Do focus groups actually give innovation leaders what they are looking for?

By Alex Rückheim

Ever sat in a focus group? Half-dozen or so representatives of your target audience sit together in a viewing facility and are asked by a moderator to share their opinions on a product concept while a market researcher observes the whole scenario behind a one-way mirror. Or so it goes.

I vividly remember my first ever focus group; many years ago. A recent graduate of strategic marketing and behavioural science sitting behind a one-way mirror trying to decode human decision-making. The question to be answered: “Should the cat in the ad look left, or right?” Really?

Do focus groups actually give executives what they are looking for? How much value can you get from hiding behind a mirror? Working in behavioural insights and innovation over the last years, I now came to the conclusion I already felt back then: There are better ways to drive innovation than using focus groups. Here’s why.


Consensus vs Cognitive Diversity

How much depth, inspiration and divergence of thought can you get from a group of people who think and feel the same way? They without a doubt neatly tick all the boxes on your recruitment sheet; but they are likely not going to help you create game-changing ideas or disrupt your category. There’s only so far you can expand your mind in a silo.

We recently worked with a new client who was used to only ever running focus groups. Her and her team were blown away by the result of working in a different way. “We found the deeper layers of diverse insights so very inspiring. Gathering such rich perspectives really helped us to inject ‘fresh eyes’ to unlock new potential in our category.”

How might you inspire your team to think differently? How might you look at your challenge with fresh eyes? How might you make a creative leap and fuel innovative thinking?

You need to embrace differences in opinion, gather diverse perspectives, and be open to unconventional ideas. It’s like joining a friend’s dinner party full of unfamiliar faces and leaving feeling energized, inspired and full of ideas. It’s because you absorb new perspectives; some odd, others brilliant. Because you hear stories from people from worlds unlike your own; some absurd, others tantalising. It’s because you were exposed to people different to yourself. It’s because you learned something you didn’t know before. This is the power of Cognitive Diversity.

Applying this approach to innovation challenges means being comfortable looking beyond the mainstream and gathering perspectives from the edges of culture: creative outliers, early adopters, extreme views, unconventional perspectives. This is how you develop game-changing ideas. It’s how you inspire breakthrough innovation.

“Think how comforting it is to be surrounded by people who think in the same way, who mirror our perspectives, who confirm our prejudices. It makes us feel smarter. It validates our world view. These dangers are as ancient as mankind itself.” – Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas


The Power Of Cognitive Diversity At Scale

The Sense Network is a home for these individuals – a global community of smart, creatively-minded, curious and mind-expanding people driven to make things better and make better things. Together, we collaborate on innovation challenges to help shape the future of some of the world’s most forward-thinking businesses. Working with The Sense Network is like getting a seat at the dinner table and realising that it seats 4,895 people from over 1,000 cities.


Tapping into The Sense Network means to…

  • Multiply your efforts: Ever wondered if two focus groups, two demographics or two locations would be enough to confidently make a decision? Why settle on two groups if you can tap The Sense Network and gather dozens of diverse global perspectives overnight.
  • Expand your mind: If you speak to a handful of recruits who all think like A, look like A and behave like A, you effectively end up with a single opinion of A. Good if you’re looking for consensus (hello confirmation bias!). Invite 12, 24, 48 or more members of the Network to your innovation challenge and see possibilities, alternate directions and ideas you hadn’t seen before.
  • Gather rich insights at speed: A focus group takes a while to organise and will give you a window of one to two hours with your participants. How far can you stretch the group, how reflective are their responses, how deep is your line of enquiry, and how rich are your insights? Working with the Network is collaborative and iterative. Gather inspirational insights and rich feedback from 30-50 engaged Network members in 72 hours.


How Might You Think Differently About Your Challenge?

For many years, focus groups have been the go-to approach for businesses trying to better understand their audience. And they still have a place in traditional market research. If success hinges on whether the cat in the ad looks left or right, a focus group might be the way to go.

But the next time you are working on an innovation brief, why don’t you challenge yourself to reflect on whether a focus group is the best approach for what you are trying to achieve. If you want to provoke and inspire you and your team to think differently about your challenge, maybe it’s time to try something new. Something that has been proven on over 500 innovation projects. Something like The Sense Network.

In my role at Sense Worldwide my personal focus has been to develop, embed and execute a more creative and non-traditional approach to research design, insight and innovation. I’m sure there are people that both agree and disagree with my argument. Either way, it would be great to hear your thoughts.

Contact Alex today to set up a call:


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