How many times have you seen crucial decisions being taken on gut and nothing else? How many times have you sat in a meeting where decisions were taken with assumptions that the target consumer would think and act like the decision makers? – ‘If I were to buy I would choose this over others. What do you think?’ Have you ever counted on the times such decisions have failed/ backfired?

If you have not witnessed even one such act in your career, feel blessed – You are God’s own child. Not many are that blessed though. They would have at times, in their career, seen powerful and often intelligent people sidetracking hard consumer data (primary or secondary) to make an important decision on gut. The justifications in most of these cases are – ‘Experience counts’, ‘Consumers do not know what they want’, ‘Consumer Researches are BS’ etc. At times and to some, these justifications would seem fair – especially when some of these decisions work fabulously (bringing ‘I told you so’ smile to the decision maker). However, and data would support this, most of the times such decisions fail to bring the desired results. I have seen many products, brands, startups (including those started by people known) fail simply because instead of exploring the needs of potential/ target users, decision makers simply assumed things.

An attempt to define this phenomenon:

I have a name for this syndrome – ‘the lens problem’. I have always believed that we best know the opinions and attitudes of people who are at the same socio-cultural-economic level as ours – simply because our immediate circle with whom we interact often falls in that category. This theory can be generalized into the following – Since our interactions are mostly limited to people who fall into our level or one level up or one level down in socio-cultural-economic ladder, we tend to know most about them only. Whenever we transgress this boundary, we enter the dangerous territory of ‘the lens problem’ where we tend to look at a problem with a lens which is not relevant.

An interesting 'Blast from the Past':

One of the first things which I learnt when I started my career as a Market Researcher almost a decade back was ‘be prepared to be proven wrong’ – things which seemed obvious were not so obvious once we went to the consumers and analyzed their responses. It is like watching a well-known movie with a twisted end. You come out wondering whether you were at the right movie. And this, many times, foxes even trained professionals who go into outright denial mode – ‘this is crap… BS’ kind of stuff. I distinctly remember a call from one brand manager (while I was in agency) asking – ‘Are you sure of the result?’

‘Very.’ I replied.

‘I have put my bet on different variant though.’ That variant was ranked 4th among the 6 variants tested. It was not even liked let alone be the winner. Yet the brand manager was fixated on this variant only. On his insistence I re-verified the data, dissected into several cuts and finally reported back – ‘the results remain the same.’ Considering the context I am setting, it is not difficult to piece together the remaining bits: the brand manager chose to ignore the results and went ahead with his ‘conviction’ and the variant bombed in the market.
One could claim bias and present examples to the contrary and those would be completely true too – however, existence of contrary does not mean proof of nonexistence. Lens Problem is very real and exists rampantly in this world.

My take on the possible remedy:

So, what shall we do then? The answer lies in the definition of the problem itself: try to know the people for whom we are taking a decision as much as we can. Following these simple steps should help:

Listen - to what stakeholders have to say including your customers

Interact - try to understand the what, where & why

Observe - reactions, trends etc.

Process - the available information as unbiasedly as possible

Update - Regularly repeat the first 3 steps to stay in touch with the ‘view on the ground’

If and when these 5 steps become a part of our professional life, we are more or less guaranteed to stay away from the Lens Problem. Once Lens Problem is tackled, we are more likely to look at a problem with the correct perspective and make relatively better decisions. The quality of these decisions, however, is mostly dependent on the quality and rigour maintained in the above steps.

Post Script:

Actually, even our personal lives would be much better if we can avoid Lens Problem in any relationship. Listen to, Interact with, Observe the other: understand the viewpoint(s) and perspective(s); process the information and act accordingly. If we do it regularly then probably we would not be taking so many missteps which we tend to make in so many of our relations.

Take this concept a little ahead, it has potential to cool the nerves in the conflict-ridden times of today. If communities/ groups start interacting, understanding and appreciating even a few concerns and perspectives of others i.e. 'put in right lenses', this world would be much better place with fewer conflicts.

In the end, even if you have observed and interacted with a particular group of people long back, do not assume that you would know them as intimately now. As you would have moved in your life, they would have also. Please reconnect so that you can ‘refresh your lens’.