The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 4 Issue 4   April 2008


Getting complete answers – the kind of answers you need to make your most important business decisions – requires giving research participants the freedom to use both sides of their brains… not just the half that fits into your chosen methodology. Today’s edition of Research with a Twist explains why.

As always, please click here to send us your thoughts and comments.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

The Double-Sided-Brain Approach to Research
Ken Robinson

“Truthfully what happens is, as children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side.”

— Sir Ken Robinson,
TED Talks,
February 2006

I’ve become somewhat of a fan of the “TED Talks” — presentations given at the TED (Technology, Education, Design) Conference, held annually in Monterey, California. The TED Conference “brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” The talks are then posted on the Web site.

One of my favorites (follow this link to watch it) was given in 2006 by Sir Ken Robinson, an author and expert on innovation and human resources. In discussing our current system of public education — and essentially, what’s wrong with it — Robinson makes the point that it focuses, to a fault, on developing the analytical, left side of the brain. In doing so, he argues, it reduces creativity, and pushes many people into jobs and careers that don’t suit them.

While watching Robinson’s talk again last weekend, it struck me that in many ways, closed-ended research does exactly the same thing.

What I mean is that closed-ended research — and its “check the box that’s most appropriate” format — prevents people from creatively responding to your questions; they can’t tell you what they really think in the way they really want. As a result, your research suffers.

Why do research in the first place?

In any setting, the purpose of research is to answer questions. In the case of your business, good information leads to better decisions, better products and a greater ability to meet the needs of your clients and prospects. For research to be most effective, it needs to answer your business questions as completely as possible.

Closed-ended research, however, with its already formed questions and limited-in-number answers, forces respondents to work within whatever box the researcher has created. This may make for an efficient, scalable, survey process, however in gathering answers to all but the narrowest questions (e.g. “Do you prefer red or blue?”), you may neglect to uncover what people really think.

Instead, and as Robinson’s talk makes clear, in order to get the “best thinking” of participants, one needs to engage both sides of the brain. Open-ended research, which allows the freedom to respond creatively, does just that. Here, participants are invited — and in fact, encouraged — to “talk outside the box.” As a result, we as researchers, marketers and business decision-makers are more likely to uncover the answers we need.

Make creativity a research priority

Robinson goes on to point out that school systems around the world are arranged in the same hierarchy of subject matter importance: Math and languages at the top; arts at the bottom. Not only does this reflect a particular bias, he suggests it may in fact be putting the most important subjects — those that rely on creativity and innovation — at the back of the line.

In our experience, market research has a bias as well. Tidy, computer-scored, closed-ended methodologies are at the top, while the more free-wheeling, labor-intensive, open-ended approaches are at the bottom. Here as well, this bias may result in the most useful information — the information we need to answer critical business questions — being excluded.

As you plan your research, remember that the approach you choose will have an impact on how much of your respondents’ information-filled brains you end up engaging. Taking advantage of what both sides of those brains have to offer would seem the wisest approach.

— Mark

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One of the most common fears among researchers is that by moving from a closed-ended approach to one which gives participants more freedom to respond, the conversation will “go off on tangents, last forever and make comparisons impossible.”

These fears are not groundless and the opportunity certainly does exist if open-ended surveys are not handled properly. We employ three deliberate strategies to ensure the efficiency of not just the conversation, but also the collection and use of research data:

  1. Ask precise questions. An open-ended approach gives respondents the ability to frame their answers as they see fit. Under these circumstances, it’s particularly important that the interviewer be precise and specific in both questions and follow-ups. Nebulous questions can waste lots of time.

    Poorly worded question: “How did you find your steak?”
    Possible answer: “It was right there under my potato.”

    Precisely worded question: “What aspects of your steak did you enjoy most?”
    Possible answer: “I liked that it was cooked medium-rare.”

  2. Use a consistent survey structure. Giving respondents leeway in the way they answer questions does not suggest an off-the-cuff approach to survey structure. To ensure that surveys can be properly coded and used for comparisons, the questions asked of all participants should be the same.
  3. Train your interviewers. If the interviewer understands the objectives of the survey and the purpose of each of the questions, she can prevent respondents from rambling beyond the scope of the research. The best interviewers have been taught when to probe, when to keep quiet, and when to gently (but assertively) bring respondents back to the topic at hand.


The Double-Sided-Brain Approach to Research

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

Last month, we explained in this space that our client CompTIA retained CSR to conduct in-depth interviews of Information Technology managers worldwide to inform the construction of a closed-ended Web survey. We also announced that the White Paper resulting from this research, Skills Gaps in the World’s IT Workforce, is now for sale by CompTIA (follow this link for a summary).

We are delighted to announce that the study has received considerable press coverage since its release. In recent weeks, Information Week (Wireless Skills Top IT Job Requirement Survey), CIO Magazine (Mobile/Wireless Skills to Top IT Manager Most Wanted Lists) Computerworld (Got wireless (IT skills)?) and ARNnet in Australia (Got wireless (IT skills)?) have referred to this study in lead stories, and/or referred to the study in further discussions about IT Managers’ hiring needs.

“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”

— Woodrow Wilson

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The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data.

Understanding What People Really Think

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