The Beginner’s Mind

The Beginner’s Mind

June 26, 2011

A Principled Approach

Everything we do at Brandtrust® is built around five guiding principles, which come from the social sciences.  Sometimes our practices and philosophies feel a little different to our clients from what they’ve encountered before.  When they do, it’s a sure bet that understanding these principles will explain why we’ve chosen to do things in our own particular, scientifically rigorous, manner.  We’ve written previously in this blog about the first of these principles, priming reduction (click here for a link to Stephan Leman’s post on the topic).  Today I want to explain a little more about the second one, Grounded Theory.

Grounded Theory vs. The Scientific Method

Grounded Theory is a school of thought which sets forth a different way to analyze research data.  In the more commonly known Scientific Method, a researcher uses deductive reasoning by forming a hypothesis and then designing her experiments in order to prove or disprove that hypothesis.  A business example is the very common approach in which companies come up with a new product idea that they think would be appealing and then seek consumer reactions to the concept they have developed.

Grounded Theory, in contrast, takes pretty much the opposite approach entirely: it is an inductive process in which the researcher tries to develop general principles by starting with many specific observations.  To stick with the new product development example, a Grounded Theory approach would be to develop a new product by starting first with a thorough understanding of the consumer context in which a product competes.  In practice, this most often means uncovering unmet consumer needs and using those as the starting point for innovation vs. taking an attitude of “if we build it, they will buy.”

In Grounded Theory data is analyzed with no preconceptions, and then concepts, or theories, are formed after analyzing the data, and those theories are strictly a result of that analysis. The concepts that are formed are seen as valid only to the extent that the data support their existence. In other words, you can’t make this stuff up!

The Scientific Method has enabled human beings to make enormous breakthroughs in science, medicine, engineering and many more fields.  The last thing we’re going to do is knock it, and it’s especially useful for inquiries in areas where we can’t make precise observations, such as quantum physics.  However, when it comes to research with consumers and clients, we find that the open-minded starting point of Grounded Theory allows us to make deeper and more startling discoveries.

Begin Without The End In Mind

Grounded Theory’s basic approach of beginning with observations rather than proving assumptions informs our overall philosophy at Brandtrust®.  This philosophy is also seen in a concept used in Zen Buddhism and martial arts called “Beginner’s Mind” in which even those studying a topic at an advanced level still approach it with an open attitude, free of preconceptions.

We believe we learn more when we know less.  We enter each new study by clearing our minds, opening our ears and doing our best to root out any preconceptions we might already hold.  The steepest part of the learning curve belongs to the beginner’s portion of the journey.  If we consider ourselves to be experts, the things that we know and believe can get in the way of our really hearing new data, new facts, and especially new insights that may come our way.  That’s because our brain is the universe’s most amazing pattern-recognition machine.  We look for patterns in everything we do, and our understanding of these patterns is the backbone for how we make sense of the world.  But once we feel we already know the pattern, our brain will pay much less attention to the discrete instances that make up the pattern.  And that’s no way to go into research!

What Will You Find?

How this works in practice impacts our researchers, most of all.  Our consultant teams still benefit enormously from a thorough grounding in the background of our clients’ challenges.  We definitely want the consultants designing our studies to learn about industry dynamics, previous research, current challenges and existing hypotheses.  But our researchers are typically exposed to as little as possible of all of this.  Though it may seem counter-intuitive, their beginner’s minds are often one of our most important assets in uncovering what is really going on with respondents.  We tell our researchers only as much as they need to know in order to probe in the right areas.  Very often fascinating surprises are uncovered by coming at a study with this sort of tabula rasa approach.  And when we don’t pursue the same lines of questioning that have been used time and again, our clients routinely observe that what they thought was most important doesn’t come up at all.  That’s a finding, too!  It’s incredible to see what you do and don’t find, when you set out on your hunt not knowing exactly what you expect to uncover.

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