A lesson in insight from the United Nations

How insightful are you? Are you truly tuned into your consumers, customers and employees? Or are you unintentionally projecting your own truths, and those of people like you, on the broader population? Do your teams give you an accurate picture, or do they adjust it in anticipation of what you want to hear? Almost everyone is blinded to true insight at some point. Perhaps we can all learn from the United Nations’ practice of ground-truthing.

Let’s begin with a quiz. What proportion of time spent watching TV is via a computer, tablet or mobile? Think about it for a moment. I’m talking about all British people over the age of 15. Most marketers estimate 37%. The answer according to BARB is 2%. That’s a huge difference. What proportion of 15+ adults have used Twitter in the last 3 months? The answer is 22%. If you over-estimated, it may be because the proportion of marketers using Twitter in the same time period is 81%. (Thinkbox, Nov 2016). These are British data, but the lesson applies globally.

We are all guilty of extrapolating from our own experiences, and from interpreting data with bias. And we can’t necessarily rely on a colleague for balance. Not only are they likely to have a similar social profile to ourselves, they are likely to describe facts with their own agenda. In the commercial world the risk is that we make poor decisions that hamper sales and profits. In the world of the United Nations the stakes are higher. Having an inaccurate picture of what is really happening can cost lives.

The Brand Learning report, Join Up to Stand Apart, discovered that the UN uses ‘ground-truthing’ to inform and adjust plans. Ground-truthing, in the field in Somalia, means a cross-functional team speaks at least three times a week. They share direct observations from the field, challenge each other, and reach as insightful a view as possible of what is happening and what needs to be done. The key is sharing direct observations, cross-verifying these observations and collaborating to refine plans. It is not entirely free of bias – nothing is – but it is a technique the commercial world could adopt.

Simply getting a group of people in a meeting to discuss what they have seen and experienced is not enough. More than that, you need to create an environment where people are comfortable talking frankly, challenging each other with courage and curiosity.

A colleague of mine told me of a marketing capability strategy workshop she just ran. Half way through, several recruits who had each joined the company in the past year were invited in and interviewed by the assembled senior team. At first the conversation was polite and guarded, but with encouragement the recruits opened up. They told the leaders, with astonishing frankness, exactly what was happening and what was going wrong. After they left, the senior team had the courage to rip up the issues they had assumed to be the priorities, to re-categorise some activities they had seen as successes, and start again with fresh insight.

I discussed this concept of ground-truthing with two senior managers in the head offices of well-known non-grocery retailers. How, I asked them, do you connect with your ground troops to know what’s really going on, and what is the true customer experience? They could each point to regular meetings – teleconferences with store managers for instance. But when I asked if these provided accurate data they both hesitated. Neither they, nor their colleagues use these meetings to discuss or challenge reports from the frontline, yet they suspect the stories told are skewed by their narrator. There is little curiosity and exploration – the meetings tend to be reporting exercises. I asked them how often they, and other head office teams, speak directly to customers. Not a great deal they admitted. However, they did believe they knew customers well. They pointed to vocal customers on social media, or who contacted stores directly to make their views known. Are they representative I asked, or do you just use them to pick up issues or successes at the extremes? What if your customer experience was just ‘ok’, would you know? Both reflected they should do more to speak to frontline staff directly about what’s happening with them and with customers, and both felt that customer insight should be shared widely across commercial teams - and currently, they told me, it isn’t.

In a world where data abounds, this is surprising. Companies use customer data to personalise experiences. Starbucks for example, selects from 400,000 different promotional offers to serve the right one to an individual. Companies use employee data to drive business performance. Google for example, uses hiring algorithms that make it an exceptional recruiter. Yet we may still be failing to get true insight from our customers and our people.

Insightfulness isn’t about data, it’s about behaviours. The biggest lesson of ground-truthing is to encourage cross-team information-exchange, challenge and curiosity – and be conscious that without them, we all risk being blinkered.


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