Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gut check!

Scott Bedbury was a key force behind the branding success of Starbucks and Nike and he’s written a nice little book about his experiences titled, A New Brand World.

While Bedbury looked to market research for guidance in the decisions he made, statistics weren’t the arbiter of his choices. There was something else.

A clue can be found in his quoting of Jerome Conlon at Nike: “…we’re very cautious about research around here. It’s not part of our language or culture. We don’t want to ignore or diffuse our own instincts.”

My nose is itching

What’s the “something else” needed for making good decisions? It’s an ineffable quality that goes by many names, such as gut instinct, intuition, a sense of something, a feeling, sixth sense, an epiphany.

I love watching the TV shows “Monk,” “The Mentalist,” and “Psych” and others like them. The main characters always seem to intuit more than others from crime scenes and suspects. How? By observing them carefully and processing their observations through their cumulative experiences.

What these characters do seems almost magical, as if they really can read minds. How do they do it?

(An aside: Note that all the main characters in the TV programs mentioned have witty senses of humor, ranging from very dry to slapstick. This is essential to exercising good intuition. If you're humorless and souless, ignore this blog entry.)

Something tells me

In business, intuition is invaluable when faced with a mass of research data. The data are meaningless if you don’t have a good gut feel for your clientele, audience, constituency, or customers.

Years ago when I was the editor of a trade magazine serving Christian bookstores, I approached the publisher with the idea of doing a survey. I explained that I wanted to get a better idea of what content we needed to cover in the magazine, and I wanted to know how we were viewed.

The publisher was a crusty former newspaper man, no nonsense to the core, and very wise. He told me that I could learn more by just visiting and talking with a handful of area store managers than I could from a survey of the entire readership. We were located in the Chicago area and there were dozens of stores within easy driving distance.

We settled on a compromise and I was allowed to include a short postcard survey in one issue of the magazine, but I also visited local stores. He was right!

Remember the character Data from Star Trek? He was a data-bound data-hound; he knew a lot of facts but couldn’t always apply what he knew correctly since he had no intuitive sensibility.

Having a gut sense can be as good or better than collecting a lot of data.

I’ve got a feeling

There’s nothing wrong with doing research. In fact, it’s essential to good business practice. But the data gathered will be useless if you can’t interpret them, and you can’t interpret them if you don’t already have a good feel for what’s going on around you.

A gut sense is simply your cumulative knowledge, experience, training, and the life you’ve lived applied in an intelligent way to current challenges. Most of us know way more than  we give ourselves credit for.

If you’ve reached a point where you’ve decided it’s time to survey your customers, odds are your gut sense is prodding you to pay attention to something that’s shifted or shifting. Something’s happening and you already have a feeling about it.

When you do a survey, keep in mind that the people responding aren’t as invested in the results as you are. Their responses will be self-centered, passionless, and not entirely accurate. That’s the nature of surveys! You have to be able to interpret the data and not merely accept the numbers at face value.

Trust your instinct! Do the research but listen to your gut. Too often I’ve watched as really smart people opt for research for one of two bad reasons:
  • They didn’t trust their instincts at all, or
  • They wanted to sidestep responsibility for the decision.
In both cases either they become frozen and unable to make a decision or they go entirely the wrong way.

Gutting it out and getting it right

Here are four steps to improving your decisions by combining research with your instincts or gut feel:
  1. Write out what you’re sensing. Doodle with words. Ramble on paper. Talk into a recorder. Get it out of the ether and onto paper so you can see what you’re feeling.
  2. Do some research. Go ahead and take the temperature of your audience, constituency, or customers. Do a small phone canvas, go to lunch with some people, send out a simple survey.
  3. Acknowledge what you really want to do. Odds are you know what needs to be done. Write it down on paper and talk to a trusted colleague or friend about it. Seeing it on paper and hearing yourself talk about it will help you better discern if it’s a good idea or not.
  4. Make a decision and move forward. If the research matches up with your gut, then it’s a no brainer to move ahead. If not, then trust your gut unless the research reveals something you were previously clueless about.
If it so happens that your research and gut are miles apart, you may be badly out of touch with those you’re serving and will need to reset your gut based on the expectations of your audience, constituency, or customers. In this case, a full-blown survey effort coupled with direct contact and conversation may be needed.

But, if as a rule, you’re staying connected to the people you serve and are actively engaged with them at some level, your gut is going to be in line with reality. Trust it.

Don’t abdicate your wisdom, experience, and professional insight to a bean counter’s numbers. You’re better and smarter than that!


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