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What Sailing Teaches Us About Navigating Change



Editor’s Note: I’ve been begging Ellen Woods to start blogging for awhile now, and I am thrilled that she has finally graced us with her first post. Ellen has been a regular reader and commenter here on the GreenBook Blog for quite some time and we’ve struck up a great friendship as a result. We chat frequently about the changes in the industry, and considering that she is a 20+ year veteran her perspective carries much weight with me. She is the perfect example of a classically trained researcher who has channeled her innate curiosity (a key requisite for success in this field) into educating herself on new technologies and research models to the point where she recently became a certified game designer. She is a brilliant, insightful, straight shooting research professional. I always come away from conversations with Ellen inspired, and I think you’ll feel the same way after reading her posts.


By Ellen Woods

Anyone who spends a lot of time in or around large bodies of water knows that the wind is often a harbinger of change. Even with the most modern of tools, navigation still relies largely on centuries old physics and very small, incremental adjustments.  All sailors know about “threading the needle” literally and figuratively, especially when the wind is up and the channel is narrow.

Business is, and always has been a lot like sailing, where tranquil waters often give way to errant winds bringing dangerous conditions with little warning. Even on a calm and sunny day, the surface waters can be deceptive, often masking the dangers that lie below.

CEOS are a lot like sailors because they can’t control many of the factors that impact their business; they are paid to navigate. They set a course, optimize as needed, manage the risks, and use the tools they find to be most dependable. Dashboards are the business version of sonar and the secant is often “big data”. Neither tool provides a complete picture but together they give a pretty precise view of how the needle needs to be threaded. What they don’t address is cargo optimization.

For many years, marketing and market research charted the course for businesses and they optimized products accordingly. They were the both the secant and the sonar; but today they are the logistics team. Profitability requires the right investment in existing products, new to market entries and a constant stream of innovation. Digital media provides immediate feedback on the success of a product or campaign and the margin of error is plain to see. No stat program needed.

What does that mean for market research? On the positive side it means a new body of tools that provide enhanced accuracy and corollary support. It means the ability to calculate an ROI and become a profit center. On the negative side, it means that large scale tracking projects are moving quickly into the past. It means that many of our services are no longer needed. But all is not lost, because data’s strength is in numbers; it can’t provide insight into emotions.

Most people want to be thought of as individuals, but they want to maintain their place in the herd. The fork in the road is whether they think tactically or strategically; however their one point of intersection, regardless of their priorities, is value. Value has a complex definition, but in its purest form, it’s derived from the ability of a product or service to meet a need, either through physical attributes or emotional fulfillment. If market researchers take the cue and learn from innovation, what attributes within their product and service suites drive value, that’s all they need to do. They have a seat at the table, a leg up on the competition, and a niche that can’t be usurped by data, big or otherwise.

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2 responses to “What Sailing Teaches Us About Navigating Change

  1. right Ellen, all is not lost, because data’s strength is in numbers; it can’t provide insight into emotions, at this point the researcher insight is needed because is precisely where Big Data fails. That is becoming the first main challenge for our profession. Good for us to have learned a lot of statistics, but now a strong and deep plunge in psychology is unavoidable. For all of us, I mean, quali and quanti altogether. Being competent in both side is not impossible. Daniel Kahnemann shows the way.

    There is also a second great challenge, in my opinion. We have to stop in explaining the past, or the things like they are; there is an increasing demand we should understand the future. A new story begins (or you could say a very old one, but the profession had another name and was less respectable…)


  2. Hi Carlo:

    I would agree that we need to be looking forward. The past and all that goes with it is simply that, the past. At some point in the not too distant future, mass marketing techniques will lose their relevance as researchers grow more proficient with newer forms of discreet interpretations that don’t require projection. I’m sure that Newton never considered that his day under the Apple tree would one day lead to men walking on the moon! Fisher advanced the science of statistics to create a new level of mathematics and I don’t think math is done yet! Imagine the possibilities if behavioral metrics are incorporated into mathematical designs.

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