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How Insights Teams Can Help Drive Business Agility

As more and more organizations are moving toward operating in agile mode, insights teams must adapt and work to help the overall organization achieve true business agility. Their mission becomes to prove the value they can bring to initiatives around strategic agility.

Editor’s Intro: Unforeseen consequences of new processes are an unfortunate fact of life; try a new process that fixes problems with existing systems, and new ones crop up. Agile new product development systems in CPG are no different. Steve Hansen provides very valuable advice on how insights functions cannot only help avoid bumps in the agile road but can thrive in the new environment.


Sometimes, seemingly without warning, the need to innovate goes off like an alarm bell inside an organization.

We’ve all been in meetings, for instance, where a senior member of the leadership team shows data that suggests the organization is falling behind its competitors, or that there has been a decline in a flagship product sales. Whether it’s because of the need to stay ahead of the next Uber or Airbnb, or simply the desire to have a certain percentage of revenue come from new products, the race to new ideas has already begun.

While this sense of urgency may be necessary, there are potentially unforeseen repercussions to insights teams who are suddenly tasked with working at a faster pace without adequate training or support. This was one of the findings in a white paper we published based on a study where we spoke with insights teams to better understand the obstacles to improved business agility.

We heard from some insights groups, for example, that they used to take six, eight or even twelve weeks to deliver research to inform the development of a new product. Today, they might be pulled into a team that is expected to create a market-ready product in just four weeks.

These tighter deadlines may be influenced, in part, by the increased adoption of software development methodologies such as Agile, in which developers design applications in short “sprints” and then make changes afterward. Despite the hype, though, a recent essay on Quartz argues that most companies are failing to adopt this method successfully, either by worrying about putting less-than-perfect products in front of customers, failing to bring disparate teams physically together, or struggling with cultural issues.

Holding on too tightly to one’s sole area of expertise, no matter how deep, compromises collaboration and breeds resentment, and reinforces a delegation of responsibilities that must actually be shared by the team. It also forecloses on a culture of learning which Agile can otherwise inspire.

For insights groups, the solution is not necessarily to create their own version of Agile, but to work in such a way that they help the overall organization achieve true business agility.

This starts with ensuring the insights group is perceived as a key driver of change, rather than a bottleneck. There is a pendulum that tends to swing back and forth in many organizations, by which insight groups are well-resourced for a time, then get downsized during periods of difficulty. When other departments are told the insights group needs more time for their work, meanwhile, they might be tempted to do an end-run and try to get feedback from customers and other sources on their own.

What can be done to stay off that pendulum? Here are three pieces of advice from the white paper:

  1. Know why Agile efforts are underway at your organization. The core reason. The C-level reason. Because the reason helps drive the type of insight you seek. If the reason is “our financial performance is hurting,” your research approach may be very different than if it’s an issue of “our innovation lags the marketplace.”
  2. Educate internal clients about where Agile works, and where it doesn’t. As one respondent put it, “We’re still going to continue to do a lot of ethnography up front, because that’s critical to any kind of fuzzy front end initiative.” But let those clients know that research can add a lot to agile teams, e.g. through short surveys, qualitative work tied to scrums, and leveraging panels and communities.
  3. Worry less about your team’s (lack of) Agile maturity. The Agile ethos seems closely connected with the “Zen mind, beginner’s mind” philosophy. Positioning your insights team as being in learning mode – have a toolkit, will adapt! – is the key to building the trust and relationships you need.

In a recent blog post on Forbes, Steve Denning suggests that firms will only be successful if they define agility correctly. The author of The Leader’s Guide To Radical Management, Denning warns against being too narrow in setting organizational goals.

“While the capability to improve existing products and services (“Operational Agility”) is important, and indeed vital to surviving, it’s not enough for a firm to thrive,” he writes. “Major financial gains are more likely to come from ‘Strategic Agility,’ i.e. generating innovations that create entirely new markets and that turn non-customers into customers. Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, a firm practicing strategic agility creates new markets and dominates them.”

The mission for insights teams is then to prove the value they can bring to initiatives around strategic agility efforts, moving from a reactive mode to a proactive one where they instead get in front of the changes in business expectations.


Please contact Phase 5 if you would like a copy of their white paper.

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Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen

Partner & President, Phase 5