Getting More Impact From Your Insights

Getting More Impact From Your Insights

  • Ryan Baum Ryan Baum
  • June 27, 2022

Across a variety of industries, insights managers are concerned about the impact they’re having. Evidence suggests that effective insights leaders get traction by employing techniques that increase their odds of success.

Companies report that market insights are a critical component of their business planning activities. At the same time, insights professionals report that they continue to struggle to get the Voice of the Customer included in strategic decision making. Everyone agrees that, in times of rapid change, it’s vital to have an intimate understanding of your customer. And yet, very few companies are getting the most out of that information.

Over the past two decades, Jump Associates has had the opportunity to work with hundreds of insights professionals across a variety of industries. Automotive teams have used consumer insights to define next generation vehicle platforms. Industrial products manufacturers have strived to better understand the needs of chemical plant managers. And food companies have investigated how millennials’ eating habits are evolving. While the topic being studied changed from industry to industry, teams often faced the same challenges. Those challenges typically involved getting meaningful traction in the organization.

In response to this, many insights teams are investing in improving their storytelling abilities. The thought is that more compelling communication will help sway an otherwise disinterested audience. Unfortunately, the results are often mixed. It’s not that storytelling isn’t important. It’s that even great storytelling can get ignored by decision makers who are strongly opinionated, stressed out, or simply distracted.

Amidst these challenges, Jump has observed a small number of insights teams who are able to deliver outsized impact to their companies. These teams aren’t always in companies that have explicitly decided to be more customer-centric, although that certainly helped. Instead, the defining differences between insights professionals who achieve high levels of impact and their less effective peers comes down to a question of approach. There are a small set of tactics that any insights professional can employ to increase the impact of the work they do.

1. Align your initiatives to the company’s strategic priorities.

Even great storytelling can get ignored by decision makers who are strongly opinionated, stressed out, or simply distracted.

Sometimes, the most well-intentioned insights projects are sidelined before they’re even started. This isn’t a reflection of the quality of the insights. Rather, it’s a result of the attention span of the organization. Even in places that are well suited to manage complexity, leaders are only able to focus their teams around a small number of strategic initiatives. Most effective organizations find themselves with two or three big priorities that start at the level of the CEO and the Board of Directors. These priorities then cascade down through the organization. If your work is part of these initiatives, you’re helping. If it isn’t, you’re selling. And that sales pitch can seem like a well-meaning distraction. Effective insights leaders have a clear understanding of their organization’s strategic priorities, and they recast their projects to be part of those initiatives. Aligning with those priorities attracts the involvement of key stakeholders, and ensures that the project gets traction.

A few years ago, Jump worked with an insights manager at a consumer electronics company who was having difficulty getting traction for her project. She knew that the company needed to look more deeply at how people were listening to music on their phones. Unfortunately, the business unit that would typically sponsor that project was in disarray. She needed to find another way. During the quarterly earnings call with analysts, her CEO underscored the importance of better leveraging the opportunity presented by streaming apps like Spotify and Pandora. She wasted no time recasting her project to be about the future of streaming, with an emphasis on how Spotify users were listening to music on their phones. Her project now seemed like a core initiative rather than a tangential fishing expedition. Not only was the project quickly funded, but the resulting recommendations were presented to the executive leadership team for follow up.

Don’t be a distraction. Before chartering a new project, have a clear understanding of your company’s biggest strategic priorities. In some firms, those priorities are obvious. In others, it can take a little effort to separate the signal from the noise. Do your own research. If you work for a public company, listen to the analysts calls. Read the annual report. Ask business unit leaders what keeps them up at night. The more you know about what’s important, the more you can ensure that your projects are relevant.

2. Frame projects as needs, not solutions.

Too often, projects are scoped in a way that all but ensures modestly incremental results. We’ve all seen projects that are described as “The Future of Yogurt” or “Next Generation Men’s Pants.” The framing of these projects is not surprising, especially when the project is sponsored by the yogurt division, or the men’s apparel department. People tend to think of projects in terms of the businesses they already have. That can become a problem when a company like Sony starts a project on the future of compact disk players. The very question sets them up to be blindsided by the digital music revolution.

The issue is really one of differentiating the need from the solution. Businesses tend to think in terms of the solutions they sell, like yogurt. Insights teams have to recast those projects to be about the needs they serve, like helping people get going in the morning.

Help stakeholders reframe goals to be about the needs you serve, instead of the solutions you sell.

A few years back, Chrysler set out to learn what was next for large cars. They recently had success with the launch of the Chrysler 300. The car was more aggressively designed than competitors’ vehicles, and was an overnight sensation. The vehicle team’s assumption was that people would want an even bigger, more aggressive version. It would have been incredibly easy for the team to frame the project as a study of what young men wanted in a Chrysler 400. Instead, they took a broader look into the needs of young men who wanted to project an aggressive image through their car. The project was only loosely framed to be about large cars. What they found were many people who aspired to own a 300, but had decided it was too big for them. Those consumers really wanted something smaller, but equally aggressive in stance. The team recommended the creation of a completely new vehicle, dubbed the Chrysler 200.

Don’t put yourself in a box. When scoping a project with stakeholders, clearly understand what they’d like to accomplish. But don’t stop there. Reframe those ideas to be about the people you serve and the needs they have. An easy way to do this is to rephrase a noun into verb, so that your CD Player Project becomes about listening to music on the go. Of course, this will require some extra assurance to stakeholders that the results will include clear direction for the products and services your company offers today. But defining your project in terms of needs, rather than solutions, will help ensure that the results have the greatest possible impact for the business.

3. Create experiences to help stakeholders shift their thinking.

Over time, experienced insights leaders develop a finely tuned sense of what their customers really think. The challenge is getting the rest of the organization to develop a similar intuition, especially when people have limited attention spans or strongly held opinions. Insights leaders can’t just be great at doing insights work. They need to shape how decision makers make decisions. They need to be both a detective and a diplomat.

As we’ve discussed, improved storytelling capabilities hasn’t always resulted in increased impact. Why? Because many decision makers don’t want to hear the story in the first place. They’re often seeking validation for the point of view they walked in with. And at the end of the day, decision makers like to make decisions for themselves.

Recognizing this challenge, successful insights teams are spending less time on improved storytelling and more time on improved experiences. They’re crafting two- hour or two-day sessions where business leaders can watch uncut videos or talk to customers first hand. Rather than acting as master storytellers, these insights leaders act as guides, helping decision makers to come to conclusions on their own. Invariably, these insights teams are leading their stakeholders down a path to conclusions that they’ve already made in advance. But the experience of getting there can help decision makers feel bought into the process.

Target, the upscale discount retailer, has used this approach to great success. In the past, Target insights teams worked hard to create compelling reports about the research they did. Today, they pair those reports with Guest Immersions. These two-day sessions are a chance to bring business leaders out in the world so that they can meet consumers firsthand for several hours, and then regroup to discuss what they learned and make choices about what to do next. It’s not uncommon for a decision maker to start off the session with strongly held beliefs about what their strategy should be, only to abandon the plan after spending time with a consumer in their home. Importantly, Target CEO Brian Cornell has been the primary champion of the work, attending several Guest Immersions a year to stay in touch with Target guests. For their part, the insights team at Target works to ensure that the experiences they create stay true to the research they’ve done in advance.

Teams have greater impact when they let leaders come to conclusions on their own.

Don’t just create a great story. Instead, create an experience where decision makers can make decisions for themselves. If it’s a major project, considering doing a two-day strategy session where leaders can meet customers firsthand, and then decide on next steps. If time is short, stage a 90 minute session where decision makers can watch rough cuts of customer interviews and discuss the implications. Insights teams have greater impact when they let leaders come to conclusions on their own.

4. Ask teams to identify what they’ll do differently.

It can be incredibly disheartening to an insights manager when stakeholders hear about findings, smile and nod, and then go do what they were going to do anyway. Astoundingly, some teams will even take contradicting information and talk about it until they’ve morphed it into validation for their preconceived path. And nothing changes.

Sometimes, this is unavoidable. A business leader or team can simply be unwilling to change course. Jump once worked with a Chief Marketing Officer who told us that he loved our work, but he thought it was unreasonable that we wanted him to change what he was doing as a result. One could only wonder why he bothered to do the project in the first place.

Such horror stories notwithstanding, there are times when insights managers have the power to help a team shift direction. The most successful leaders do one simple thing to identify opportunities for change: they ask. At the end of a meeting or experience, they prompt decision makers to identify one or two things that the company should do differently as a result of the project. Sometimes, people in the room will come up with ideas for change just to keep up with their peers.

In the past, Jump has worked with the Stanford Children’s Hospital to improve how they care for children with leukemia. Together, we conducted hundreds of hours of empathy-building research with patients, families, front-line staff, and stakeholders. We developed multiple recommendations that would transform the model of care currently in place. The challenge was that medical professionals can be highly skeptical of change, despite their best intentions. Rather than rolling out a fully baked strategy, the team involved caregivers in a process to understand the insights and decide how they would apply them to their specific situation. After crafting a compelling experience, and presenting leaders with the data, we asked them what they would do differently. Leaders came up with many ideas that were similar to what the team had created, but added others that we hadn’t thought of. More importantly, it created a groundswell of support for the program. The result was a successful model that’s being rolled out nationwide.

Great insight leaders need to act like great strategists. They need to push their teams to think about tangible changes they can make to their businesses based on their insights work. What would stakeholders do differently? What would they stop doing? What would they start doing? Decision makers will sometimes tell you, if only you stop to ask.

5. Communicate recommendations as a one-page strategy.

Alan Webber is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review who went on to co-found Fast Company magazine. Looking back on his time at HBR, he describes it as somewhat macabre. “Most contributors were business school professors. Our intended audience was CEOs. That means we were running a magazine that was written by people who can’t write and read by people who don’t read.”

There’s something about conducting hours of painstaking research that makes it difficult for some of us to cut down a report to anything less than a 50 page slide deck. And there’s always something nice about the thump that a big report makes when you put it on a table. Unfortunately, long decks make for little impact. Most business leaders simply don’t read anymore. Distractions, job stress, a lack of sleep, and days of meetings and nights of emails have left many of our stakeholders functionally illiterate. If you’re reading this right now, you are different from the vast majority of business professionals.

Recognizing this, many effective insights leaders are becoming masters in the art of brevity. They recognize that real strategy isn’t the stuff that gets written in a PowerPoint deck. It’s the result of a thousand little decisions that get made across the company every day. To ensure your strategy gets noticed and used, condense it into a short list of concise, memorable statements that people can refer to and use every day.

At Jump, every insights project results in a set of Strategic Imperatives. These are a short list of three to five broad directives that a company should implement to take action on a strategy. The imperatives need to be short, pithy and memorable. And they need to fit on a single page.

A few years back, we worked with Target to reinvent their sporting goods department. One of the things that makes their sporting goods section different from other retailers is that it’s focused on families having casual fun together. An astounding amount of their products get used within a half-hour of purchase. That’s very different from a place like REI. When it came time to express the strategy, one imperative highlighted that difference. It said, “Think Picnic, Not Marathon.” That succinct sentence captured a whole idea about focusing on casual, family experiences, not intense, performance-oriented activities. Target aligned its entire sporting goods team around this and four other simple directives. They even printed them on the back of their company badges. The result was that the strategy stuck. Sales grew rapidly and the sporting goods department went from a perennial underdog to a top performer. A few months later, Target was approached by a national chain of fitness centers who was interested in doing a partnership. In declining the opportunity, the manager in charge simply explained, “You guys are too marathon. We’re more picnic.”

Don’t bury your decision makers in long insights reports. Work with them to create concise statements of what they’ll do next. Think about how you can express ideas as simple metaphors that anyone can understand. And articulate what a business should do, as well as should not do. Insights are only important if people can remember them later.

Conclusion

Across industries as diverse as packaged goods, industrial products and automobiles, insights managers are concerned about the impact they’re having. Those concerns have led to an increased focus on storytelling. Yet, this alone may not be the answer. Jump’s experience working with insights professionals has led us to conclude that the most effective insights leaders get traction by employing a few other key techniques.

Successful insights leaders align their initiatives to the company’s strategic priorities so they won’t seem like a distraction. They frame projects as needs, not solutions so that they don’t get stuck in a box of small changes. They consciously create experiences to help decision makers make decisions for themselves. They get teams to actively think about what they’ll do differently simply by asking the question. And they work hard to condense the recommendations that they co-create into a strategy that fits on a single page.

Of course, these tactics can be challenging to implement at first. Every company has its own peculiarities. Moreover, the overall approach requires managers to be more than insights professionals. They need to be strategists and facilitators and designers of experiences. That can be hard to do at first. However, the result of such a hybrid approach is ultimately lasting impact for the company, and a greater sense of satisfaction for the individuals who effected that change.

Ryan Baum

Partner

Ryan is a partner and advisor to Fortune 500 executives, setting the course for large-scale transformation and aggressive growth. He helped a major airline clarify and roll out a new corporate strategy, partnered with an automotive company to recapture the Millennial market, and helped a technology giant break into the healthcare industry.