Monday, March 11, 2013

Digging back for Foresight

People often make the mistake of thinking that data and intuition are mutually exclusive, as the recently-fired CEO of Groupon did in his farewell letter.

The newest SoDA survey of both client-side and agency-side marketers finds that while 54% cite data “analysis” as the biggest challenge, 49% find “creating value and insights” from data the biggest challenge.

I’ve been mistaken in my impression that it was during my time marketing Anchorage, Alaska in 1980s that I first began to use research to glean insights during my now-concluded 40-year career as a community-destination marketing executive.

When we jump-started Durham, North Carolina’s marketing arm 1989, we made data-based decision-making one of two core strategic pillars of the organization.  It helped Durham leap-frog and stay ahead of much more established competitors.

However, while reading a new book entitled Red Thread Thinking written by Debra Kaye with Karen Kelly, I realized that I actually started using data as a means to glean insights and spur innovation much earlier, maybe even earlier than I did when helping to jump start the marketing arm for Spokane, Washington in the 1970s.

Red Thread Thinking is about weaving together connections as a means to innovation.  It helped me understand why a college degree in history came in so handy during my career in community-destination marketing.

Kaye notes that college is essentially about learning how to think.  One of her keys for how to stimulate “fresh thinking,” insight and innovation is to take a deep dive into the history of your industry or profession, “including past reports, history and traditions.”

In particular, she advises digging back into the data behind old reports and summaries.

From my experience, she is right on target when she noted that “new eyes excavate things [and connections] that were overlooked…research is fodder for new insight.”  The key is to look beyond what many people call “conventional wisdom” or what Red Thread Thinking’s author calls “conditioned knowledge.”

The kind of search should go back as far as possible with the objective of looking for connections or insights and perspectives that were either missed or may only make sense now in the context of the present and future.  Past history can lead to “unraveling” assumptions by looking at their origins through fresh eyes and a new set of questions.

While Spokane didn’t form a community-destination marketing arm until the mid-1970s, I made it one of my first tasks to interview people with several decades of concern for the community’s brand.  They in turn led me to a number of studies and statistical reports produced as early as 1940 and brochures from the 1920s.

This expedition back in time gave me a temporal sense of the community and data helped make connections.  I was so excited at finding information in one couple’s basement that they gave me two of the old statistic summaries and an old brochure which I have among my mementos today.

This digging back also involves dissecting the data.  Current trends can be distracting and as Kaye notes, “they are not insightful, nor are they engines that feed innovation.”  But they can be extremely information in hindsight because history isn’t linear, it is cyclical.

The enemy of true insight and innovation is what Nobel Prize winner and Princeton researcher Dr. Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI – what you see is all there is – or our tendency to jump to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence or worse, illusory trends.

This is one of the reasons Kaye believes that without digging down in a study of the past, we can be “insensitive to information.”  She quotes Kahneman that we have an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

The book the occurrence of insight isn’t “ephemeral.”  It springs from “finding meaning in various combinations of observation and knowledge, memory and emotion and psychologists call this talent “associative ability.”

Intuition and analysis are not mutually exclusive.  They work together, although in my experience, some people, when they have no supportive analysis, will sometimes portray themselves as “intuitive” in an effort to ward off questions or concerns.

The hand-in-hand workings of intuition and analysis are called “intelligent memory” according to experts cited in the book.  Analysis is the “breaking down and storing of information,” “whereas searching and combining information is considered intuition.”

Colleges with courses in community-destination marketing would be well advised to include the study of historical analysis right along side statistics and data analysis.

Anyone looking to use data to create value and insight can begin by reading Red Thread Thinking.

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