Join us at The Market Research Event in Boca Raton, Florida, as we present a half-day workshop on Monday, November 12, 12:45-3:45 PM entitled, What The Battle of Gettysburg Can Teach Market Researchers About Strategy.
Please respond to this email if you are also planning to attend. We look forward to seeing you there!
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Questions? Click here to send us an email with your request.
We were so encouraged, in fact, by the number of interesting, positive responses from readers, that we decided to revisit the topic this month with another look at Gettysburg and its lessons. Specifically, we consider the power (in this case negative) of assumptions and how they can play out in both battle and research.
Regarding the battle itself, there were three notable areas in which incorrect assumptions had broad and striking implications for the South:
Battle location. Historians agree that the Confederacy’s main objective at the time of this battle was to draw the Union Army out into the open, so it could be destroyed. Generals Lee and Longstreet, however, made assumptions about the size and progress of the Union Army and the likely leadership style of newly appointed Union General Meade.
The Union troops, on the other hand, upon arriving in Gettysburg, immediately identified the geographic advantages in the terrain around the town, and moved to occupy “the high ground.”
The Confederacy’s assumptions – many of which proved to be incorrect – influenced decisions as to where and when the actual engagement would take place, ultimately yielding huge advantages to the Union troops.
Underestimating the enemy. Upon arriving in Gettysburg, Buford set out scouting parties to assess the strength and position of Lee’s troops; when these parties reported that it looked as if a significant proportion of the Confederate Army had assembled on the outskirts of town, he believed these sources and took immediate action.
Conversely, when Confederate General Hill’s troops identified Union cavalry in Gettysburg, Hill assumes the information to be incorrect, as did Lee and Longstreet, who didn’t believe it possible for such a large contingent of Union troops to have amassed without their hearing about it from other sources first.
The final event: Pickett’s charge. Famously, on the third day of battle, after attacking the Union Army on both the left and right without decisive victory, General Lee made a dangerous assumption based only on his experience as a commander and no facts: “Meade has strengthened both his flanks, he must be weak in the center; I estimate his strength in the center at not much more than 5,000 men.” (The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara)
Based on this assumption, he sends General Pickett to charge the center of the Union line, up a hill and across open ground. The rest, as they say, was sad and deadly history.
In our industry, incorrect assumptions can play out in a similarly limiting way:
Assumptions about methodology.
In his famous treatise, “The Art of War,” Chinese general and military strategist, Sun Tzu, describes a concept called “Shih” – essentially, potential force. Once you’ve chosen a particular course of action, he notes, the potential is gone and your options are necessarily more limited. Delaying a decision, on the other hand, keeps your options open.
This narrowing effect is true with respect to research methodology as well. If, for example, one of your products isn’t selling well, you may quickly decide that focus groups are in order. You’ve used this tool before and so it’s natural to reach for it again.
But focus groups have limitations, not the least of which are group dynamics which may cover up what many participants are really thinking and which may prevent you from getting to the bottom of why sales are underperforming. In this case. one-on-one interviews or some other mix of methodologies may be more productive.
If you assume from the start that a particular methodology is best, you are limiting your potential force – and therefore your results – in the process.
Assumptions about topics.
Every engagement in which we get involved begins with a discussion of broad objectives. A client may say something to the effect of, “We’re going to look at XYZ but we’re not going to investigate ABC.” That’s important; you don’t want to boil the ocean.
But it’s one thing when you make a decision based on scope and another when you decide not to cover topics because you assume you already know the answer.
For example, in one engagement a few years ago, we were asked not to explore the degree to which two companies were affiliated and the effect that might have on the decision-making process of customers (the client believed there was no connection). In the course of our in-depth interviewing, however, this topic came up, revealing an important relationship that was almost overlooked.
Company lore and assumptions regarding “what we know” can often lead to missed insights.
Assumptions about audience.
Audience assumptions tend to play out in one of two ways, the first of which relates to internal data.
For example, you may have a list of everyone who’s purchased product X and so you use this as your starting point, jumping right in with questioning regarding the product and its delivery. But your database may not be perfect.
If you want to know how someone feels about a product it makes sense to first confirm that they actually bought it. Not only will this avoid wasting time with people who are inappropriate, it may reveal larger, more systemic issues with your data storage and retrieval.
The second issue with audience concerns participation. Old or untested “truths” such as “You can’t get [job title] on the phone,” or “Nobody will answer those questions,” serve to limit the scope of your project. We’ve worked on many engagements in which strongly held assumptions about audience participation proved to be incorrect.
Here’s the Twist: Assumptions – preconceived opinions or feelings – are expedient in real life and it’s easy to see why as a species, we’ve learned to make quick decisions based on past experiences and information.
In research, as in battle, however, they can also work against you.
By being more thoughtful about any assumptions you may be making, you keep your options open longer, improving the odds that you – and your team – will live to fight another day!
P.S. If you’re even half as intrigued as we are about the connection between battlefield strategy and market research, come join our half-day workshop entitled, What The Battle of Gettysburg Can Teach Market Researchers About Strategy, at The Market Research Event on Monday, November 12, 12:45-3:45 PM, in Boca Raton, Florida. Details here.
Mixology (Putting Research into Practice)
Clearly, managing one’s assumptions can be tricky when embarking on a market research engagement. We’ve addressed the three areas discussed above in the following ways:
Methodology. Many of our readers know of our predisposition towards in-depth, one-on-one interviewing. That said, we are not averse to focus groups, large quantitative studies and other methodologies, depending on the situation.
The key is to have a thoughtful discussion regarding methodology early in the process, and to keep an open mind as the project evolves, making changes as necessary along the way.
Topic. Methodology permitting (i.e., qualitative), inform your interviewers and moderators regarding what you believe to be true. Then ask them to probe further and verify – or disprove – your assumptions.
Audience. Asking simple questions to verify that a purchase was made or doing a test to confirm that your database is accurate can save you time and money down the line. At the very least, build this possibility into your plan.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.
Secondary Sidebar Widget Area
This is the Secondary Sidebar Widget Area. You can add content to this area by visiting your Widgets Panel and adding new widgets to this area.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. 101 Federal Street · Suite 1900 Boston, MA 02110