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Explore Like You Mean It: How Brave, Contrarian Thinking Catalyzes Better Exploratory Research

Taking risks can be scary, but doing so can also yield greater success than ever before. Use your sense of adventure and see how your exploratory research can improve.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Simon Kearney will be speaking at IIeX North America 2019 in Austin, TX. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more. 


Bell Labs set an unmatched pace of innovation and invention throughout the ’40s and ’50s, creating groundbreaking inventions and changing the communications space forever. Radical, contrarian thinking that was deeply effective. A case study we can all learn from.

The basic premise was of three separate departments all working towards the same goal but in different ways – the first tasked with exploring whether a technology or science was theoretically possible, handing off the most promising findings to a second department tasked with turning theory into a physical product. The final baton pass was to the team responsible for commercializing the technology and making it accessible to the masses.

Our research today can be placed into three similar buckets:

  • Explore: Finding fresh perspectives, broadening your view on the world and by extension sharpening your place and purpose in it. Understanding the unexplained.
  • Refining: Taking an existing strategy or a tactic and getting clear and concise direction around the big idea and /or execution. A mix of direction and inspiration.
  • Reviewing: Gauging feedback/response to a product or service that’s out there in the world. A nuanced understanding of the existing landscape and individual players.

While work that centers on refining and reviewing needs to be quick and iterative – learn, tweak repeat – exploratory work is different, very different. So how do we do it well?

Exploratory work thrives on brave choices and contrarian thinking. It should take us to unfamiliar places and people, familiarize us with opinions and points of view that are foreign and often uncomfortable. This takes time, to build trust with the people we meet, to explore things in context and from multiple perspectives and to unpack the good, the bad and the ugly.

Successful projects within this space tend to have three things in common…

They find people with something to say

Learning is a journey, conversations are the fuel for it. Could we seek out people that take us places we haven’t been, show us things we haven’t seen and help us re-appraise the way we thought things were?

Opening ourselves up to being wrong, seeing our research as an opportunity to learn something new rather than re-enforce what we already know. Treating projects as opportunities to explore beyond where we’re comfortable and who we are familiar with.

The broader our perspective becomes, the more experiences we are exposed to, helping us sharpen our unique purpose and place in the world. We can exist as a sliver within a silo or seek to play a bigger role on a larger playing field.

They follow the story, not the script

The current process, dominated by schedules and logistics, becomes more about “fitting it in” than exploring it all. There’s little time left for serendipitous moments & meetings, no room to explore beyond or off the beaten path.

But life and culture are fluid. Imagine approaching this on participants terms, not ours – less scheduling and more room for serendipity. The creation of a meaningful social contract we can set with participants asking them to reach out when they’ve something to say or to show and inviting us in. A re-definition of what incentives could be.

We’d need to spend more time “in field” earning trust, fostering relationships, not transactions. But how much deeper could the conversation go after a week of hanging out vs. an hour spent as strangers?

They let culture guide the way

99% of brands occupy less than 1% of people’s thoughts and conscious behaviors in any given day. We don’t think about them much, we don’t talk about them much.

We do, however, talk about what’s going on in the world and how it impacts us and the ones we love, imagine a process that reflects this. The week in news becomes a launchpad for open, engaged and fluid debate. Local talking points and events opened up discussion illuminating people’s world views, behaviors, and influences. Getting back to brand but in a truly authentic way.

Working back from culture in this way helps you understand the bigger picture and find your place in it. It helps you lead the conversation not follow in its wake.

Making sure these three ideals are baked into exploratory work helps us make braver choices, find new audiences and have much more authentic conversations. We understand how emerging cultures and conversations work as a result.

Good brands offer a reflection of the culture, great brands become an irreplaceable part of its fabric, leading the conversation, not chasing it. Let’s work towards research that catalyzes that.

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Simon Kearney

Simon Kearney

Founder , Problem Child