September 2010

In a business culture of innovation, there are some things you should never hear:

Seeing is believing. Who feels it knows it. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Humans love idioms, those catchy little phrases that make the world seem so much more simple than it really is. Like GPS systems programmed through tradition and by consensus rather than through position calculation and by engineers, they cling to sophistries that allow them to navigate their own social and cultural complexities with the confidence that, as long as they agree on having correctly arrived at a destination, the route taken was the correct one.

It wasn’t. Like husbands who refuse to accept the fact that they can’t follow maps while driving, idioms can lead us astray.

Because idioms are collocated words that, over time and like bits of garbage in a dump, stick together until they are fused into one sticky mess, we forget just how originally mismatched they might be. How can seeing be believing? Or feeling be knowing? Or the communicative value of words be subject to a higher currency exchange when trading up for a single picture? They aren’t and they can’t, except for the fact that the sheer span of time over which they have been used and the consensus that language groups amass over that time have made them so.

Idioms, like assumptions, can make an ass out of you and me, especially when they are of the type that require a sharing of an epistemological framework rather than an, arguably, more simple linguistic one. In using them, we run the risk of abdicating our critical faculties to become sociological simpletons.

Here, I’m not ignoring language as the progenitor of epistemology. It is; how we talk about the world helps us make and perceive the world we live in. Instead, I want to raise a contrast with the oldest idiom in the English language: kick the bucket. We all know what it means – die – because we are part of the language group that assembled the word ‘kick’ and ‘bucket’ together to express the end of life. Simple or harmless enough, right?

In combining ‘seeing’ and ‘believing’, however, we give birth to a phraseolexeme of more epic proportions, one that requires us to leap from a combination of things that have been put together to give us a quicker, easier and often more amusing or light-hearted way to capture an idea to a combination of actions, emotions and sensory inputs that, when combined, support certain mythologies of the world that help us ignore or, to conjure Roland Bathes, ex-nominate the complexities of the world around us.

Idioms are an anathema to innovation. They fuse organizations to assumptions, cultural mythologies and fossilized ways of seeing and talking about themselves, their business and, more importantly, their consumers.

Case in point: the consumer research game. Virtually every market research department in every major organization is founded on an idiomatic understanding of consumers. Psychographic caricatures of actual humans, like the Active Mom, have become business idioms used to simplify and, more importantly, agree on the polysemy of what are lived preferences, behaviors, opinions, attitudes and needs rather than PowerPoint descriptions such as, “Mary is a successful real estate agent who struggles to balance taking care of her three kids with her love of pilates and desire to eat healthier breakfast bars.”

Big organizations thrive on small ways of seeing and talking to themselves about the world of consumers. It seems necessary, considering the amount of work to be done, the short windows for socializing ideas internally and the efficiency that is required to transform ideas into products or services via multiple stakeholders, partners, agencies and channels. But it can lead to missed opportunities.

Don’t blame the market research department. They’re just following orders. But the oversimplification does seem to begin there. Whether it’s the result of a lack of fascination with human complexity, a lack of training or experience in decoding that complexity, or simply following age-old work processes, traditional research models, methods and modes of communicating findings from them are one of the reasons why internal innovation initiatives fall flat on their face.

So how can market research departments create better innovation opportunities?


Observations are not insights. There is tactical value to observed behaviors, like watching a consumer have difficulty opening your package, but these can only be applied to refinements or extensions of your product or service. Insights are the result of observation, maybe conversation and an ability to frame data both in the context of the consumer’s experience as well as a theory or theme that helps to explain (and act upon) that experience. Given that believing typically needs to the claim of knowing, it is critical that researchers do more than observe to create their insights and find more creative ways to communicate those insights than show stakeholders what they have observed.


Research personnel love to point out that they know they are not the consumer. They are consumers and they do feel it, but that still doesn’t mean that they know it. Good researchers understand that great research is the result of a calculated balance of subjectivity and objectivity. There is no formula to casting off your assumptions in and beyond the field. Instead, understanding and communicating consumer lives requires a phenomenological approach, some clinical analysis and team of sounding-board collaborators – all of which help you get to know and get you beyond what you think you know.


In this business, we love PowerPoint. But our love of it limits (for those whose presentations suck) and structures (for those who understand how to tell stories in it) our capabilities to communicate our findings and insights. Photos from the field are more subject to this rule than text or charts. A picture might be worth a thousand words to someone who took it and knows the context in which it was taken, but the amount of interpretation that can be read into that picture once it moves beyond the author leaves room for misinterpretation. Photos, like music, are not a universal language. Annotating them with the interpretations, insights, explanations and contexts that give meaning will safeguard them down the line. Incorporating them into scenarios or experience maps will help lock that meaning down even further and provide a more valuable tool for executives, brand managers, designers and other downstream audiences.


Organizations that subscribe to developing products or services only for target consumers run the risk of missing social, behavioral or usage adjacencies that might exist elsewhere. Sure, your focus groups tell you (probably because that’s how you recruited participants in the first place) that so-called Active Moms are a fantastic target for breakfast bars. But if you haven’t had a real breakthrough in the breakfast bar category in years or, for that matter, ever, maybe it’s time to start learning elsewhere. Instead of Mary, consider Mike. “Mike likes to watch late-night UFC fights at home in his Tapout t-shirt and underpants while eating Oreos. He thinks breakfast bars are for sissies.” Trust me, you’ll learn something from Mike that you can use to understand him and maybe even apply to Mary.

No time to write and even less inclination to do so. Maybe time to move to Tumblr just to be one of those wanna-be trend spotting recommenders. First reco? Hungarian wine, dogs, reincarnation and just about any movie with Peter O’Toole. Essential viewing. Amazing storytelling, in total and by characters.