insight career
November 6, 2015

Is your customer insight career a spectacular display or in a box?

By Paul Laughlin

Whilst working in Amsterdam (not the venue to choose when remembering Guy Fawkes), I was reminded how insight analysts & leaders can shine brightly in very different contexts.

A mixture of training & facilitation was helping an events business in the Netherlands. What struck me, despite the different country & sector from my UK FS focus, was the similarity of challenges faced by their insight teams.

The more I work with insight leaders across sectors and geographies the more I see how much they benefit from highly transferable skills.

So, what about you & your insight career? Are you shining brightly in the business where you work? Have you taken off like a rocket or felt suddenly over like a banger? Perhaps the firework to most emulate, if you do stay in the same business, is a Catherine Wheel – they seem to keep shining brightly for ages, a real model us sustainable performance.

Have you considered how transferable your insight leadership skills might be? Would you consider moving company, sector or even nation for new and exciting opportunities. There is certainly the demand out there for those able to master both leadership & insight skills.

Are you shining brightly in your #insight #career? Which type of firework are you? Click To Tweet

Reflecting on some of the challenges we uncovered together in Amsterdam, here are three that are also relevant to very different businesses & locations:


I’ve yet to work with company where this isn’t a challenge, at least to some extent. As more & more business decisions require consideration of the customer, it’s not surprising that demand for data, analysis & research continues to rise. Most insight teams are struggling to meet the demand of both regular reporting (business as usual) tasks and the range of questions or projects coming in from business leaders.

Many methods have been tried to solve this, including ‘projectizing‘ all requests (which tends to come across as an IT-like bureaucratic solution to reduce demand) and periodic planning sessions (using Impact/Ease Matrix or similar tools). In the pragmatic reality of today’s fast changing businesses, the method I have found works best is local prioritisation within ‘buckets’.

What I mean by the ‘bucket method‘, is the identification of the silos (mainly for decision-making) that are most powerful in your business. This often follows your organisational design, but not always. Is your business primarily structured by channel or product or segment or some other division of Profit & Loss accounts?

Each silo should be allocated a ‘bucket‘ with a notionally allocated amount of insight resource, based on an appropriate combination of profit potential, strategic fit & proven demand (plus acted on results). Once allocated, regular meetings should be held between the insight leader and the most senior person possible within that silo. Where possible, meet with the relevant director.

The bucket principle applies to the idea that when it is full then it’s full. So, in reviewing with the relevant director both progress to date & future requirements, you challenge them to make local prioritisation calls. That is the application of the principle that to add more requires dropping something else, unless the bucket was not already full.

Due to human nature, I haven’t seen this work at the ideal level of company-wide or group-wide. However, it can work very well in the local fiefdoms that exist in most businesses. In fact it can support a feeling that the insight team is close to that business unit & ‘in the trenches‘ with them to help achieve their commercial challenges.


When diagnosing why past insight work has stalled or the progress sought is not being made, stakeholders often identify an early stage in the ‘project’. The 9 step model used by Laughlin Consultancy has a step prior to starting the technical work (data/analytics/research) called ‘buy-in‘. This takes a clear plan or design for the work needed & plays it back to the sponsoring stakeholder to ensure it will meet their requirements. Often times this practice is missed by insight teams.

Even mature customer insight teams may have mastered questioning & getting to the root of the real business need behind a brief, but then just capture that requirement in the brief. Too few then interpret that into a clear description of what will be delivered.

Two aspects of returning to your sponsor to achieve buy-in can be powerful. First, is the emotional experience of the business leader (or multiple stakeholders if needed) feeling more involved in the work to be done. As the American politician Alexander Hamilton famously said, “Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike”.

It’s so important in the apparently rationale world of generating insight to remember the importance of emotions & relationships within your business. Paying your stakeholder(s) the compliment of sharing with them the planned work to ensure the intended deliverable will meet their needs, for their agreement, often helps.

The other benefit of becoming skilled at this buy-in stage is learning to both manage expectations and identify communication requirements. With regards to expectations, realistic timescales should be set (which requires effective planning & design first), together with openly sharing any risks or issues so they do not come as a surprise.

With regards to communication, it can make a real difference to keeping your sponsor happy to find out how often they want to be kept informed. Some will be happy with ‘radio silence‘ until task is complete or a decision is needed (they value not being disturbed). Others will lose confidence in your work unless they hear regular progress updates. Best not to confuse one with the other.


Training of customer insight analysts in softer skills often results in a significant portion of the course focussing on presentation of findings. This is perhaps not surprising as in many ways that is the only tangible product to which insight teams can point, prior to driving decisions, actions & business results. All too frequently one hears stories of frustrated insight teams who believe the business does not listen to them (not the case for that business in Amsterdam I’m pleased to say) or hear from business leaders that their insight team doesn’t produce any real insights.

Coaching or just listening to others express such frustrations, regularly reveals that the real barrier is how the information currently produced is communicated. Too many analytics or research presentations take the form of long boring Powerpoint presentations, which appear more focussed on proving the amount of work that’s been done than presenting clear insights.

Whilst it’s understandable that an analyst who has worked for weeks preparing data, analysing & generating insights wants their effort rewarded, recognition is better seen as your sponsor acting on your recommendations. Often that is more likely to happen from a short summary that spares the readers much of the detail.

Data visualisation, storytelling and summarisation are all skills to master on the road to effective communication. Most communication training will also stress the importance of being clear, concrete, considerate, courteous etc. An unlikely source of another skill that really helps here is tabloid newspapers like the infamous “Sun“. Love them or loath them, the tabloid headline writers are masters of hierarchies of communication.

Well crafted short eye-catching headings are followed by single sentence summaries, single paragraph summaries and then  short words, paragraphs & tricks to break up the text into bite-sized chunks. All those techniques can help in insight summaries.

Transferable skills

Perhaps it is self-evident that such skills as prioritisation, achieving buy-in & impactful communication are transferable. Insight analysts & leaders who master such crafts could probably succeed in almost any industry & many different countries. Leadership textbooks, like “The Leadership Pipeline” also make clear that such skills are often important in making the transition to  more senior cross-functional roles.

Many directors will attest to the fact that sideways moves helped their careers. So, insight leaders seeking to reach the top might benefit from seriously considering such radical moves. A CV demonstrating ability to master roles in very different contexts is often an indication of readiness for a senior general management role.

Is your #insight #career going with a bang, or are you still stuck in the box? Click To Tweet

Returning to our starting analogy, I wouldn’t suggest sideways moves for fireworks. But the fascination of well run fireworks display is surely the variety of those used & surprises to wow the audience. If your insight career is feeling stale, could you do with considering a more radical move? After all fireworks aren’t designed to be left in the box, have you given your career the space to demonstrate the wow factor that you can bring?