Editor’s note: Edward Appleton is a client-side senior consumer insights manager based in Europe.
Are debriefs actually detrimental to insights? This is a question grounded in experience, not one designed simply to provoke debate.
A few months ago, I debriefed a multi-country study to a broad group of stakeholders. An interesting discussion was sparked and some actions agreed upon, including a deep-dive on selected topics. Fast-forward to last week’s meeting: a much smaller circle of participants, a narrower focus, fewer issues.
What happened? I was surprised. The room (in this case a virtual one) was full of viewpoints that hadn’t been expressed previously and differing data sets had been prepared that threw light on the same issue from a different angle.
It was a fruitful discussion and one that got me thinking. If the second meeting hadn’t happened, would potential barriers to actionability have been articulated and discussed? Would much, in fact, have remained below the surface?
How often is this true for “the debrief,” I wonder? Is a large, formal meeting the right way to encourage open, frank discussion about something or is it actually like poison to insights?
Here’s my take:
1. Insights thrive in one-on-one situations.
Insights have the potential to create waves organizationally – and require us as professionals to be bold and on occasion outspoken. It’s our remit. The same dynamic isn’t true for many other parts of the organization.
If the insight message is about change of any kind, then one-on-ones are almost certainly likely to be more effective than large meetings, including a research debrief.
This is a resource challenge that we need to rise to.
2. The “before” and “after” are critical moments in sharing and developing insights.
Perhaps we need a flow of smaller, informal meetings, using technology wherever possible to manage cost, rather than just aiming for one formal debrief.
The context of a formal debrief presentation no doubt has its advantages: focus; all key stakeholders present; saves time and money. However, there is to me a downside that this format brings with it: Speaking out in front of many others, sometimes in a language foreign to you, requires confidence, not to say courage.
Sustainable buy-in invariably emerges through collaboration and dialogue – an iterative process.
3. Insights gather weight through a synthesis process.
Piecing together various data sets – some of which may well be contradictory – and coming up with a cogent storyline is something that needs time and invariably works better when more than one perspective is brought to bear.
On that note: when was the last time when you created the actionability slides jointly with your key stakeholders?
However much you may try to do all this testing and reshaping prior to a formal recommendation and presentation, it’s difficult to build in all existing knowledge, especially if senior management is extremely busy. Add to this the fact that we exist in an environment of rapid change. Today’s insight can be challenged by a competitive innovation that looks to disrupt the market.
I don’t think the answer to the above is simply to replace a debrief with a workshop. I think we need to rethink how we go about the process of informing decision makers about insights – more frequently, less formally.
4. Debriefs can encourage conservative thinking.
Larger meetings are not usually great places to find out how tolerant of mistakes or different viewpoints an organization or department is. This can lead to debriefs pitching on the side of caution – avoid errors at all cost; do or say nothing controversial.
Good research to me means doing two things well: minimizing risk and helping identify the upsides. If we err to the former, we do ourselves a disservice. We need to get more comfortable about making bold recommendations with less-than-perfect vision.
5. Relationships nurture insights.
Powerful insights invariably emerge in a dialogue based on mutual respect and trust. If you know someone well, you move in synch with their style, their way of speaking; you interpret quicker, waste less time, trust them more. This is true both for client-side and agency relationships.
Relationship-building isn’t easy. It takes time and requires ongoing effort, not to say investment. It’s something both agencies and client MRs need to actively place a value on, as it’s an intangible that can easily be lost sight of.
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In the hope that this blog is a form of sharing, I’d make a case for going beyond storytelling, visualization, infographics or whatever else we have in our debrief toolkit. Insights become powerful and are more likely to be acted upon through an ongoing dialogue with people you feel comfortable with, often in one-on-ones. One single presentation will seldom be enough. The project may be over formally but business challenges constantly change.
So, do we need to rethink the MR debrief? I’d say yes. Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.