand the business needs before moving on to the actual research needs.  Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions.

2.      Involve All Stakeholders

You aren’t going to get a 360° view by looking from one angle. To align the research with business objectives you must spin the current situation around and look at it from different perspectives. So, get the full picture by identifying all business units/functions that will be impacted by the decision and talking to all stakeholders. Marketing, R&D, operations, and insights should all be working together to deliver a brand, product, or ad campaign that perfectly meets the consumer needs and thus create more value for the business. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, in the perfect organization, R&D and marketing serve as the perfect counterbalance to each other. But organizations aren’t perfect.

Marketing, R&D, operations, and insights should all be working together to deliver a brand, product, or ad campaign that perfectly meets the consumer needs and thus create more value for the business.

That’s why it’s up to you to interview as many stakeholders as possible to ensure the insights project is truly focused on business objectives. You may find by talking to other stakeholders that the actual needs have been lost in translation or the project is much further down the road than you thought. It isn’t always easy but including all stakeholders as well as managing their expectations and understanding what drives their aspect of the project is well worth the effort. It’s also a great way to uncover past relevant, related research, information, data, or competitive intelligence that you might not have otherwise uncovered. Lastly, getting the opinions of all stakeholders leads to better understanding the current situation and helps identify what is out of scope of the project. Understanding what is out of scope is crucial. It leads us to the next tip.

3.      Identify Underlying Hypotheses and Expectations

As part of understanding business need objectives, you must identify and understand the underlying hypotheses and expectations. Don’t wait until reporting to find out that your business partners have unstated expectations. That’s too late. Go ahead, ask your business partners up front what they believe they will hear. Just start by having your business partner imagine the results they will get from the study. Then ask them if this information will be all that’s necessary to make a business decision. Also, probe how they will react if the results are not what they expect. In our e-book, Research Without Regret, we look at a case study where a brand team didn’t share their performance expectations for a new flavor with the insights team.  Considerable resources were invested in the research, but when the results were contrary to expectations, the research was called into question – not the expectations. Has this ever happened to you? If so, download the e-book to discover how this can be prevented.

By probing the underlying hypotheses and expectations as well as understanding what is out of scope, you will better prepare your partners for unexpected results. When insights projects are properly aligned with business objectives, they not only provide the information necessary to decide what to do, they inform what not to do. After all, if research only confirms what is already known, it’s not a vital business function. Identifying what is out of scope is also critical to avoid misunderstandings about deliverables and eliminates some of the second guessing that can happen at the end of the project.

4.      Get a Commitment

You may be allergic to commitment in personal relationships, but that’s a bad strategy for your professional relationships. Especially with your business partners. When discussing the business decisions to be made, ask not only “What must you learn from this research to support these business decisions?” but then ask, “How much of the business decision will be impacted by this research/analysis?” then get a commitment to use the information. Get a commitment on how the information will be used and identify other elements that will impact the decision as well. By getting buy-in at the start and doing the groundwork to make sure the research is aligned with business objectives upfront, you will produce insights that get action.

If you can’t get commitment to use the information, can you afford the opportunity cost? It may be too high. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but in this instance, the company may be best served if resources were directed to other projects. It’s a fact: insights professionals are constantly faced with too many projects and too little staff. Quirks Reports that 85% of insights professionals find this to be a pain point in managing and conducting research. So, get commitment up front. You may find that over time, you are pulled in earlier and earlier as you prove ROI on insights projects that align with business objectives and get action.

By getting buy-in at the start and doing the groundwork to make sure the research is aligned with business objectives upfront, you will produce insights that get action.

5.      Keep in Touch

These days, many insights projects can take six weeks or more to design and conduct. In a rapidly changing environment, that’s a lifetime. Almost anything can happen. The research team must be kept informed of any major external market factors that change during this critical period. Initiate contact frequently during this period. Don’t wait for your business partner to come to you, reach out on a regular basis. Ask if there are changes in the marketplace that could impact the research. Changes in competition, customers, resources, technology, or regulation can impact research. Since marketplace intelligence during the project is vital to success, check in frequently. If changes occur, then you can make field corrections if appropriate or address the changes in the analysis and reporting phases.

The only constant is change – Heraclitus

Be a Strategic Advisor

By implementing these processes, you’ll be much more than just a researcher. You’ll be a strategic advisor. When you deliver projects focused on business objectives, they get action.

Have you found other ways to increase insights-based decisions based on alignment of research with business objectives? We’d love to hear more. Contact us and let us know what is working for you.

Download the ebook and discover tips for avoiding research that ends in regret.
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Tips to improve team performance while aligning insights and business objectives

One of your toughest jobs as an insights leader is to bring together a team that consistently performs on a superior level and produces insights that get action. Team members bring different experience levels and skill sets to the table and its your job to maximize their potential while making sure that the projects in which they are engaged match the business objectives of the company.  You may feel there isn’t enough time to train or develop newer team members, but their communication, strategic thinking and reporting skills as well as the research and analysis methodologies with which they are familiar are key to consistent performance.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams

With the number of projects on your plate, taking time for high level strategic thinking and coaching members on a one-on-one basis seems counterintuitive. But this leadership approach is exactly what’s needed. The best leaders are teachers. Better team performance and better alignment of insights and objectives starts with the team. The team starts with you. Here’s how you can incorporate teaching and coaching to improve team performance while better aligning insights and business objectives.

Relevant and Useful Lessons

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Sydney Finklestein shared what he learned from studying stellar leaders over the last ten years. The common thread that wove these leaders together was the amount of time they spent teaching practical lessons in professionalism, life, and points of their craft. Here are a few ways you can lead by teaching.

Professionalism.  Aligning insights with business objectives means team members must ask deep, probing questions. That’s not easy for junior team members or even seasoned members with a deferential personality. Provide coaching on how to ask business partners challenging questions. Share the best methods for effective listening and how to deal with all different personality types. Your team will be better prepared to take a more collaborative approach when developing the insights brief and deliver research that better matches company objectives. By simply investing the time to teach and reinforce these tactics, you’ll be rewarded with higher level performance and business partners will receive actionable insights.

As you stand on the shoulders of your mentors, so shall your team members stand on your shoulders.

Points of Craft. Your team may be able to organize the facts, beliefs, and thoughts necessary to prepare an insights brief, but can they craft a brief that builds expectations about the outcomes of the research/analysis? They can if you teach them. Show them how to develop questions that are focused on the business needs before addressing the research needs. If the team is going to deliver insights that get action, they must be taught to identify the objective that the business has identified for the study; whether it’s improved profitability, or increased sales through market extensions. Share your experience with them.

Life Lessons. You’re a leader, not a parent. Why should you teach life lessons? Effective leaders are mentors. Mentors share innovative thinking and stories about conquering difficulties. At some point we have all experienced post research regret. Share your stories with your team so that they may build on your past experiences. Teach them how you’ve learned to take a situation and manipulate it so that you can see it from various angles and perspectives.

Always Be Teaching

Teachers are always teaching. Whether it occurs naturally in the office or in designated times, almost any time is a time to teach.

On the Job. You should always look for teachable moments and be ready to respond. Whether you operate in an open office environment or have a more traditional work setting, make sure your team members know you are accessible. Practice management by walking around. This allows you to observe your team members in action. Always be open to brief, but in-the-moment coaching conversations, even if they occur in the hallway or elevator.

Great Leaders Create Time for Teaching, They Don’t Wait for Time for Teaching

Designated Times. Great leaders create time for teaching, they don’t just wait for it. Tommy Frist, Jr. is an avid pilot. When he was CEO of HCA he invited his proteges up in his airplane. You don’t need to take to the skies but taking a team member to dinner can provide time for one-on-one conversation. You’ll improve team performance when you take time to teach.

Teaching Techniques

How you deliver is almost as important as what you deliver. Over 2,000 years ago Cicero said, “The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk.” It’s still good advice today. Choose conversation over pontification. It will be more effective every time.

Customize.  Tailor the lesson to the individual.  People learn in different ways and have different needs. Your teaching should match both. For example, a team member with a differential personality may need coaching to feel more comfortable in uncomfortable situations such as challenging business partners at a higher organizational level about project assumptions. Role-play. Others need to be pushed to break old habits. Draw on your personal experiences to teach these team members how exploring what’s not included in a project reveals underlying and unstated assumptions. Show examples of how the company benefits when they deliver insights that match company objectives.

Socratic Method.  Take a tip from classroom teachers. Use the Socratic method to ask sharp, relevant questions. Instead of pointing out weaknesses in a draft brief, ask “Do you think your business partner has thought through the problem thoroughly?” or “What additional questions might you have asked for more clarity?” Questions are also a great way to educate yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to find out what team members think.

Modeling. Sometimes just seeing the right behavior is all a team member needs. So, be sure to lead by example. And don’t limit modeling to yourself. Inventory individual team member strengths and create situations so others can learn from them. Does one team member have a great way for eliciting underlying biases and hypotheses of business partners?  Is one team member particularly adept at translating business objectives to research objectives?  Have other members shadow these skill experts and learn through observation.

Coaching Resources

Even the best teachers utilize teaching aids and great leaders know how to use tools to work more effectively.  That’s why DecisionAdvancer comes complete with coaching resources to improve team performance through insights and business objective alignment. These tools include definitions, how to’s and examples for such critical skills as:

Understanding what and how decisions will be made. Going beyond stating the business objective of an insights-based project to identifying the business decisions that will be made. Learn to identify whether it is a “go-no go” situation or if the information is needed for another stage of development.  It’s much easier to recommend the right research and analytics objectives and methodologies if you understand what and how decisions will be made.

Identifying the criteria on which decisions will be made. Going beyond stating the research/analytical objective to identifying the criteria on which decisions will be made. For example, would the percent likely to buy a proposed solution be enough upon which to base a decision?  Or would the decision require more rigorous proof, such as that based on an in-market test?

Identifying the hypotheses and expectations of business partners. Business partners may have beliefs or expectations about the resulting insights and information. For example, they might have some information from the sales team or a distributor that leads them to have certain beliefs as to the popularity of a competitive product. Identifying these hypotheses and expectations gives the insights team a leg-up in analysis and reporting.

Teaching Can Improve Team Performance while Aligning Insights and Business Objectives

The greatest leaders are teachers. It’s true no matter where you are in a company. In the Insights Department, great leaders teach their team to produce projects that address business objectives as well as research objectives. They arm them with the techniques and tools that increase individual and team performance. In the end, if you aren’t teaching, you aren’t leading.

Want to see the Olivetree Insights coaching tools in action? Contact Us or call 513-321-3483 for more information or to schedule a 20-minute demo.

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Alignment is the key to more insights-based decisions: AMA NEO Chapter Market Research Conference 2018

With 15 presenters, the AMA NEO Chapter Conference was an inspirational, learnings-packed day for almost 100 attendees.

One message that came through loud and clear was that by aligning objectives, methodologies, analyses, and reporting with the needs of all stakeholders, insights pros can be more successful helping companies make better insights-based decisions.

  • Our Olivetree Insights team with Chris Grabarkiewicz-Davis, former Insights leader of Luxottica Retail, shared best practices for improving the ability of business leaders to make insights-informed decisions. Their process gets all the parties involved in research and analytics projects aligned around the detailed goals that ensure success. The outcome is that businesses can fully leverage their investments in research and analytics to drive improved business outcomes.
  • Several teams (Illumination Research, EMI, Action Based Research, and C+R) shared ways to align methodology with research design needs by combining quant. and qual. techniques and reaching the right sample/target audience. With the right methodology and sample, business leaders can rely on the learnings as representative of their target audience.
  • The FedEx Custom Critical and Schmidt Marketing Research team shared how they used an stakeholder workshop format to report research results. This interactive approach ensured that stakeholders not only understood the learnings, they understood how to utilize them in their business plans.
  • A panel of MR Leaders (Progressive Insurance, Vita-Mix Corporation, MarketVision Research, Broadview Analytics) shared current best practices in MR. One topic they covered was creating reports and presentations that align with the needs of the stakeholders so that they can quickly absorb and will use the insights. They discussed multiple report formats to meet the needs of different stakeholders – from one-page overviews to video reports.

Want to learn more about how aligning the stakeholders involved in an insights-focused project in order to dramatically increase the success rate for insights projects and their return on investment? Download our FREE ebook, Research without Regret.

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Keys to Ending Research Regret and Delivering Actionable Insights

This is the final in a three-part series on avoiding research regret and delivering insights that get action.

In the first two installments, we reviewed the root causes and costs of research regret. We also shared a case study about Jason, the Insights Director for an ice cream manufacturer, and revealed why complete clarity on the business problems and opportunities before research begins is so critical. It’s the only reliable way to deliver insights that get action.

In this post, we’ll reveal ways to avoid research regret.

Download our free ebook, Research Without Regret for more tips to end research regret and deliver actionable insights.

Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert would have made a great insights professional.

Every research professional knows that it’s important to align research with business needs. Otherwise a vaguely defined study can lead to poor quality results. But how research is aligned with business needs varies widely. Some research departments rely on informal probing and others utilize a more formal insights brief process.

At Olivetree Insights we interviewed corporate insights leaders to identify best practices. We discovered that more rigorous approaches for aligning research with business needs were more effective in yielding actionable insights. In fact, a rigorous approach tended to result in fewer projects per researcher over the course of a year and a more selective focus.

So, let’s look at the key technique that Jason could have used to avoid his research regret.

The Power of Checklists

All skilled craftsmen have a set of go-to tools in their toolbox. The Power Dozen Checklist questions are your power tools. And as Atul Gawande explains in his book, The Checklist Manifesto, well designed checklists improve outcomes no matter how expert you are in a subject.

Checklists improve efficiency, consistency, and quality in fields as diverse as healthcare to aviation. When used properly, checklists are not just a ‘to do’ list, they are a powerful communication tool that can connect interdisciplinary team members around complex tasks.

DecisionAdvancer took the best practices from Fortune 500 insights departments and applied the Checklist Manifesto philosophy to create the Power Dozen Checklist. This is a list of questions to ask during the design phase and they are organized into the following 10 topics:

Business-Needs Focused Objectives

For example, you might start by asking your business partners “What is the current situation that is triggering the request for research /analysis?” This can be a good lead-in for probes related to the business objective(s) being addressed (e.g., improved profitability, increased sales through market extensions).

Next, add dimension to the business objective by defining how the information will be used, whom in the organization will be affected (and might need to be brought into study design), and the existing beliefs regarding the possible results.

Once the business objectives are clear, it’s time to move on to the research needs.

Research-Needs Focused Objectives

The remaining questions focus on clearly defining the research objectives and how they will meet the business needs.

First, start by considering what’s currently known about the focus area. This enables the team to avoid duplicating prior efforts while leveraging past learnings. Once this is done, the research/analytics objective converts the business objectives into research language. The final items on the list clarify the research objectives in more detail.

Download our ebook to get the Power Dozen Checklist and more ideas for avoiding research regret.

Benefits of Using the Power Dozen Checklist

The Power Dozen Checklist has been field-tested and proven to work.

Corporate researchers who’ve used this checklist methodology report improved dialogue that assures that all parties in a study/analysis are on the same page when it comes to objectives, methodology, and deliverables.

In addition, insights teams using the Power Dozen Checklist report that it:

  • Ensures that the study results adequately serve the primary business needs.
  • Reinforces a more efficient use of funds and resources for limited research dollars.
  • Confirms that decision makers and stakeholders are prepared for potential results (positive and negative) in advance.
  • Provides quality control guidelines.
  • Brings more consistency across the Insights Department – so all team members can perform at the same high level and your stakeholders know what to expect when engaging with the Insights team.

Two Ways the Power Dozen Checklist Would Have Helped Jason

Many of the problems Jason and Patrick encountered could be traced back to the design and planning phase of their ice cream flavor project. Had they used the Power Dozen Checklist to create a Smart Insights Brief here’s just two examples of what they would have uncovered:

Hypotheses & Expectations
Patrick clearly missed unstated expectations that weren’t revealed until the report was presented. If Jason’s team had known that brand leadership expected the chocolate latte macchiato flavor to lead the pack because it was an award winner, he could have discussed the differences in expert versus consumer judging of flavors during the design and the reporting stage of the project.

Out of Scope
An exploration of what’s NOT to be included in a project can reveal underlying, unstated assumptions. In fact, what’s left unsaid can contribute to misunderstanding as easily as something that is misstated. In Jason’s case, an exploration of what’s out of scope might have revealed that competitive flavors should have been considered as part of the study.
Identifying what is out of scope is critical to avoid misunderstandings about deliverables. It also eliminates some of the second guessing that can happen at the end of the project. “We should have asked…” regret is replaced with actionable insights.

It’s time to stop regretting and start getting action on your insights.

Want to learn more about how Olivetree Insights can help you research without regrets?  Our proven technology can align your insights to better support business needs.  Find out how. Email us at or call (513) 321- 3483 and arrange for a free demonstration today.

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When Good Research Goes Bad

This is the second in a three-part series on avoiding research regret and delivering insights that get action. In the first installment, we looked at the cost of research regret and learned to identify the types of research regret. In this article we’ll get to the root causes of research regret.

Jason had a terrible, no good, horrible, rotten day. When we last saw him, he was lying in bed reflecting on how it had gone so wrong. He knew his project had been a success; all the way up to the time he began to present his insights that is. “Why weren’t competitive flavors included? Why didn’t the chocolate latte macchiato flavor do better? Were the right people in the study?”  The questions were like a barrage of bullets and Jason had no cover.  Instead of staring at the ceiling, if Jason wants to research without regrets, he needs to dig deep and find the root causes.

When he does, he will find five main drivers.

1.  Acting Instead of Planning

Speed is everything in business. Customers expect almost instant gratification, and insights clients aren’t any different. If business isn’t nimble or lacks the ability to evolve and grow quickly, it will be outpaced by the competition. Evolve or die is the new normal. But the pressure for speed comes at a cost. This desire to “do something” leads to “do anything”.  In the rush to “get ‘er done” the design and planning stages of the project are rushed. Jason and his client partner equally feel this pressure and their reactions are only human.

The Human Bias Towards Action

When faced with problems, humans naturally respond with action. The natural urge is to take action, even when it is counterproductive. A found that while a goalie the highest chance of stopping a penalty kick if they stay in the center of the goal versus diving left or right, goalies only stay in that spot 6.3% of the time.

So, why don’t they stand where they should? Because it feels and looks better to take action, even if it means diving and missing the ball.

The bias towards action is based on emotion and it must be resisted.

Jason isn’t a soccer goalie, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t biased towards action. When the Harvard Business Review surveyed participants in their executive education classes, they found that managers feel more productive executing tasks than planning them. If there is a shortage of time (and when isn’t time in short supply?) these professionals perceive time spent planning to be time wasted. The bias towards action is based on emotion. It must be resisted. It is a key reason organizations don’t learn and is a root cause of post research regret.

Consequences of Action

This bias toward action has two unintended consequences that lead to post research regret.

Staff Overload. In a recent Quirks corporate researcher survey, almost 60% of insights professionals cited ‘too many projects for our staff’ and 50% reported “too many projects for budget” as often being pain points for their departments. No wonder people feel overworked.

And to add to the stress, over 40% of those same insights professionals said, “not completing a project fast enough” is a challenge. Like you, when Jason feels overworked, his tendency is to work harder – to take even more action – when taking more action might not be the best course of action.

Lack of Strategic Thinking. If Jason’s company culture doesn’t support strategic, forward-thinking research, his department may be spending too much money on one-off projects with limited long-term value. Jason and the company would be better served investing in projects that are able to guide the company’s direction.

Fortunately, Cambiar’s 4th Annual Future of Research Report (chart below courtesy of Cambiar Report) shows that insights professionals are increasingly impacting the C-Suite and other corporate strategists. Unfortunately, 30% of those same marketing researchers feel say that “business decisions are being made faster than we can provide input”. If Jason and other corporate researchers like you are going to take on a greater role as a strategic partner, they must have time to think strategically.

2.  Accepting Not Probing

Jason delegated the new flavor research study to a new but trusted member of his team. Patrick is a skilled and savvy researcher with extensive supplier-side experience. Jason was confident in his ability to design and complete this project.

However, because Patrick is new to the company, he is just getting to know the business team members. He didn’t feel completely comfortable asking what he thought might be too many probing questions during the design phase and was unsure of his authority to do so.

Unfortunately, Patrick didn’t feel comfortable second guessing the list of flavors provided by the brand team. Nor, did he ask about what was out of the scope of the project.

After all, he was getting more background on this project than he had ever received at his previous employer on the suppler-side.

Asking probing questions, such as clarifying probes (tell me more about…) and elevating questions (let’s take a step back….) are critical for aligning insights projects with business needs.

In fact, most professionals have a ‘favorites” list of probes they use while designing a study.

However, too often what’s “outside of the scope” isn’t discussed based on the mistaken belief that once what’s “in” a project is known, the rest is “out.” Yet, missing this exploration often leads to scope creep, the bane of insights professionals!

Exploring what’s NOT included in a project is vital to success

Exploring what’s “out of scope” often reveals underlying, unstated assumptions. In addition, this exploration not only reduces the risk of scope creep, but can also reduce misunderstandings about the desired outcomes and the second guessing that can happen at the end of the project (e.g. “We should have asked about the competitive flavors…”).

3.  Ignoring Decision-Maker Disconnect

“Delegation is the passing on of actions, not responsibility” as Eric Edmeades so aptly reminds us. Delegation is important for all managers, but not all managers are effective delegators. Part of effective delegation is clearly defining, communicating, and confirming goals.

Everything just works much better when a leader can define and communicate their goals than when they leave everyone guessing.

In Jason’s case, his team was working directly with a brand manager on the research project design. The insights team assumed that the brand manager kept the VP in the loop and vice versa.

What you don’t know that you don’t know can sink your project. Engage decision makers to clearly define and confirm project goals.

Unfortunately for Jason, Patrick, and everyone else involved, this wasn’t the case. During the entire planning period, the VP was in Europe, busy hammering out new expansion plans.

The VP delegated the project to the brand manager and then disconnected. The brand manager didn’t have the opportunity to verify key assumptions, such as which flavors to include in the project.

In addition, Jason delegated the project to a new team member and then re-directed his energies to the many other projects coming across his desk.

This was the ‘easy one’ after all!

4.  Not Expecting the Unexpected and Status Quo Bias

Unexpected results are inevitable. Be prepared. Jason wasn’t. The brand team didn’t like the chocolate latte macchiato scores. They wanted the flavor to win. Unexpected results are tough.

Uncovering “bad news” is part of the job. It’s why you do research. Insights identify risks and opportunities. If all research just confirms the known, it is meaningless.

The brand team had practically decided to include chocolate latte macchiato in their new lineup. Jason and Patrick didn’t know that the brand team was talking to retailers, who were excited about the flavor. When the flavor didn’t win, the research was questioned.

This is a perfect example of status quo bias.  It’s when managers prefer past practices or past decisions because it’s an easy and comfortable default. Jason and Patrick should have known prior flavor decisions were based on flavor trends and retailer input. The brand team trusted this method. Researching flavors with consumers was new, so they were naturally uncertain about it. People resist change because they fear change. People fear loss of control, the unfamiliar and uncertain, and ripple effects. Jason should have assured them of the process in the beginning and throughout the project.

5.  Ignoring Changing Dynamics

Many research studies can take from 6 to 12 weeks before the results are presented. In a rapidly changing environment, lots can happen in that time frame. It’s imperative that the research team be kept informed of any major external market factors that change during this critical period.

Insights professionals are increasingly being called upon to provide actionable insights at a moment’s notice in an increasingly dynamic environment. New research and analytical technology has helped to speed up the process, but do not replace human intelligence.

During Jason’s ice cream study, a competitor might have launched a new flavor, or a key retailer could have indicated a different flavor preference. Either one of these circumstances could have significant influence on the study analysis and report.  If the research team isn’t kept in the loop during this critical period, this context would be lost, and research regret would ensue.


Now that you’ve seen discovered the root causes of post research regret, are you ready to learn techniques to deliver actionable results time and again?

Stay tuned for the third article in this series or Download our FREE e-book “Research without Regrets”.

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Research Without Regret – Creating Insights that Get Action


This is the first of a three-part series on avoiding research regret and delivering results that stakeholders act on.

Get our FREE ebook, Research Without Regret, download it here.


While insights professionals increasingly have access to the executive leadership table, the ability to spark business partners to make decisions and take action on the insights they provide is still a struggle. Every researcher experiences post research regret based on their inability to inspire action at some time. No matter how well you think the project went, in the end the users didn’t get the research results they expected or would use. And you’re left wondering why.

To avoid post research regret, you’ve got to understand what it is, why it happens, and the actions you can take to prevent it. In this series you will earn how to identify different types of research regret, the root causes of research regret, and discover proven techniques to research without regrets.

Research Regret Wastes Resources

Quirk’s recent corporate research report found that the biggest pain points for managing and conducting research were:

  • too many projects for the budget
  • too many projects for the staff

Sense a theme? Resources are scarce. When resources are scarce, it is critical you maximize their value. According to ESOMAR 2016, the global spend on research was almost $80 billion dollars. Yet the Quirks report showed that almost 85% of researchers aren’t able to get action based on research insights at least some of the time. In fact, half say this is often a challenge.

Half of all researchers say getting action on insights is often a challenge


Research Regret Shakes Confidence

Additionally, projects that fail to deliver actionable results lead business partners to lack confidence in marketing research.

Couple this with the challenges of demonstrating ROI and it’s no wonder research gets a bad rap in business press.  Forbes has articles like “Why So Much Market Research Sucks” and Harvard Business Review tells the C-level that “Real Leaders Don’t Do Focus Groups”. But what these business writers are really saying is “don’t waste money on bad research or research you regret”. We agree.

Jason’s Research Regret

Jason is having a hard time getting to sleep.  He lies in bed, staring at the ceiling and reflects on his day. It was tough. And as he contemplates the texture of the plaster above his head, he wonders how he could have avoided the situation and what had he done wrong.

Every project that ends in regret wastes time, money and human resources

He thought he had a big success.  After all, consumers really liked several of their new proposed ice cream flavors. Except, the meeting had spiraled out of control pretty quickly. He had faced a barrage of questions. Why weren’t competitive flavors part of the study? Why didn’t the chocolate latte macchiato flavor do better?  Was he sure the right people were in the study? It just didn’t end.

Does Jason’s experience sound familiar?  Every researcher has had this experience. Just like Jason, you end up with post research regret and wonder where it all went wrong.

Get your free ‘Research Without Regrets’ ebook – download it now! An easy-to-read guide that identifies stakeholder post-research regrets, their root causes, and tips for achieving regret free research successes.  

Expressions of Research Regret

Research regret is most commonly expressed in four ways.

Missing information

In our case example, Jason was challenged on the decision to exclude competitive flavors from the study. Upon reflection, Jason realized that they had received the list of flavors to include from the R&D department and the list of flavors had been approved by his brand team contact. However, he did not vet the flavor set with the channel group. No wonder he was caught off guard when they asked questions at the report stage. At that point it was a little too late! So, Jason’s team was missing vital information.

Told Us What We Already Know

This wasn’t a situation that Jason faced, but in some cases researchers might hear that the research “told us what we already knew.”

In some cases, research that confirms internal beliefs can be very useful. Those beliefs turn into facts, which is particularly important when investments against those facts are being made.

In other cases, however, this might point to situations where the results did not reflect the types of learnings that a decision-maker needs.

Wrong Conclusion

Jason was happy to report that several flavors in the test had done very well. But instead of the news of the winning flavors being met with enthusiasm, the team didn’t believe the conclusion that chocolate latte macchiato was not among them.

Unfortunately, Jason didn’t know this flavor had been awarded “new flavor of the year” by experts at an industry food event. Executives were sure they had a winner. No wonder they were surprised at the results.

The Quirk’s report also revealed that half of all researchers are faced with the challenge of not delivering expected results at least some of the time. Learnings not aligning with expected results is typically a problem only if the news is bad. Usually no one minds when the results are better than expected. That’s good news. Everyone hates bad news, but that’s why you do research in the first place.  Bad news is good news. The sooner a company knows it is on the wrong path, the smaller the sunk cost.

Wrong Process

The first three expressions of regret are based on the outcome of the research.  The fourth expression is based on the process and if heard, typically follow the “wrong conclusion” expression.

Jason was asked if the right people were in the study. Why? Because the results were unexpected, decision makers start to ask about the process; in essence questioning the validity of the research. Partner regret is particularly troubling if it erodes trust in the ability of a marketing researcher to do their job.

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” – Stephen Covey

Their reaction put Jason in a defensive position and tonight he’s starting to question the process too. How could he and his team could have been clearer and collaborated better with the decision-making team?  Before he tries to solve the problem, Jason’s now ready to consider the root causes of this situation.

Ready to get to the root causes of research regret? Stay tuned to read our next blog.

Download the free ‘Research Without Regrets’ ebook!  An easy-to-read guide that identifies stakeholder post-research regrets, their root causes, and tips for achieving regret-free research successes.
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