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Focus Groups for Focused Explorers

Explorers get insight from focus groups, but in ways that are different from the ways management gets insight from focus groups. Focus groups rarely tell an organization what to do next. A focus group only sees what is missing, based on their experience, and that’s important. But rarely can focus groups show the way forward to somewhere they cannot envision nor picture nor name.

I like how Seth Godin captured the essence of how an explorer might approach testing. He described how Netflix did research. “They didn't test the model of renting DVDs by mail for a monthly fee. And they didn't test the model of having an innovative corporate culture. And they didn't test the idea of betting the company on a switch to online delivery. The three biggest assets of the company weren't tested, because they couldn't be.”

In my words, they just knew what needed to be done. They knew this based on exploring what they believed their customers wanted but had not yet put into words.

Many organizations will use a focus group as a mechanism to identify what to do next. For them it is an exercise of putting a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. That’s good for testing public opinion, not for determining strategic direction.

When I look at people who have been great explorers in their field—people like Steve Jobs, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison— they have a skill that those around them don’t have. To use the words of the great hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, “they do not skate to where the puck has been, they skate toward where the puck is going to be.” They anticipate what’s next when those around them can’t see or realize it yet. Netflix wasn’t worried about where the puck was, they skated to where the puck was going to be.

The savvy Explorer has a sense about what to do next. And the only way that they can figure it out is to explore. They have what William Duggan from Columbia University calls strategic intuition. They make leaps allowing them to see what others have not created, and hence see a world that others do not yet see.

For Explorers, focus groups do not give direction, they confirm what they already have a hunch about. Explorers help organizations get to where they want to be even when the organization cannot fully describe it.

A focus group can be used to start a journey but it doesn't convey an organization to a new destination. This is what focused Explorers do!

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