From Observations and Insights, To Beliefs and Breakthroughs: The Great Planning Paradigm
I do a lot of work helping companies figure out ways to compete better in this crazy economic landscape. Some of this work involves actually building strategic planning practices inside of these organizations.
One of the most fundamental surprises I've had over the years is this: People don't really know what an insight is.
It's a universal problem that affects businesses more profoundly than you might think, and is one of the main reasons, I believe, why so many companies struggle in their marketing and business development efforts.
Time to reset.
Let's start with understanding the difference between an insight and an observation.
By clinical definition, an observation is:
- paying attention: the attentive watching of somebody or something
- observing of developments in something: the careful watching and recording of something, e.g. a natural phenomenon, as it happens
- record of something seen or noted: the result or record of observing something such as a natural phenomenon and noting developments
Okay, so basically this means that when you observe something, you're noticing an action or a relationship between two or more things.
"Purple people eat medium-rare hamburgers on Tuesdays at 4 PM" is an observation.
So is "Car buyers in Southern California look for better deals in the summertime".
That also might be a trend, but it is an observation, and definitely NOT an insight.
By clinical definition, an insight is:
- perceptiveness: the ability to see clearly and intuitively into the nature of a complex person, situation, or subject
- clear perception: a clear perception of something
- self-awareness: the ability of somebody to understand and find solutions to his or her personal problems
Basically this means that once you've made an observation, or a series of observations, you then intuit what it means in a broader or more refined context.
"Purple people are actually a part of a new social class because they transform their eating habits to make new friends and feel better about their food choices" is an insight.
So is "These three types of car buyers have become predatorial in their deal-seeking behaviors and are affecting regional auto sales in Southern California because they are discouraging repeat customers from going after the same deals."
That also might be a trend, but it is definitely an insight, and is culled from observation(s).
Insights often form a story about something you've been observing, and can also lead to beliefs about that thing or the category it fits into. Beliefs are often declarations that take you from a world of facts and figures into your own world of enhanced perspectives. Beliefs also have signifiers that tell us of a coming trend, or a shift in behavior.
- acceptance of truth of something: acceptance by the mind that something is true or real, often underpinned by an emotional or spiritual sense of certainty
- trust: confidence that somebody or something is good or will be effective
- something that somebody believes in: a statement, principle, or doctrine that a person or group accepts as true
"We think that purple people are a gateway to a new type of food consumption that can change the QSR industry in amazing new ways" is a belief.
"Social prospecting is a radical new way to turn car buyers into brand advocates" is also a belief.
Now to breakthroughs, because insights and beliefs can only take you so far in terms of moving the needle of a business.
Note how the definition of insight includes "the ability of somebody to understand and find solutions", which implies that the insight points to the capability of finding a solution, but is not actually the solution itself.
- important discovery: an important new discovery, especially in science, medicine, or technology, that has a dramatic and far-reaching effect
- removal of barrier to progress: an event that causes or marks the breaking down of a barrier to progress
- penetration of enemy line: an attacking army's advance through and beyond an enemy's line of defense
So, when you've gathered enough ideas around what you've observed, and you're able to synthesize those ideas into insights that tell a story, then breakthroughs happen. This is the point at which the patterns in that story reveal something not previously known or obvious in your research, and something that solves a business or a market challenge.
"We use purple people to inform our company how to provide better meal options and develop better food products" is a breakthrough.
"We've resegmented our car buyers to reflect acute social behaviors so that we're able to get them to market for us, in ways that are the most efficient and comfortable to them as customers" is also a breakthrough.
Think beyond format.
One of the killers I've found in this type of work is a reliance on format, specifically PowerPoints and Keynotes. While it is no doubt a great skill to be able to tell a compelling story in slides, I've found that a lot of strategists and analysts forego the solutions part - and a large portion of the thinking part - because they're hell bent on making a pretty deck.
I've actually forced entire planning teams to develop a story without the use of slides, and have also asked analysts to think through scenarios without the use of tables or spreadsheets. The ability to think critically demands an unorthodox approach that forces us to "see the scenario", and can be really fun and creative if treated as such.
Seek the kernels.
I've had planners say to me that they don't know where to start on a project because they can't "discern enough from the brief", or that the data they're pulling isn't "leading to anything insightful". This drives me batty because if you can't find interesting stuff online and out in the real world, then you shouldn't be a planner.
That said, I believe that planning is a truly inventive exercise, a carriage for misfits, if you will. The best observations and insights I've come to happened in strange places and in far-off lands, where I've literally watched and interacted with people for hours. It's where I've found my kernels. Then I've gone back and done research around those kernels, even if I wasn't working on a client engagement. I can't tell you how many times I've referred to these past experiences when I was digging for a starting point on a current engagement.
Another thing that drives me nuts is when researchers say that you can't do something. I've heard lame assertions like "you can't merge the quantitative with the qualitative" or "social data is useless for traditional sampling". Nonsense. Anything is possible, you just need to use your noggin and be smart about it. Ask questions. Seek help. Be resourceful. Collaborate. Yes, it can be difficult, but it's worth it.
I think one of the biggest problems with data is that people are afraid to use it in creative ways. They often think it's something analogous to pressing a button, and presto, a bunch of information (and insight) comes out. I actually think planners can be some of the biggest culprits in this regard, because they are either fed information from other sources, and/or they don't try to understand how the sources of their information actually work, or why they present certain types of information. As a result, planners often make what I call "naked assumptions".
Assumption can be a motherfucker. Informed assumption can be a motherfucker with promise. The more unreasonable you are in investigating the "whys" and "hows", the better your assumptions, and your story, will be.
Planning is storytelling. Plain and simple.
Some of us might be better than others at putting decks together, and selling in what we've cobbled together as breakthroughs (if we've even gotten to that point). We all talk about "story" as though it's a given when we present our material or write our strategic documents... But it isn't.
A good friend of mine, a veteran global planning director for a major bank, once told me that "good stories are the ones that move markets, and good storytellers understand exactly why those markets move". He explained that the notion of timelines, insights, analysis and guidelines aren't good enough -- you have to develop a narrative that synthesizes all the moving parts of a market, a market force, or an ecosystem. You also have to point to distinct archetypes.
However you choose to skin this cat, remember that any business or marketing challenge has a protagonist, an antagonist and a story arc, with a beginning, a middle and an (open) end.
I hope this framework helps. It would be great to hear about your own experiences within The Great Planning Paradigm.