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Why thought leaders need research

A fresh perspective from 3Gem

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by Becky Lewis, Insight Consultant, 3Gem

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”. Usually attributed to 19th Century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the phrase is often wheeled out by cynics looking to dismiss the use of research to support an argument they oppose.

We also see it used by those who are sceptical about the value of research to support thought leadership. There’s some justification – too often “thought leaders” begin with the point they want to make and then frame research to support it.

Yet this is a missed opportunity. Research can offer so much more than that to a thought leadership programme.

Grounding in reality

For many of the organisations we work with, research is the foundation on which they build their viewpoints. After all, how can you talk knowledgeably about what people want, especially when people often don’t actually know what they want in the future? How can you be an expert with guidance and insight to share?

To ground what you are saying in reality sometimes you need to talk to the person on the street and that is where market research can help you connect to a lot of people – quickly. You can find out about their behaviour, attitudes, motivations today, and intentions for tomorrow.

Foundation of innovation

Research can provide a jumping-off point for brainstorming. It can inform all stages of the innovation cycle. It can provide real-life data on how products and services are actually used. These are all things that a thought leader can take as evidence and use to push boundaries in their sector.

We all know Steve Jobs “didn’t like market research”, yet we also know he talked to people. He tried to understand people’s lives and how people used products. And he then used this information to push things forward. A good innovator listens. A thought leader will listen, understand, innovate and amplify.

Wider perspectives

Whatever the topic – from feeding dogs to Irish cross-border retail, and anything else you could imagine – our clients use research to look beyond the obvious, prevailing views. A wider range of perspectives helps them see what might happen in the future, not just among the many but also amongst the margins and smaller niche groups.

Sure, thought leaders can use market research to back up their hunches or hypotheses, but the very best ones use it to get a wider perspective. Many are bold and outspoken, but those that endure and have real impact form these views from grounded research.

Authentic thought leadership

Real leadership and change rarely comes from the polarisation of opinions and entrenched viewpoints. Look deeper, and amongst the noise, it’s those who challenge traditional viewpoints, quietly at first but then increasingly pushed into the mainstream by the course of events.

Think of the #metoo movement – previously marginalised voices becoming louder. Office life and working culture are another example. A four-day week? Think it will never happen? The same used to be said of everyone working from home. Ideas that have been on the margins, such as homeworking and a shorter week, have been thrust centre stage during the Covid pandemic and soon become the norm.

Businesses that had already been listening to different perspectives amongst their employees (and potential employees) who pushed to be thought leaders in diverse working patterns were able to pivot quickly in March 2020 to a culture supportive of new working patterns. Those who had been dismissive of remote working as it previously wasn’t the majority view were now left behind.

Just as research ought to be viewed in the right way – as the strategic cornerstone of a thought leadership programme – so it has to be conducted in the right way. We’ll look at that in our next guest blog post for Spell Communications.

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