The courage of provocation

The only way for insights to matter is for insights to have a powerful voice. 
24 May 2022
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J Walker Smith
Walker Smith

Knowledge Lead, North America

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The age-old complaint of insights leaders is that they lack a seat at the table. But seats are reserved for those willing to speak out intelligently and take a credible stand. Senior business leaders need assertive input that can stoke their imaginations if they are to lead effectively in an ever-more challenging marketplace. Simply reporting data is not enough for insights organisations to matter in meaningful ways to their companies.

Provocation is one of three key takeaways from Insights 2030, Kantar’s in-depth investigation of the future of insights. Supported by an advisory board of industry organizations and leading companies, including primary sponsor and collaborator, Colgate-Palmolive, Kantar’s work for Insights 2030 entailed hundreds of one-on-one interviews with business leaders around the world as well as a global survey among 1,700-plus senior business and insights leaders. 

Global business leaders made clear in Insights 2030 that they are frustrated when Insights teams talk only about the data not about what is best for the business. In the words of one business leader, “Insights is traditionally quite comfortable stating 'research says’ or ‘data show.’ This passes the responsibility to others. There is a need to express an opinion beyond what the research says—giving conclusions, implications and recommendations.” Senior business leaders are unequivocal that Insights leaders must be full-throated participants in the business. As one business leader put it, insights should be telling us “where we should be making our big bets and investments.” 

The courage to be provocative 

Insights leaders themselves agree that speaking out is not part of their DNA, which is why consulting firms often have more success putting data and research to use than insights leaders. Consultants are not afraid to express a strong opinion or to disagree with senior business leaders. Insights leaders need more of this sort of courage. One global business leader was explicit about this, “Consulting firms have opinions. They don’t shrink from debates. Insights must do this, too.” 

A deep and detailed understanding of the human experience of customers is the stock-in-trade of insights. But unless this understanding is communicated in ways that command the respect and attention of senior leaders, it will not make a difference. Provocation is the way in which insights has an impact on the business. 

Leaning in 

Provocation is not a quarrel. Rather, provocation means confidence and self-assurance. It must be positive without being strident and divisive. Business leaders said explicitly in Insights 2030 that they want insights teams to lean in with ‘I believe,’ not lean back with ‘your call.’ One business leader put it this way, “I am looking for people who can think about the broader challenge, not the specific question. People who can stand up to the CEO and say, ‘What you really need to know is this.’” 

Two findings in Insights 2030 drive home the fact that insights leaders tend to be out of sync with the needs of the business and the ways to connect with senior leaders. One Insights 2030 survey question asked ratings of corporate culture across a batter of six dimensions. The average ratings of insights respondents were significantly below those of C-suite respondents. This is not senior leaders being over-optimistic—the average ratings of insights leaders about corporate culture were in line with the average ratings of under-performing companies. Insights leaders see problems where senior business leaders see opportunities. 

Being bold 

Another question asked whether insights has ‘complete and total access’ to various sorts of data within the company. Only for consumer data were insights respondents and C-suite respondents in agreement, with an overwhelming majority of each agreeing yes. But for every other sort of data, ranging from financial data to e-commerce data to research and development data, C-suite respondents were a lot more likely than insights respondents to say yes. In other words, the C-suite just assumes that insights has access to all data relevant to the business. The fact that insights teams do not have the same perceptions just means that they are failing to take advantage of the implicit permission they have from management to be more forceful and more provocative. 

So, what next? 

Insights 2030 identified four key elements for companies to use in operating with the courage of provocation. The first is to focus commercially, ensuring that insights are connected to the P&L and that they are held accountable to all business criteria and not just research criteria. The second is to embrace dynamism by adopting an experimental approach for a long-term learning journey in order to open up a more imaginative perspective. The third element is to speak out and have the ability to produce provocative ideas on possible business implications, measuring success by lightbulb moments rather than research study milestones. The final element is about transforming ideas into narratives that compel action i.e., solving the business problem to motivate the organisation rather than simply reporting research. 

The future will demand more from insights organisations in terms of stepping up to the plate with provocation. Doing so will ensure that insights matter and brings a voice to the table that points companies toward the critical driver of imagination. 

Want to learn more about the future of the insights organisation and the actions leaders should take to transform their insight teams? Click here to visit our Insights 2030 hub. 
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