Whole Brain Thinking: The New Insights Mindset

Steve August

This post was originally published on The Market Research Event Blog.

In the September 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review, there is a remarkable article titled “Building and Insights Engine.” Its three co-authors, Frank van den Driest of Kantar Vermeer, Stan Sthanunathan, and Keith Weed of Unilever, describe how the results of a research study with over 350 businesses and nearly 10,000 practitioners show that the highest performing companies put the customer at the center of their activities through an a dynamic insights and analytics function.

But what was even more fascinating, was how the the authors laid out a blueprint for the optimal characteristics of what they term an “insights engine.”

Ten Characteristics of an Effective Insights Engine

According to the authors, the blueprint for an effective insights engine consists of ten characteristics: seven operational characteristics and three people characteristics. The seven operational characteristics are:

  • Data synthesis (ability to connect disparate data)
  • Independence
  • Integrated planning
  • Collaboration
  • Experimentation
  • Forward looking orientation
  • Affinity for action

The critical people characteristics as:

  • Whole-brain mindset
  • Business focus
  • Storytelling

It is easy to look to focus on the seven operational characteristics, but actually it is first of the three people characteristics that is especially important – as it underpins all of the other operational aspects. As the authors state, “Whole-brain thinking is at the core of the insights engine.”

This is an extraordinarily important point. Historically, insights teams are organized with left-brain quant and analytics people working separately from the creative right-brain qualitative team members. However, the research showed that a differentiating attribute of the high performing organizations was their ability to integrated the two types of thinking: 71% for the high performing organizations versus 42% for the underperforming ones. In a sense, one of the key underpinnings of a successful organization is how well its people can draw on both right and left brain thinking. Or to put it another way, the degree in which an organization can have a whole-brain mindset can very well determine how successful a company will be.

These findings send an important message to the insights industry. So often quant and qual efforts work in parallel or in sequence, but not truly together. We often treat our analytical thinking and our creative and storytelling thinking as two separate efforts, when more than ever they need to be truly integrated. We need to be able to make connections between what we find in the voluminous amounts of data at our disposal and the first hand observations of the ground truth of people’s behaviors – and then collaborate with our stakeholders translate what we learn into compelling stories that drive action.

Van den Driest, Sthanunathan, Weed summed it up brilliantly at the close of their article:

“Having troves of data is of little value in and of itself. What increasingly separates the winners from the losers is the ability to transform data into insights about consumers’ motivations and to turn those insights into strategy.”

The authors showed that a truly effective insights function is as much about how people think as is it about operational capacity. It is time for the insights industry to embrace whole-brain thinking.

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