How do you generate insight?

If you work for an Insight best practice organisation, no prizes for guessing the question you get asked most often.

Go on then, so how do you generate insight?

Ironically, the longer the conversation goes on, the more obvious it usually becomes that generating insight is only a small part of the issue which most Insight teams face.

If you truly believe that there is no point in doing any research or analysis unless it makes a real difference to your organisation, then how your Insight function communicates its knowledge, and how it drives action based on it, is at least as big an issue.

And, as we’ve already discussed in our Insight Roadmap series, Insight leaders need to also consider the Commerciality of their approach; develop an Insight Strategy; work hard on the Positioning of their team; and focus on all aspects of their Insight People.

But the fact remains, that unless your Insight function can generate decent insights in the first place, all the work to make them more effective is not going to get you anywhere.

Or worse. If you produce rubbish insights but sell them fantastically, you can take your organisation down a series of blind alleys.

So how do you generate insight?

The IMA believes there are 3 critical aspects to consider.

The first, and the point where many Insight teams go wrong even today, is to accurately identify the business issue or opportunity which needs to be addressed.

Through a series of circumstances, many Insight teams have not really evolved from being service functions. Even in the Insight Management Forum, whose members tend to be amongst the most advanced Insight teams, only one in four say that their team always seek to understand and focus on the underlying business issue rather than the research or analysis request.

Too many teams are set up to answer data queries or process research briefs. They focus on the data, or the means of gathering it, far too early in the conversation with stakeholders.

By contrast, the most effective teams take the approach of internal management consultants.

They listen to the question posed, but then they ask questions of their own, and they keep digging until they have unearthed the business issue that the stakeholder should really solve, which is often very different from the research question previously asked.

This can be more difficult than it sounds. Client-side Insight professionals need to draw on an excellent commercial understanding of the business and contextualise the discussion with all the insight they already have on the relevant product, channel or segment. And they also need the communication skills and the confidence to hold their ground if the stakeholder is rushing to conclusions about what insight is needed.

What are the other two key aspects to consider?

If nailing the issue is the first priority, the second is finding the best approach to address it.

Is this about clever research methodologies? The latest analytic techniques?

Well it can be.

But it’s more a question of mindset. Great insights are produced when analysts and researchers take on the role of detectives, and adopt a hypothesis-driven approach.

This has to start with working out what is already known from previous work – which is often sufficient to show that many business initiatives are misguided.

It then involves the identification of the best data, or, as it is often impossible to find the perfect data given the time and cost limitations, figure out creative ways of triangulating between known or knowable facts to present a credible view.

This is where curiosity is key.

Every piece of evidence uncovered should lead Insight teams to ask “so what’s going on there?” and “what does that lead us to want to know next?”. That’s when having a great understanding of the knowledge already accumulated is critical, because it provides the context for each new discovery.

The third big consideration is the nature of the solution you are aiming to provide.

As Stephen Covey said, you always have to begin with the end in mind.

Just as a great insight project always starts with a clinical identification of the underlying business issue to be addressed, the solution has to cut through all the facts and figures and ideas and observations thrown up during the course of the project. And produce commercially-framed options and recommendations for action.

Again, this does not come naturally to many Insight teams.

Client-side (and supply-side) Insight professionals tend to have been promoted on the basis of their technical ability. We are rightly proud of our data knowledge, our analytic thinking, our prowess in choosing the best research methodology.

But all these things are means to an end.

If Insight is to make a difference, we have to distil all our detailed knowledge into succinct recommendations. We have to work out the story, and how to tell it to the people who are accountable for the big decisions.

And we have to translate our discoveries about customer behaviour and its drivers into the language which the rest of the business speaks – the language of revenue, costs, growth, productivity and profit.


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