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Speed vs. Accuracy – There’s no trade-off for work that really matters

It is impossible to consider the topic of ‘speed versus accuracy’ as it applies to consumer insights work as a whole.  Only by drawing a distinction between strategic and tactical work can we begin to do so meaningfully, writes Nature’s Chris Crook. 

In a debate on LinkedIn following the 2018 National Conference, Scott McLean refreshingly pointed out an old adage that applies to market research: a client needs to make a trade-off between a study being high quality, done quickly, and competed within a reasonable budget. Or to put it more cheekily: ‘You can pick any two of the following three: fast, cheap, good.’

There were, predictably, a few people saying they could do it all. Amazing work. Really, really quickly.

The point of the adage to which Scott was referring is that ‘something’s got to give’ if you promise to do all three. Delivering on all three is actually totally achievable here and there, but it’s not sustainable in a commercial environment in which two key forces are at play: delivering work that is of value to stakeholders so they keep coming back (which takes time and resource to get right), and critically, in a way that has any ounce of respect for the fact people don’t want to be at work past a reasonable hour. There is a direct tension here: the need to invest in human time, yet avoid the human toll.

This is precisely why we should, as an industry, be seeking to automate and make more efficient what are lower-value tasks. But this only gets us so far, and doesn’t help address the trade-off required in all types of research we do – particularly that which I believe our industry has the potential to be most famous for, and which will help us maintain or grow our position in the value chain.

It’s useful to draw a fundamental distinction between strategic and tactical work that this industry does. Only by doing so can one begin to meaningfully consider the topic of speed versus accuracy.

By ‘strategic’, I refer to projects (sometimes using primary, other times using secondary data) that clients commission to guide important marketing, communications and often business decisions. They are commissioned because the client needs empirical input – sometimes qualitative, sometimes quantitative, often both – to make an informed and robust decision. Then there are ultra-tactical projects, such as naming tests, claims tests, or getting feedback on whether a logo should be a certain colour. And there are a bunch that sit in between, to make matters more complex.

The reason I draw this distinction is that when it comes to strategic work, the matter of the trade-off between speed and accuracy is virtually moot. There is a lot of strategic research conducted in the market and in my experience over more than 20 years, clients seem to, more often than not, make the time and find the budget to do it properly. This is because they appreciate the significance of what they’re trying to understand and also
because they understand that inaccuracy (however one wishes to define that) will lead to a poor decision, and ultimately relegate the investment in research questionable or worse. Sure, hustle and agility are required, and should be considered ‘hygiene factors’ of any agency worth being invited to pitch, but good clients know that ridiculous timelines will directly undermine quality and thus question the value of doing the work in the first place.

Yes, client organisations are under new levels of time and budget pressure, but best practice organisations seem to find a way to avoid forcing their internal insights functions and external agencies to consistently deliver on all three aspects of the fast, good, cheap ‘triad’. This starts with the insights function having a seat at the stakeholder table and one based on respect so they don’t simply succumb to pressure when asked to deliver more, faster. This tendency, like that of agencies over-promising during the proposal phase to win work, ultimately goes nowhere good in the long run.

As I have noted in a previous Research News article (1), the value of our industry and our position in the value chain is not going to be about doing the same quality of work (and more of it), faster and cheaper. It’s about doing more impactful and relevant work, within timelines and budgets that reflect the value delivered. Sometimes this means doing things more ‘fully’ to address business critical objectives. If we deliver poor quality (or inaccuracy), our collective reputation will decline and other adjacent industries will benefit.

There are arguably other instances – such as more tactical work – in which we need to do things incredibly quickly and at low cost to answer urgent questions. Typically, dare I say it, these questions are less important or business critical. Does this mean the research can get it wrong? No. But does it mean there should be greater appetite for imperfect results or work that is not as rigorous as that required for ‘proper’ strategic work? Probably, yes.

In my view, there is very little or no scope to trade-off accuracy against speed in the case of strategic research, because the price of getting it wrong is too high. I can, however, appreciate that some may be willing to make this trade-off in the case of other types of research driving decisions that are arguably less important to a client. I would argue, however, that if one is in fact really willing to make this trade-off (i.e. lower quality to get it done quickly) then perhaps it is not something that is worthy of undertaking in the first place.

Author: Chris Crook, Managing Partner, Nature Pty Ltd

The above article also appears in the February-April 2019 edition of AMSRS publication, Research News – Speed vs Accuracy

  1. see article – Protecting metrics and measurements through de-commoditisation – April-May 2018 edition of AMSRS publication, Research News – Measurement and metrics



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