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We need more contrarians and curmudgeons!

Conferences have become so specialized that only the faithful are likely to attend. Are we missing out on important debates?

In his Survey Geek blog Reg Baker bemoans the rise of storytelling at conferences, and the decline of rigour and evidence. However, I beg to differ with Reg. The problem (IMHO) is not the presence of storytelling, nor even a disassociation from the facts. The weakness is created by the absence of dissent and contested debate.

The process of dialectics, where opposing points of view are put forwarded and argued for in debate is great way of seeking clarity and understanding – especially if people stick to a few basic rules, such as evidence trumping opinion and avoiding such devices as men of straw.

When market research only had a few conferences, everybody who had the resources and the motivation went to these events, organised by the likes of ESOMAR, CASRO, MRS etc. At most of these events there was a variety of views, from the curmudgeon and the luddite to the innovator and the dedicated seeker of fashion.

Now we have specialist media, specialist channels, and specialist conferences. At a conference on neuromarketing, or behavioural economics, or mobile research, the people most likely to attend are the faithful, and perhaps the gullible, and the dialectics don’t take place. These specialist channels and events lead to more information, but perhaps at the costs of rigour?

I think that what we need are more contrary people at these events. Indeed there may be a future in hiring curmudgeons to attend events to play the role of shouting out when the emperor has no clothes (or in modern parlance when the guru’s clothes are virtual). Perhaps Reg and I should consider a new career as evidence-based naysayers? (for hire!)

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6 responses to “We need more contrarians and curmudgeons!

  1. I’m always suspicious of emerging orthodoxies in any walk of life and agree that we need more contrarian and curmudgeonly voices in MR.
    However, I do think we are going through radical change which is altering how I see my role and how I work with clients.
    To me there is an analogy (in a small way) with the shift from the Medieval to the Renaissance world. In the Medieval world a polymath could read every book available and know everything there was to know, and the church kept a firm lid on things. All this broke down in the Renaissance with the explosion of printed books and individual thought.
    In today’s Renaissance MR world no single researcher or research agency can know, understand and deliver all the rapidly expanding research methods available.
    This means I’m increasingly acting as a consultant, sourcing the best solutions to fit my client’s specific needs and a facilitator, managing a coalition of experts and employing specialist applications and platforms.
    This doesn’t mean throwing out tried and tested methods, but does allow us to develop much more effective 360° approaches, by pulling good methods from where ever they come from, often outside traditional research agencies.
    New methods can also help address the hearts and minds issue. To me the most wonderfully designed and robust research findings are useless unless the client organization does something with them. This is a challenge as people’s natural reaction is to reject research findings that they don’t own or at least have some involvement in.
    For example NPS may be a good or bad research method (and there are those that argue both sides) but this is almost irrelevant. It works because all people in the organization believe it works and are willing to act on its findings. Anything we can do to encourage organizational involvement at all levels is a good thing.
    So I’m all for the contrarians and curmudgeons, but we need to be careful that we are not arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of pin, when the world has moved on.

  2. I would be honored to be enlisted in the curmudgeon contingent if that contingent subscribes to: (1) using research as a tool for answering questions in an appropriate, meaningful and, most importantly, useful and actionable manner; (2) the method is not the essence of research–the results and the analysis are; and (3) the launch of every so called new research product requires full disclosure of the theory behind it and the method embedded in it.

  3. Perhaps we can have a ‘Contrarian Conference” and position it as a series of debates of true believers vs. curmudgeons on a variety of topics? We could even do a leaderboard and make it a competition! Hmmm… 🙂 In all seriousness, I love that we’re creating an online culture that values all perspectives and gives each a fair hearing.

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