Don’t just complain about uncertainty, find the tools to navigate it

Traditional in-person research methods won’t work right now, but that’s no excuse for a wait-and-see approach to post-COVID life.

by Andrew Missingham
Last Updated: 19 May 2020

There are some organisations for which this crisis is an unalloyed opportunity - step forward online-first retailers, streaming services and digital communications platforms. 

For the rest of us, the ones with the best chances of thriving once it’s over will not just be those that adapt to future realities and adopt new mindsets quickly and creatively, but those that act and change right now, slap bang in the midst of the deepest uncertainty. 

Keep calm and carry on isn’t going to take you there. And the current uncertainty is certainly no excuse for doing nothing, or going nowhere.

So in uncharted, stormy seas, without a compass (or, more indelicately, as my Australian father was fond of saying, when we're "up s**t creek in a barbed wire canoe without a paddle") in which direction should you set sail? Well, like all journeys, it starts with questions. 

My first is about people (let’s make one change now, and stop calling them consumers, or customers, or talent): which lockdown-era ways of behaving and which attitudes will fade once the crisis is over, and which ones will become part of our new normal? 

But asking this question raises another: How do we most quickly find this out by gathering the requisite human intelligence, when traditional face-to-face qualitative research methods are impossible, and when old models will likely not endure?

The bad news is, I can't answer this for you - I’m not a soothsayer. But I can share what we’re doing to find answers: we're building tools to turbocharge our five senses. And like Andy DuFrasne and his Shawshank-busting rock hammer, we're not too worried about waiting for the perfect tool for the perfect job. Like I said, the time to act is now. 

We've invested in building a complementary set of digital research tools, both quantitative and qualitative, that aim to allow us to seek better answers faster (and cheaper) than before.

Luckily, we had a little head-start - we started developing and testing these tools 18 months ago. But I'm not going to lie to you: there's nothing like a locked-down global pandemic to spray rocket fuel up your tuchus and galvanise decision-making. 

One tool is an interoperable surveying system that works in any language and provides analysis and insights within a few days (instead of weeks). Another is a system of digital workshops that allow us to carry out a modified form of in-person workshopping, virtually. Another is a first-person digital ethnography system that brings to life our quantitative and qualitative research. 

Of course, there's a downside of not meeting people face-to-face, but, so far, investing in always-on digital research has at least provided us with clues as to where to set the sextant. That's got to beat waiting for an answer to slap us in the face (because it won't).

Whatever intelligence you’re able to gather when plotting the way forward, you’ve still got to have a brave captain, a nifty crew and a nimble craft to change course decisively and quickly. So, whilst listening hard externally, my advice would also be to invest any resources available into training and retraining your team for agility (including you). And right now, when paying work is likely dwindling, the most vital asset you might have is your team's time.

Hunkering down and waiting out the storm just won’t work it at a time like this. To prepare to thrive in future, you need the tools to be able to listen, you need to act on what that listening tells you—and you need to do it right now.

Andrew Missingham is CEO of consultancy B+A

Image courtesy of B+A

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