Dialogic Research

For quite a while I have been concerned that traditional research tools are insufficient for the types of interesting problems we are being asked to solve. The challenge has been captured by William Isaacs:

Neither the enormous challenges human beings face today, nor the wonderful promise of the future on whose threshold we seem to be poised, can be reached unless human beings learn to think together in a new way.

This has lead to us developing a new form of research that is a synthesis of three disciplines: qualitative research, public consultation and facilitation. It is a process of genuine interaction through which we listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what we learn.

Traditional research has been a closed system. The research “expert” usually is contracted to gather information and develop insights.  Random participants are carefully selected and lead through a very structured process of discussing rational and emotional thoughts, triggers and stories. And, to be honest, some very excellent research has been conducted this way.

But the world is changing and research needs to become an open system:

  • The ownership of a brand is moving from the marketer to the customer. It’s not what you say about your brand anymore – it’s what consumers are saying about your brand.
  • Peer-to-peer marketing is essential. And much of this is open and user-generated. Structured word-of-mouth strategies where we recruit, motivate and satisfy networks of advocates for organization.
  • Brand engagement is critical to build brand uniqueness. This requires creating communities of customers who are deeply engaged with brand.
  • Brands needs to engage the internal and the external community for longer-term success.
  • As audiences evolve to include more and more Aboriginal and immigrant populations, traditional closed research processes are not the best methods to gather insights. Open, dialogic processes are more effective, and more respectful.

We are calling this type of research Dialogic Research. Our approach has been heavily influenced by some of the leading-edge work in Deliberative Democracy being done by America Speaks and Janette Hartz-Karp.

Not every project is suited to Dialogic Research, but it is ideally suited for projects that

  • Are complex or multi-faceted
  • Have a number of key stakeholders with very distinct points-of-view
  • Are deeply exploring new areas of knowledge
  • Focused on new products or services
  • Are launching a new brand

While Dialogic Research has more logistics to resolve in the early stages, it is proving to be tremendously powerful.

The most important parts of any conversation are those that neither party could have imagined before starting. (Rick Smyre)


As wealth vanishes, consumers retrench

This headline above is lifted from today’s Report on Business section in the Globe & Mail. It is one of two interesting articles about how consumers are responding in these uncertain times.

This first article discusses how consumer attitudes to spending (less) and saving (more) are changing in response to a 4.4% decline in household net worth. But we all know that how consumers spend less and save more differs from product to product and category to category.

The second article, just two pages later, leads with the headline “More parents opt to skimp on baby’s ride: Luxury buggy makers feel the pinch as cost-conscious buyers turn to less expensive brands.” It appears that “once booming sales of status-symbol strollers are taking a hit.”

While it is rather easy to assume that an expensive stroller is part status-symbol. And that consumers can quite easily rationialize that baby won’t notice a different stroller, this may not be the whole story.

In our society we see our children as innocent. The fact that the economy is weak is not their fault. So if parents are trading-down a stroller, are they compensating in other ways to trade up? Are there other baby brands, perhaps less conspicuous ones, that will see a boost in sales, while expensive buggies decline?

Alternatively, our whole approach to wealth could be changing. Perhaps wealth is not taken for granted as easily, and we want our children to be satisfied with good enough, and not seek identity and validation through having “the best.”

Either approach is intersting, and has different implications understanding how consumers react to the rapidly changing market conditions. We do know one thing: consumer reaction is rarely predictable – and something we should be doing a lot of thinking about.

Game Theory

I was at Chapter’s a few weeks ago, and saw on the back wall a sign promoting the “Indigo MBA”. What a hokey marketing promo I thought, but ended up buying two great books.

One is called The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and in Life by Dixit and Nalebuff. It is an update of a 1991 book, called Thinking Strategically.

One of the exercises in this very readable book is based on the principle of backwards reasoning. Figure out the winning end position, and work backwards to what you should do now. Obvious in principle, but not always in practice. The example they use is from season 4 of Survivor. Two teams face each other, with 21 flags between them. At each turn, you must take one, two or three flags. No more and no less. The winner is the teAm that takes the last flag.

If you get to go first, how many flags should you take on your first turn to guarantee a win, and what is your strategy for every subsequent turn?

It is a fun problem, and really illustrates the usefulness of this book. (Of course, a proper game theorist would not promote this book, but I also like to believe in what Joseph Thornley has called the “gift economy.”)

What business are we in?

It sounds like a question for which we should have one of those snappy elevator answers, but it has proven to be surprisingly hard to define. This is what we currently say:

Increasingly, the challenges we face are interdependent and complex. The wealth of diversity that surrounds us requires that we think and plan in diverse ways, connect in new and deeper ways, and work together to generate new ideas.

Stormy Lake embraces complex, delicious problems, deliberatively bringing different experts and perspectives together and exploring the seams of our knowledge. We bring new tools and new understanding to face the complex challenges and opportunities that we face.

For this reason, Stormy Lake is a sense-making organization.

Research, facilitation and consultation are our information-gathering tools. Strategic & communications planning, innovation and application are the outcomes. Sense-making is the black box – the deep thinking and search for meaning that grounds and defines the core issues, explores the opportunities and makes it simple, clear and easy to move forward.

The kinds of problems we solve are often marketing-related problems, but we also touch public policy and business strategy. We don’t do purely technical problems – just problems that somehwere have people involved.

Very few other businesses do what we do. Lots do research, but they don’t use as many different expert perspectives. Many use experts, but  don’t dig as deep into what the core problem is, and what are the fundamental reasons why this problem exists. We have found only a handful of similar organizations around the world, including Kanso in Italy. Kanso describes themselves as a customer experience and innovation consulting firm. Perhaps their purer focus on customers is necessary for clarity.

If the elevator is a very long ride, then we have lots of time to explain – but we are still challenged to fit what we do into a short sentence.