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Research Should Make a Difference

Paul Vittles, MRS Fellow and Director of Instinct and Reason, will be speaking at the IIeX Asia-Pacific Conference. Here, he draws from some of the themes in his recent AMSRS Conference presentation to emphasise the importance of researchers ‘making a difference’.



Editor’s note: Paul Vittles, MRS Fellow and Director of Instinct and Reason, will be speaking at the IIeX Asia-Pacific Conference in Sydney 4-5 December. Here, he draws from some of the themes in his recent AMSRS Conference presentation to emphasise the importance of researchers ‘making a difference’.


By Paul Vittles 

Making a difference as a fundamental driver of motivation and positive mental health

It’s the phrase we hear again and again at job interviews, staff appraisals, and coaching sessions. “I want to do research that makes a difference”. It’s the ultimate motivator – knowing you have made a difference, and seeing your research being applied with impact. And the lack of evidence of making a difference is the biggest single cause of mental health issues for researchers.

My presentation to the 2014 AMSRS Conference in Melbourne was entitled “Don’t just ‘do research’, change something…and be healthier for it”. A central theme was the importance of making a difference, and I also presented case studies of how we have been making a difference.

In my 30 years in research, which has also included many years in CEO and senior leadership roles, 17 years practising as an executive coach and change consultant, and a period running a human and organisational development consultancy, I have trained, mentored and coached around 1,800 researchers. I have been able to combine this ongoing analysis with my research projects to identify the factors that motivate and demotivate researchers, and which lead to mental health issues in the workplace. It’s a long list but ‘making a difference’ is way out in front as number one.

Making a difference in our work

Over the years, I have been privileged to work on many research and consultancy projects that have made a difference. This has included helping commercial organisations to develop new products, increase their sales, and map out new strategies. It has also included transforming public services and assisting many not-for-profit organisations in setting and achieving their goals.

My most famous project was in 1996 when I was asked to lead a team to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, the home of the serial killers Fred and Rosemary West, branded the House of Horrors. I met with the victims’ relatives to get guidance on site options that could be ruled in or ruled out and to better understand their issues and needs. The research team then worked with the local community to develop options for the site, take into account the needs of the different stakeholder groups, re-develop the site, and help to bring some sense of closure.

Thankfully, that project was an extreme, once-in-a-lifetime episode. However, it was life-changing in a number of ways for all those involved, including the researchers working on it. We learned that a lot of our research tools and techniques, which we thought were designed to help us listen, were actually barriers to listening. Many of our tools are actually designed for time management because we try to squeeze so much in rather than just take time to listen. We certainly learned about the value of deep engagement in finding a lasting solution.

In the past two-and-a-half years, I have been working with Instinct and Reason and we do try to use both our instinct and our reason in our work to help make a difference for clients. Here are a few examples of how we have ensured we are making a difference.

Practical application of the science of choice modelling

Instinct and Reason has taken the Nobel Prize winning science of discrete choice modelling and turned it into a practical research tool for clients. We discovered that clients bought into the concept of assessing the sub-conscious drivers of choice but found that trying to commission such work was a slow and expensive process with complex outputs that were difficult to understand and explain to internal stakeholders.

Instinct and Reason founders – Paul Wiebe (based in Canada), Sally Faedda (based in the UK) and David Donnelly (based in Australia) – translated the science into a highly practical survey research approach, automated and efficient, with clear outputs, and then created interactive predictive tools for clients wanting to make practical use of this science.

Recent projects have covered topics such as tropical holiday destinations, new food products, new farming products, desired approaches for teaching music in schools, choosing a funeral services provider, getting advice on home improvement, nominating people for major national awards, how to make rural communities more sustainable, and recruiting the workforce to deliver the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The exemplar project described below also neatly links in to our theme of workplace drivers and positive mental health.

Transforming workplace mental health

The recent research carried out by Instinct and Reason for beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance demonstrated that a mentally healthy workplace is second only to pay in driving the job choices of employees in Australia today. Note that respondents were shown a selection of job offers with randomised attributes so all they had to do was say whether they would take the job and we could calculate the sub-conscious drivers of choice. And in the introduction no mention was made of mental health or who the survey was for to avoid bias:

Key drivers of job choices among Australian employees (from discrete choice model). Base 1025, May 2014

More specifically, what often drives recruitment and retention once basic hygiene factors are accounted for are positive mental health policies effectively implemented and an open conversation culture in the workplace.

It was seen by many as a surprising result so it got lots of publicity, including more than 90,000 views of the infographic video on YouTube.

Some commentators queried the result by saying ‘no-one seems to raise these issues at job interviews’. The point is that we are measuring sub-conscious drivers of choice. We know it is in the sub-conscious of candidates when they ask questions about things like ‘culture’ and ‘management style’. And they also do more due diligence these days to check out the culture.

Revolution in online qual research and engagement

In early 2013, Instinct and Reason carried out an evaluation of the market for online qualitative research and engagement tools. We spoke to clients about their knowledge, perceived needs, potential solutions and issues around online qual. There was a lot of hype at the time but few clients were actually using online qual or comfortable using online qual.

We then got recommendations from researchers, drew up a long list of potential platform providers, made an initial assessment, drew up a shortlist, and undertook a thorough assessment of the shortlisted providers, spanning Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. GroupQuality emerged as the best platform provider in the market (based on product, services, support, price, culture, flexibility, etc) so Instinct and Reason effectively formed an R&D partnership with GroupQuality.

We have since carried out dozens of projects, designed & facilitated more than 100 online forums or discussion boards, and fired off hundreds of queries and suggestions to GroupQuality, observed GroupQuality taking all the feedback on board with great skill and enthusiasm, and seen our clients become at ease with the approach.

Once again, the approach has cut across commercial market research and sensitive social research to help make a difference. To prove that anything is possible, we have designed and facilitated online forums among people aged 55+ (we had no problem getting interaction among those aged 65+ online – indeed they tend to be more flirty!), people who have recently arranged funerals, people who have recently experienced relationship breakdown, people with gambling addiction, and homeless people.

In the field of gambling addiction, we had a government client who wanted to target those who are problem gamblers who need help but are reluctant to seek it to try and encourage them to call a helpline or go to an online gambling website. In the initial brief, it was acknowledged that this is a “hard-to-reach” group. However, we believe in the philosophy of ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. By visiting 40 bars and clubs, making thousands of calls (thanks Action Market Research) and screening online panels (thanks SSI), we were able to find 500 problem gamblers in two weeks.

Some questions were asked about whether these were ‘genuine’ but once we got them talking in online forums, the heartbreaking personal stories demonstrated they were genuine. We asked participants to describe their gambling behaviour and its impact on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. We asked them to describe their lowest point, which generated some shocking stories. We then brought them out the other side with discussions around help available, why they don’t seek help, what would encourage them to seek help, and how they could be supported.

The online forum lasted for 3 weeks and several problem gamblers said they had not gambled whilst participating in our discussion. We explained from the start that it was a time-limited research discussion not ongoing support or counselling. However, our final discussion topic was around ongoing online support, participants made recommendations to each other, and we also added a few other services that had not been mentioned by participants.

This online forum – complemented by face-to-face groups – certainly made a difference for the participants and for the client in guiding their strategy and campaign execution.

Helping Australia lead the world in suicide prevention

I will talk more about this ground-breaking work at the IIeX Conference in Sydney, but here’s a brief summary. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for its 192 member countries to reduce their suicide rates by 10% by 2020. Japan has committed to a 20% reduction. In Australia, we are going for 50%! This will obviously need transformational change and breakthrough ideas. Australia is already a world leader with some of its initiatives, eg around media reporting of suicide, but it will need to continue to be innovative.

I have been supporting this cause as a Director of Instinct and Reason, as Chairman of RSA A+NZ, and as a concerned individual who has personally been touched by this issue. I was asked to speak at the 2014 National Suicide Prevention Conference on Instinct and Reason’s work in the field of workplace mental health. I was then asked to help the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention to put together a National Research Action Plan for halving the number of suicides and suicide attempts. This has involved designing and facilitating workshops and online forums for researchers, policymakers, service providers, funders of research and people with lived experience of suicide.

I have also facilitated a global conversation on Big Ideas for Suicide Prevention which has generated 10 Big Ideas, including innovative use of technology, big data, and social media monitoring to help bring about the necessary transformational change.

It is the ultimate example of ‘making a difference’. Suicide is the most common means of death among 15-44 year olds in Australia and many other countries. Using our research skills and experience to save young lives and help people to live longer, happier, more productive lives would be the ultimate legacy.


Paul Vittles is a Director with Instinct and Reason and a Fellow of the UK Market Research Society. Paul has spoken at many conferences and events in Australia and the UK, winning the Best Paper Award at AMSRS 2005 for “Research as a Life Changing Experience” and the Best Presentation Award at AMSRS WA 2008 for “The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It”. Paul is also Chairman of the RSA in Australia and New Zealand . The RSA is a UK-based social innovation network with 27,000 Fellows which has been making a difference in the world since it was founded in 1754 . It was through the RSA that Paul was able to facilitate a global conversation on Big Ideas for Suicide Prevention.

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