Some people dismiss solid research as little more than holding a wet finger aloft to see which way the wind is blowing. There is a similarity, but also a big difference.
Sticking a finger into the air is an idiom associated with finding out where the crowd is headed. It is a trait usually attributed to followers, not leaders. Your finger can tell you the direction of flow, but not its cause.
That's the difference between finger measurements and quality research. A well-designed survey with a representative sample can yield information about why people are heading in a particular direction.
The role of research is to provide a disciplined way to listen so you know where a crowd is going or might go, and how you can influence and lead them.
In his book Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership, Garry Wills says leaders aren't leaders without followers. Great leaders, Wills says, know where followers are willing to go and form partnerships so they go there together. Followers don't submit to leaders, Wills insists. They join them on a journey.
You can only form a partnership with your followers if you have spent time listening and getting to know them.
Credible research, whether in the form of surveys or focus groups, is an exercise in leadership because it respects followers enough to find out what they are thinking and why they are thinking it — or what some call market intelligence.
With modern techniques that bridge research and engagement, you also have a trusted channel to interact with people you want as customers or supporters. There is nothing wimpy about that.
In fact, the wimps are those who shun research and go with hunches. Who but a wimp would risk a $1 million advertising buy or a major public-policy campaign on a feeling in the gut or a finger in the wind? Astonishingly, people do it everyday, then wonder why their messages fall flat.
Good research can reveal more than what people think at any given moment. It also can help you engage people to look ahead and anticipate opportunities or concerns.
The best research is less about technique than about discipline. Technique matters. You need to know the appropriate uses of surveys, customer intercepts, one-on-one interviews and focus groups. You must have representative samples and fair, unbiased questions. But in the end, what matters most is the discipline to integrate research into your business plan or your outreach strategy, so it is something you think about and do all the time.
Reliable and actionable data from research will give you greater confidence in decision-making, whether it's a new product or a tagline. Solid research will empower you a lot more than a wet finger in the wind.
From Blowin' in the Wind by Bob Dylan:
Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.