ARF 2011 re:Think Conference, Connect the Dots and Tell a Story
By Diane Liebenson, Publisher of The GreenBook
I just returned from the ARF 2011 re:Think Conference and what I remember best are the anecdotes and stories, and the message that the market researcher of the future needs to “connect the dots” to create insights. Below are a few examples:
Jonah Lehrer, Contributing Editor of Wired and Author of How We Decide, gave a great Keynote. He’s a masterful story teller who looks to be about 12 years old although he must be in his 20s since he’s a graduate of Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He uses stories to illustrate the science of insight creation and suggests that the way we think is not nearly as rational as we would like to believe and that the emotional brain fuels many of our most profound insights.
He tells the story of Wag Dodge, a veteran parachute brigade firefighter, who in 1949 parachuted with his men into Missoula Montana into what they thought was a small fire in the Mann Gulch river valley. Unfortunately, fierce winds fueled the flames and they found themselves unsuccessfully trying to outrun the fire. As the flames got closer, Dodge realized the futility of the effort and, in a “fit of desperate creativity,” he had an epiphany. He yelled to his men to stop, which they unfortunately did not. He then lit a match and ignited the verdant ground next to him and watched as the winds carried those flames away from him up the canyon wall. He then laid down on the scorched earth, closed his eyes tight, and allowed the quickly approaching fire to pass around him. He survived. True story. The combination of experience plus insight saved him.
Lehrer eloquently goes on to share his thoughts on neuroscience: that the brain produces alpha waves that can trigger insight when we take a warm shower, play ping pong, or are just generally in a relaxed state. That’s not exactly the state Wag Dodge found himself in, so who knows exactly how he came to his insight. That said, I absolutely believe the ‘warm shower, relaxed state’ theory because I’ve lived it. I’ve often struggled with conundrums that I solved not in the office or in the graduate school library but in the shower, while taking a walk, or when waking up from a deep sleep.
A few other speakers told stories or used anecdotes to illustrate important points.
Kim Dedeker, Chair of the Americas, Kantar, shared a message that the business models, talents, and the way the MR industry reports results all need to change. She said we need to think about research differently and how to use new technology. To make her point, she told a story about a 20-page car survey that she received in the mail shortly after she got a new car.
Kim invited her 14 year old son to help her complete the survey. When he saw her remove the 20 page survey from the envelope —yes, a paper document— his eyes grew wide and his comment was: “Really?” He then went for the jugular by grabbing the envelope and looking deep within. When Kim asked him what he was looking for, he replied: “dinosaur teeth.”
Dedeker said the survey was off-putting in both its length and, more importantly, in that it didn’t allow her to say what she most loved about her new car or to describe the car’s single fatal flaw. Hence, the survey failed to support the car manufacturer’s business decision-making. Kim suggested several ways that MR could better understand how she feels about her car, including having someone get in her car with her, meet her at the soccer field or car wash, or perhaps listen in on LinkedIn or Facebook.
Stan Sthanunathan, VP Marketing Strategy & Insights, The Coca-Cola Company, offered up a continuing stream of interesting, often provocative questions and comments but I will focus here on just one thought: the need to rethink future hires and to hire a different kind of person than MR has hired in the past. [Stan said MR needs people who can connect the dots, and who have passion.]
He gave the example of one of his best hires ever, a young woman who was a graduate of a prestigious University and who had an excellent transcript, similar to a number of other applicants vying for the position. Stan said it’s terribly difficult to tease out which applicants have the greatest ability to connect the dots and tell a story. The young woman was an accomplished concert level cellist, which gave him confidence that she had some ability in math. He asked her about her music and, from that discussion, got a strong sense of her commitment to excellence and her passion for her work. He found these traits compelling, despite not being specifically related to MR. She ultimately became one of his most successful hires.
Stories activate the emotions in the brain and social media and ethnography bring research to life. Creating a story require you to connect the dots. The re:Think Conference was full of these kinds of insights. More about the conference in a future post.
Dinosaur teeth, indeed!