The value of looking at data from more than one perspective

About 20 years ago, I flew to the Midwest to present the findings from an extensive project. My audience included the head of marketing, my direct research client, and the firm’s CEO. We constructed an insightful study that profiled the market my client played in, their position, and their competitive strengths and weaknesses.

I spent about an hour presenting the study findings and fielding questions. It went great. It was one of those meetings where I knew our work would affect this company, and the CEO seemed to buy into taking action based on our recommendations.

Then, with about five minutes to go in the meeting, I asked if there were any follow-up analyses they would like us to do. The CEO said, “yes, there is one thing …”

He then instructed me to take a couple of weeks to do a new analysis and then to fly back out and present it to him. I was at first taken aback, as I thought the project was over, and I was ready to declare victory and move on to other things.

The analysis he requested? He told me to imagine that his largest competitor would call me tomorrow. I could use everything I knew about my client and the information gathered in our study. If this competitor called me, what would I tell them about how to position against my client? What are the implications of our research from his competitor’s point of view?

This is a brilliant idea. I have always believed that although research can often be quite insightful, it is more about what clients do with our data that matters. This CEO knew full well that his competitor probably had their own research firm doing a similar project to what I had just presented. He wanted to view the world from his competitor’s perspective.

It worked. I returned in a couple of weeks and did a role-play presentation where I pretended they were their competition. This led to a game-theory discussion of how their competition would likely react to initiatives they were considering, how they could address their weaknesses, and where their strengths mattered.

Since then, I have proposed similar analyses to many clients. I have been surprised at how few have taken me up on the offer. So, late in presentations, I often slip in a few slides showing what I would tell their competition based on the study findings if I worked for them.

If I were a client-side researcher, I’d ask my researchers to do this regularly. It forces us to do a better job at checking our biases, as, like it or not, we want our data to show our clients are succeeding. We know how much work they put in, and it isn’t easy to tell them where their weaknesses are. Looking at the data from another angle gives us the space to be more agnostic in our conclusions and provides better insight to the clients. It makes us more agnostic to the data and less likely to tell clients what they want to hear.

The request from this CEO made me a better, more empathetic researcher. We worked with his firm for about 15 years; he recently retired. He will always be in my “client hall of fame” because of his willingness to view research results objectively and his insistence that we consider all perspectives.

Clients hire us so they can learn from us, but often they don’t realize how much we learn from them.

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