An Antidote to Decision Paralysis

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Early last week I got one of those most welcome, humorous messages from Tom Fishburne, the “Marketoonist”.  If you aren’t familiar, check out his website and the cartoons he draws about the marketing profession.  (The cartoons are available for licensing and make sure you compensate Tom if you choose to use one!)

Tom started professional life as a marketer at Nestlé and General Mills, then as a brand manager at household products company, Method. When he parodies the behaviors of marketers (and “fellow travelers”: market researchers), he does so from personal experience.

In this post, Tom addresses “Decision Paralysis” and he cites an ancient quote attributed to Cicero: “More is lost by indecision than wrong decision.” He draws a stark picture of the dilemma being faced by businesses in this unrelenting climate of uncertainty, where what little information we have for decision support is literally changing daily. The inclination? Make no decisions at all.

Facing unprecedented circumstances caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, we have thought endlessly about the plight of our clients and their stakeholders in marketing and management, and how we can serve them.

We know from our experience in the study and practice of behavioral science that context drives decision making. But the past few weeks taught us some important lessons about making decisions when the context is continually and substantially changing . . . hour to hour. It has been a case study in using the best data possible to make better business decisions, versus no data or waiting for perfect data, and making decisions too late, or not at all.

In Tom’s post he references another article in HBR by Nathan Furr, an author and  strategy professor at INSEAD, entitled: You’re Not Powerless in the Face of Uncertainty.

Furr hypothesizes that those individuals and organizations who can develop “uncertainty capability” are more creative, more successful, and better able to turn uncertainty into possibility.

He takes a page from behavioral science to describe some principles for evaluating context that allow us make sense of uncertainty, which he describes as follows:

“For the last few years, I’ve been studying how we develop the capability to deal with uncertainty — to find the possibilities and opportunities within the unknown, rather than to panic and retreat from risk. Behavioral science research has underscored the impact of framing — how we perceive our options — on our responses. For example, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed how when presented with virtually identical options — such as a treatment with a 5% chance of failure or a 95% chance of success — we are loss-averse and gain-seeking: We all want 95% chance of success. Although this and many other types of frames have sometimes been described as biases, they can be used to our advantage.”

In market research, we have developed means and norms for uncovering insights, measuring, interpreting meaning, and predicting consumer behavior.  We use the results to help clients make decisions that drive success.  We frame the insights based on understanding the context in which we gather them, and we weight them accordingly.

In times like these, brands have questions about research:

  • “Since I can’t do face-to-face research, are online alternatives comparable?”
  • “Are response rates holding up, compared with pre-pandemic?”
  • “Do changes in the way consumers shop impact the context of how they see my brand?”
  • “Can I rely on insights gathered at this time or are results impacted by the pandemic?”

What brands are really looking for is context in which to take a chance, in place of certainty.

To help answer these questions, at Behaviorally (formerly PRS), we are looking at past studies, comparing current response rates and evaluating things like verbatim comments to identify patterns that might indicate deteriorating sentiment or reliability. We are offering solutions that can even substitute for new research (using AI to mine our extensive database coupled with an expert network to establish a metric for successful new pack designs). In rare cases, we are taking the bold step to advise clients not to do new research until circumstances stabilize.

The bottom line is we are doing what we can to help clients see where they can make “good enough” decisions based on the data we can provide, through our deep expertise and the agile solutions we have been working on long before these current challenging times.  We do this because we know that making no decisions at all is not an option for brands who wish to survive and even succeed.  What we are guaranteeing clients who are relying on us is candor, transparency and our best efforts, now and when we get through this challenge.

Tom ends his post with the following:

“For all the talk about organizations learning to “be agile” over the last few years, this uncertain period is the acid test. It also highlights a related skill that organizations will need to adopt — resilience.”

We hope that all who read this stay safe, escape the worst impact of this global crisis and we wish you a resilient time ahead.  Give us a shout if we can help.

Alex Hunt is the CEO of Behaviorally (formerly PRS) and provided this blog post in April 2020 when he was serving as CEO of PRS IN VIVO USA.
Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexHunt84 or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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