You are undoubtedly familiar with the story of Henny Penny, a.k.a. Chicken Little. The catchphrase “the sky is falling” leaps to mind when a person is hysterically paranoid over something trivial. You’ll probably also recall the poor little boy who cried wolf under false pretenses, only to have a wolf devour his flock when true danger emerged. One story teaches us not to see monsters in the shadows. The other teaches us that trust, once lost, can be forever gone.
Day 1 of Re:think 2013 held both fables. We saw the sky crumbling into bits of angry consumers, big data, and “emerging” technologies. (“The sky is falling!”) Alarm bells were softly ringing about the tsunami of change headed our way. (“There’s a wolf coming!”) We lamented the need for better storytelling and the challenge of getting truly embedded with our research clients. Listening to this story was a room-full of industry practitioners and leaders who, judging by their reactions and hallway chatter, seem to believe one of two things:
- All of this noise about change and technology is interesting, but is mostly just Chicken Little. The world may be changing, but the sky’s not falling.
- Stories of cataclysmic change are being told by people and companies that benefit from that change. The message therefore is biased and cannot be trusted.
It reminds me very much of the climate change debate. (There’s that word again, change.) The titans of the research industry have much at risk if the sky is truly coming down on the world; it would be much nicer if change could occur at a manageable pace. It would be even better if we didn’t have to completely change our businesses.
There is a surprising twist to the story of Chicken Little, however: the fable actually has multiple endings. Some versions of the story are happy, where the sky is saved and the chicken learns a valuable lesson. In other versions of the story, the chicken (and other animal friends) all get eaten by a wolf. Perhaps it’s the same wolf the little boy was making so much noise about.
Change is an emotionally neutral word. It’s a word we use when (a) we don’t know if a thing is good or bad, or (b) we know but want to soften the blow. But some truths are irrefutable:
- A wolf pack does, in fact, want to eat the research industry’s flock. Google is just the scout.
- Our clients speak of mobile in the present tense, not the future tense.
- For some clients, research vs. analytics is an “or” question. Not an “and” question. There are now viable substitute offerings for the idea of research.
The Betrayed Consumer
My favorite moments of the day came at the very beginning, starting with J. Walker Smith’s description of the betrayed consumer. The message was perhaps uncomfortable, but rings true: in the wake of years of financial turmoil, people remain angry, skeptical, cautious, and disenchanted with modern institutions. This message of turbulent change continued into the following panel as industry executives offered three keys to career success for researchers:
- Be entrepreneurial, and respond to change with agility.
- Be social, to maximize your fishing net of opportunities.
- Continuously learn, if you want to remain relevant.
I wholeheartedly agree with these values, for humanity in general and certainly for my own professional endurance. Entrepreneurialism is a critical engine for innovation. Social networking is the foundation from which we build trust with each other. Education gives us a platform for creating value.
The rest of the day’s discussions, unfortunately, felt very familiar. For example, I cannot tell you where I first heard that research communications need to be told in stories and language that clients understand. I have heard this many times. It’s why storytelling is a core component of our business. Likewise, hopefully we all agree that it is better to have our work embedded in client teams to maximize its impact. It concerns me that these issues remain as talking points.
The wolves are not yet eating the flock, but they are hungry and they know where to find us. Personally, I don’t plan on being eaten, and hope to see that fight-or-flight response kick in for the industry very soon.