Hack culture and the death of strategic research

In the second post in our series on the impact of hacking on big organisations, Tom explores the relationship between hacking and consumer research. For the first post on the uses of hacking, click here.

A new research paradigm

Over the last decade consumer research has been pushed to play an increasingly strategic role within organisations (Boston Consulting Group: 2009). Over this period trends such as co-creation have taken the old adage that the ‘customer is always right’ to its logical conclusion; positioning consumer research at the forefront of corporate strategy. Significant and costly investigations into consumer worlds are now regularly used to drive business strategy.

But is all this about to change? The spread of ‘hacking culture’ seems to represent a paradigm shift for big organisations, with its emphasis on speed, agility and entrepreneurialism. And on the face of it the research industry has some real reasons to be fearful. Exhortations to ‘experiment’, ‘fail fast’ and ‘launch in beta’ are core components of the hacker creed, all of which undermine the logic of conducting predictive, extensive and theoretically grounded consumer research studies.

In this new context research is relegated to the role of tactical product testing: analysing real world data to substantiate the next product iteration or pivot. The idea that you would invest significantly in consumer research before launching something tangible would seem absurd to a hacker. After all, we all know by now that predicting consumer behaviour is notoriously difficult – so why waste the money?

Hacking can lead to half-baked strategic thinking

Having said this, the adoption of hacker culture could be as much a step backwards as it is a step forwards. A world in which risk taking, experimentation and unfettered enterprise are celebrated is arguably precisely the world that organisations sought to mitigate with consumer research.

The real risk is that hack culture is misused within big organisations. In the wrong hands it can become an excuse for shoddy thinking and ill-considered strategy. An executive with a pet idea can force it to market under the cover of buzz words of ‘beta testing’ and ‘lean startup’, potentially wasting millions in the process (after all, not all products are made in digital).

In short, the impulse to hack can become an excuse not to do sufficient thinking, planning or research up front.

And the signs of a backlash are already upon us: the term ‘failure porn’ is now being used to describe the increasingly mindless celebration of those who have failed, simply because they had the guts to try something out (and the connected assumption that we will necessarily learn something from their failure).

Thrashing by any other name

So where does this leave us? Seth Godin makes a useful distinction  between ‘thrashing’ and ‘shipping’, which helps to highlight a path forward. In his vernacular, thrashing is about deciding what to do, and shipping is about doing it. His key message is about the importance of ‘thrashing early’ i.e. thinking very carefully about what it is you are going to focus on – because once you’ve decided you’re all in;  it’s time to ship.

Research is what you do when you’re thrashing: it’s about taking the time and making the space to think deeply about your organisation, your market and customers and setting your strategy. It’s about charting a course, creating a strategy and developing the right brief. And then once you’ve decided what to ship, you start hacking.

Godin – a lynchpin of Silicon Valley – is effectively arguing that strategic research is more important than ever, not less. The culture of hacking demands a strong strategic focus and the clarity that thoughtful and insightful research delivers. Because if you get your strategy wrong, then you could become committed to shipping yourself to ruin.

Exploring hacking further

Next week we are hosting as session called ‘Ready, Steady, Hack’ to explore  these questions further with the MRS conference, 2014.

In the final post of this series – to be launched later in the week – I’ll be explaining the specific approach we’ve developed at Stripe Partners to bringing hacking culture to big organisations.