How to grow a Research and Insights Team

It's really easy to hire someone and say that you want to change the mindset of how you make decisions about how to build and what to build. But doing so in practice is of course much more difficult. Daniele shares how to grow research teams effectively.

How to grow a Research and Insights Team

Ikea is one of the largest international stores in the world. That designs and sells ready-to-assemble furniture, kitchen appliances, decoration, home accessories, and various other goods and home services.

What mistakes do companies make when they try to build out a research team?

A common thing I've experienced and noticed in a lot of organisations is organisations will decide to hire some researchers because they bought into insights as a way to really discover what your customers might need as a way to drive continued business value in what you're building.

Maybe you decide to hire some researchers, maybe some data scientists, and kind of see what happens. Oftentimes I see people deciding to hire a contractor or a couple of consultants, maybe one or two researchers to kind of see what value they bring. And a common behaviour in organisations is to bring these people on as a test and see what kind of change they can bring to make the organisation more insight-oriented. However, without having the right foundations setup in place you are setting these people up to fail.

Ultimately without setting up your hires and teams for success they really won't be able to provide the valuable insights and value-driven product development that you are seeking with your investments.

How do companies avoid this mistake?

Here are some of the key questions to ask yourself before you hire your first insights professional. The first is what is your organisation's history with research? Are people inside your organisation sceptical? Or enthusiastic about the idea of working with data or research? How do people see themselves working with these people? Do they see how the research work will fit into their workflow? Or is it something that they kind of want to put on the side? And most importantly are teams willing to change how they make decisions if they're given new insights?

Many companies struggle because they haven't really thought about how introducing a completely new discipline as research data means really having to work and make decisions in a completely different way.

Having set up research teams in multiple organisations I see that it's really easy to hire someone and say that you want to change the mindset of how you make decisions about how to build and what to build. But doing so in practice is of course much more difficult. It really requires change which should be led by management at all levels.

For example at IKEA we've had a really clear idea of what we want research to do from the beginning. It really helps that historically market research especially on furniture design and ergonomics has always existed. And now that's kind of extending to our digital work as well. As we've been building our digital insights functions, even though UX research in the organisation is relatively new, we've been having a really clear idea of the function researchers can play once it's been in the company from the start. And because there's been this history of working with data and insights and other parts of the company It's really been easy to see.

Fundamentally the mindset has always been that research and data are really the foundation of how decisions can be made. So no decisions are really made without having some sort of evidence in place. I think without having had that mindset and that organisational buy-in of how these types of insights work we wouldn't have been able to scale and build up a research and data team to the level we have today.

Great advice. Where should people start when they’re trying to prepare for a new team?

I think having the right metrics in place for success is really key. Have a really clear idea of how exactly you want to be using insights within the first six months to a year and really have these people focus on that. Things you can look at are how much time your team has been with customers? Or how much time do they spend looking at research or data? So it's not just about generating really useful insights from the start but also enabling a better way of working with these types of insights professionals.

In addition we need metrics to ensure that research and data are being used continually. It's really easy to put these things on a shelf and say okay cool. How many of these insights are being turned into new concepts or new products? Has there been any way that data research has changed the outcome of a decision? Are you tracking that? And of course how many validated ideas are put in a product backlog? Really measure and make these metrics goal oriented.

Think back to your aspirations for having a more insights-driven way of working. Ultimately the question to answer is how are you bringing value to your customers in business with what you're building? Ask yourself how you will be answering that question with your new insights people. Some things to think about are what level are people going to be working at? Is it really to influence business strategy or product strategy? Is it day-to-day product building or new product development or is it going to be UX and design?

Another example at IKEA, and other organisations I've been at, has been to really focus the attention of the researchers and data scientists at first on creating a shared understanding of how our customers purchase products along the buying journey? What are the points that we really need to focus on the pain points are the parts of the journey that are really working? And what are the moments that really matter? Focusing on creating this really clear and deep view of this holistic overall experience across the customer journey really created a common language for all teams to rally around and serve as the foundation for further exploration. Everyone has a really clear idea of who our customers are and how they buy.

The customer journey is a great place to start. Are there any longer term items that people need to think about?

Setting teams up for success also means that there's a really clear vision for how they should be working well into the future. So not just at the beginning. Let's say in a year or two or five or 10 years' time what is the ultimate purpose for insights in the organisation aside from the day-to-day tactical work and what value will they be bringing? And again at IKEA, we have this very clear idea of how we want research to operate within our organisation and where we wanted to get to. And for us at the moment ethical and inclusive research is really the ultimate vision of how research should work and influence decisions that are not there today.

What common challenges do companies face?

The common pitfalls all stem from a lack of shared understanding of what insights will do once they exist in your organisation. What is the purpose of research or data? These challenges are going to exist regardless of whether insights are new to your organisation or whether they've been around for a while.

Addressing these misconceptions and perceptions early on will be really key to making sure you can transform your organisation into one that's more data or insights-driven. For example, some typical things that I've experienced, people think research is just talking to customers or that data is completely objective and doesn't need any type of interpretation.

A second issue is that, oftentimes in early maturity organisations', research and data are seen as just validating existing projects that have already been assigned or decided on. That insights functions are really separate from other customer-facing roles in marketing and customer service.

A third issue is around operations, which is often considered an afterthought. It is much less exciting than working on a vision or strategy. However, not having the right tools and setup for your insights professionals is one of the really biggest hurdles and reasons why Insights teams fail or are really slow to provide value.

Having the right conditions for people to do their work means having the right processes and tools right from the start. This doesn't really mean having all of the most expensive tools and ways of working in place. But there does need to be at least just enough processes to do their work.

Some examples of operational tools or processes you should have at the start are participant recruitment. Having an NDA form or consent form is really important. And in addition to data access storage, GDPR rules if you're in Europe have some kind of legal requirements in place. Otherwise, that can also be a really long process.

The fourth area is around visibility of the insights which means having some sort of repository where people can access the insights that have been generated or the data that's been created. And this links in with software and tools for work on data or statistical analysis. You don't have to invest in the most expensive thing out there in the market. But make sure you have something that's in place that really fits your organisation and where they're at.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, having a plan for how your search and data are going to be used and make it really actionable and goal-oriented. A common experience is to hire a researcher and expect them to decide on what to work on first after speaking to people in the organisation or just assigning lots of different random projects and helping them figure it out. But with new hires it's easy to get stuck in this massive backlog of requests without having a really clear idea of how to prioritise first because it's not rooted in a clear idea and strategy of how they're going to operate in the organisation.

What benefits can you achieve if you build your insights team successfully?

Everyone in your organisation gains visibility over customer pain points and challenges. Everyone can really see these on a regular basis and know how they might relate to your existing products or services. And these insights really feed up to strategic decisions.

By measuring things a customer says, like how much money or time are people saving as a result of some of the work that you're doing or what are the things that customers are able to do today or they can't do today that you would like them to do in the future, you can get your leadership team to start caring about customer outcomes as well as business ones and make sure they're really tangible.

For organisations that haven't historically had much data insights, creating really shared foundational knowledge will provide the greatest benefit from the start. Having a shared understanding of who your customers are and how they experience your products will not only provide insights but also create this common language for how teams interact and engage with each other, which is based on real customer value.