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How Insights Teams Can Help Drive Business Agility


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 to suggest the organization is falling behind its competitors, or that there has been a decline in sales of a flagship product. 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 generate ideas and a strategy 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 recent white paper where Phase 5 spoke with insights teams to better understand the roadblocks 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 that would 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 a month.

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 afterwards. 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, 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, for example, where 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.

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 survive, 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, moving from a reactive mode to a proactive one where they instead get in front of the changes in business expectations.

Download our full study, ‘Are Your Insights Agile?’ and learn how to get started.

- By Steve Hansen

At Phase 5, we bring together experts in marketing research, user and customer experience, innovation and design. This unique, collaborative approach drives business results by applying strategic insights to your product development, go-to-market and customer relationship decisions. We’d love to speak with you!

Written by Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen, MBA, is the President of Phase 5 US and the leader of the firm's Data Analytics practice. With almost 2 decades of experience in client-side marketing strategy, market research, and product management, Steve brings a client’s mindset and drive for actionable results to each project. He has extensive experience in capturing the view “from the outside” with a special focus on product and service innovation. Steve is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.