The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 6 Issue 4   August 2010


Structure is important in any research project. But sometimes, it’s the “spontaneous discussion” built into the process that leads to the deepest and most valuable insights.

Spontaneously yours,

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

Spontaneous Discussion
My husband and I have owned a summer home in Plymouth, Massachusetts for nearly 10 years. Nothing too fancy, mind you, but a beautiful spot at the end of a quiet cul de sac, just steps from the beach and water beyond.

Plymouth is on the mainland and not technically part of Cape Cod. But with the bridge to the Cape just a couple of miles away, and the “bent arm” of the peninsula curling in our direction to form Cape Cod Bay around us, we feel very much a part of this summer community.

One annual tradition that we’ve come to enjoy is something known locally as “Bonfire Night,” a beach event in which residents build bonfires all along the shore. It’s a beautiful thing and, on a clear night, you can see the fires glowing from way across the bay.

Because the 4th of July fireworks in many towns happen on the 4th itself, Bonfire Night always occurs on the 3rd. Except when it doesn’t.

The problem is that some years the 4th falls on the weekend, causing different towns to make different arrangements regarding when to hold their main event, and allowing more residents more flexibility in terms of “Bonfire Night” festivities.

This year, with the 4th on a Sunday and the “official” day off, therefore, on Monday, it wasn’t really obvious what one could or should expect. And there certainly is no “official” proclamation or arrangement on when bonfires “should” or “will” take place.

Therefore, with no clear, Cape-wide plan, there were (much to our delight) bonfires visible Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. Sitting outside and enjoying them for the third night in a row, I couldn’t help but appreciate how a minimum of structure often leads to greater spontaneity and leaves room for wonderful results.

I was reminded of this spontaneous, happy bonfire experience again this month while overseeing a project involving one-on-one interviews with Fortune 1000 C-Suite members; our client wanted to test a planned change in business strategy with members of this rarefied group.

During the surveys, one of the questions we asked was, “What advice do you have for our client?” This broad, deliberately unstructured query invariably led to spontaneous, high-value insights. It also served to remind me of several reasons why open-ended, one-on-one interviews — particularly when speaking with high-level executives — can serve such a critical function:
  • When they believe they are sharing “bad news,” participants are often reluctant to speak frankly. One of the participating CEOs prefaced his comments by saying, “I don’t know if I would tell your client personally, but they absolutely have to change their name. It’s not a good connection at any level.”

    At first blush, this reluctance to speak frankly may seem like a surprise. After all, a big company CEO is accustomed to speaking his mind and in this situation, he didn’t even know who the client was. That said, it seems a part of human nature to not want to “hurt someone’s feelings.”

    Imagine, however, if the same question were asked in a focus group. Knowing that the client was sitting just behind the mirror would keep many people from coming out and saying what they think. It’s also a good reason to engage a third party in the survey process — that arm’s length distance helps participants remain candid.
  • Serendipity plays an important role. It’s not easy to get high-level executives from large companies to sit down and speak. When you do succeed in securing some of their valuable time, it’s in everyone’s best interest to make the most of it, and use a method and forum that allows for a free and spontaneous exchange of ideas.

    Our client was thrilled by the depth and breadth of advice, insights and suggestions that emerged from one simple question. An open-ended approach bakes a certain degree of chance into the process, allowing respondents to provide value wherever they see an opportunity.
  • It’s hard to create structured questionnaires for people with whom you have little in common. When building a closed-ended instrument, the survey writer does his or her best to anticipate the relevant questions and possible answers. That works reasonably well for surveys involving common, well-established consumer items, such as cars or floor wax.

    Most survey writers, on the other hand, have little experience as a Fortune 1000 CEO. And in general, the greater the disconnect between the experiences and world view of the survey writer and those of the survey taker, the less likely you are to anticipate the optimum answer selection set and structure when creating a closed-ended survey. In this case, giving respondents as much unstructured room as possible led to useful and actionable results.
Here’s the twist: Structure is important in any research project. Among other things, you need a clear purpose, a sharply defined respondent pool, and well-crafted questions. Within that structure, however, the more room you allow your participants to respond freely, the more value you’ll receive when the fireworks are over!

— Julie

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Enlisting C-Suite executives in your survey process can take a good deal of time and leg-work. That said, these folks tend to be interested, engaged and insightful, and well worth the effort it takes to secure some of their time.

Here are three suggestions for making sure your next executive level interview goes well:

  1. Treat the executive as a consultant. When you hire a consultant you’re looking for advice, not “fill in the blanks” answers to questions. Engage the executive in a way that gives him or her room to speak fully.
  1. Assure anonymity. You’ll get better answers if your executives don’t have to be concerned with who else is in the room (i.e. stay away from focus groups), or how their comments may be tied back to them specifically (i.e. engage a third party to conduct the research).
  1. Make it clear that you value their time. This is important with respondents at all levels, of course, but especially so with busy executives. Make appointments and then call on time; stick to the survey length promised; share results where possible when the study is concluded.


Spontaneous Discussion

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

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Let us know if you’ll be there too!

“Definition, rationality, and structure are ways of seeing, but they become prisons when they blank out other ways of seeing.”

— A. R. Ammons

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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.

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