One of my favorite quotes about science comes from the Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who said "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."
If you see yourself as a generally smart, well-educated person, you might read this with a knowing smile, and think about all the times you've seen other people fool themselves. You, however, are too clever to fall for that.
Maybe. Or maybe not. Although education and intelligence certainly have many benefits, they also increase your ability to defend your beliefs. In other words, smarter, better-educated people can in fact be more skilled at fooling themselves.
Ask the Right Questions
If you really don't want to fool yourself, attitude matters as much as intelligence. A good scientist doesn't ask "how can can I prove I'm right." Rather, they ask "how might I be wrong." I'll give an example to show why. Suppose at breakfast I want to have a bowl of cereal with milk. I believe I still have milk in the fridge. But, being cautious, I open the fridge to check. If I find milk in the fridge, my belief doesn't change. But if there's no milk in the fridge, it will. To put it a little differently, the times you are wrong are exactly the times when you learn something new. Unfortunately, all too often business leaders view data as a way to back up the decision they have already made, rather than as a tool for making better decisions in the first place.
Another one of my favorite sayings, this time from the field of design, is "fail early and often." This idea has almost gotten to the point of being a fad in the business world, and I certainly don't want to argue that failure should be a goal in itself. Rather, I want to argue that it's an argument for why you should be doing research, and why that research should come as early in the process of developing a product or service as possible.
Research is a way to find out where you're wrong under safe, controlled conditions, so you don't find out later when it could really cost you. It's like trying to do a backflip into a foam pit before trying to do it on a concrete sidewalk. If you screw up with the foam pit, you can try again, and again, and again, until you get it right - or conclude that you maybe shouldn't be trying to do a back flip.
That being said, research is also a skill. Being a smart, well-educated person doesn't automatically make you a good researcher, but you're also unlikely to be a good researcher without some training. Throwing together a quick survey and sending it out to your customer list does not make you a researcher, and it may just give you a more powerful way to fool yourself. So here are some ideas on how to effectively use research to enhance your business:
- Hire someone with formal research training. It doesn't have to be their whole job description, their primary responsibilities could be completely unrelated. You just want them around to be able to ask "how might we be wrong" when it's needed.
- Get some research training yourself. There's always the old-school approach of reading a book on the topic. But nowadays there are lots of on-line courses available that cater to working professionals. Do your homework before choosing a course, the quality can vary a lot. Courses that are offered through a well-known university are likely to be fairly good as that university is putting their reputation on the line with the course.
- If those options take too much time or energy, hire an outside researcher like us (shameless plug ;-). Honestly, though, even if you'd rather not work with us, we can probably help you find a research firm or consultant that's a good fit for your needs.