Innovate or Ossify!

In a recent online interview for the UK’s Research Magazine, Synovate’s Jan Hofmeyr, creator of the Conversion Model, made some telling comments on the conservatism of the research industry and the reluctance of practitioners to embrace innovation. Jan contrasted the position of market researchers with those in the IT world, whose existence depends on innovation. Indeed, he even put forward the example of medical practitioners who continuously seek new ideas and practices to implement throughout their career until the day they retire.

To me the key barrier is not the shortage of innovation and new ideas in our industry. Nor is it really the acceptance of new methods and approaches to address contemporary marketing issues.

The underlying challenge is the industry’s inability to skill up enough people quickly to understand, apply and execute any newly developed idea/method correctly. This is a direct result not only of the still inconsistent levels of fundamentals training (ranging from excellent to almost non-existent) in market research compared to engineering, medicine, accountancy etc. but also of the fact that ‘lifetime’ learning is generally not something inculcated in the business but left more or less to personal choice.

In my experience, whenever I’ve been involved with a new product launch, the reluctance to adopt has tended to come not from the lesser experienced researchers at the executive or manager level, but from the more senior directors. In many cases, they find it frightening because new learning, in their mind, puts them back on the same playing field, technically, as the recent recruits. Furthermore, even if they master it, they then have the task of convincing clients to adopt and buy the service, and again this is often seen as a step outside the comfort zone, and a good reason to resist innovation.

This behaviour is a major problem for many of the larger companies (the smaller ones will still be run by those doing the innovation so no resistance there.) If can’t get your leaders on side, your client offerings will soon age and decline in relevance, with the resulting topline stagnation and bottom line erosion.

One solution is to take a leaf out of Reckitt-Benckiser’s book when it comes to executing and exploiting innovation. As a rule, their dictate is that in within a certain time frame (I think 5 years), 50% of their revenue has to come from products that don’t exist at the beginning of that time frame. To foster the adoption of innovation in research, senior leaders at the country manager and business unit head level need to be tasked with similar style targets, where success is judged by the profitable introduction of a given level of new services each business cycle. Companies that follow this approach will not only enjoy ongoing success but will be seen as vibrant places to work and attract the best talent thus better ensuring continuing prosperity. Those whose sole focus is to further finesse existing approaches to get the benefits of better cost efficiencies will have their short term success quashed by medium term obsolescence.

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