Do you recruit Superheroes or T-shaped team members?

Last week I gave a talk at the ESOMAR Congress in Edinburgh about how the insight industry should be showcasing the value of customer insight. The session concluded with some ideas on the six key habits that I believe high performance customer insight professionals should cultivate.

The first habit is being a business translator able, at the outset of a project, to develop a mental picture of how to get from the business question to the research objectives, then to an understanding of the research questions to be asked, and back to seeing how all the eventual outputs would answer the business question.

It is also about being a sensemaker, the wide angle lens of the organisation, knowing how everything fits together, seeing what springs from what and what leads to what.

Next is being an insight detective, a master of asking powerful why questions in an era where there is a danger – with the emergence of AI generated insights – of developing black box solutions that we might not fully understand.

There are the skills of becoming a storyteller and influencer, able to win both the emotional and intellectual argument.

Then there is the need to be in the vanguard of cognitive collaboration – combining legacy research skills with new AI approaches to insight generation.

And finally, there is being able to turn knowledge into action, recognising the success coach Tony Robbins’s point that the path to success is to take massive determined action.

My conclusion was that success for the insight industry is about developing a reputation for providing an interpretive understanding across questions-based research and data analytics generated insight.

These ideas are reflected in my latest book The High Performance Customer Insight Professional: How to make sense of the evidence, build the story and turn insights into action, where I provide tools for helping customer insight professionals to become Sensemakers who are able to combine multiple sources of evidence. The book also provides a set of Story Tools to help people get over the insight message, together with Consultative Strategies for handling any resistance to the implementation of powerful insights.

Following my presentation at Congress, there was a very intelligent and powerful comment from the floor along the lines that the habits/skills I was proposing for insight professionals were very demanding for any one individual to acquire. The point being made was that it would be very difficult to recruit superheroes that had all of these particular skills – surely I should be more realistic and accept that no one individual would have all of these skills!

I had to accept that I had given the impression that the insight industry should be looking for superheroes. But, part of this was simply a feature of operating in speaker mode at a major Congress. Here the stage is set to provide a call to arms motivational talk that paints a picture for the external world about what the majority of insight professionals should be doing most of the time. So, such sessions can sound a bit over the top!

When it comes to delivering this skillset in practice, as the questioner was implying, it is of course about developing a team who together have these skills. This is often referred to as applying the T-shaped team member principle. This means that all team members will have some basic capability across all the skills I mentioned above, together with more specialist skills in some areas. So, it is not about recruiting superheroes but having a team of T-shaped professionals that can deliver on the skills I have described.

However, the discussion about superheroes vs T-shaped team members did prompt me to recall and recognise that in developing DVL Smith Ltd, we did have a fairly firm policy of encouraging our insight team to operate across the qualitative and quantitative divide. So, we did apply the T principle: we were not looking for superheroes. But we did not want qualitative researchers who would faint if they saw a data table, or quantitative researchers who refused to attend focus groups that could add further depth to their quantitative analysis.

The good news is that the insight industry seems to have got the message about the importance of embracing the world of data analytics. The discussions at the Congress made it completely clear that we need to be in the forefront of creating insights that are based on more traditional questions-based research and also on data analytics. All the evidence points to the fact that the most powerful insights are now most likely to be generated through a combination of traditional and AI assisted methods.

I hope that my new book The High Performance Customer Insight Professional (available on Amazon) will be helpful to newcomers to the industry and more experienced professionals in continuing the success story of the insight industry.

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