Back in the day when I was in graduate school for Sociology, we talked a lot about different types of theories in all of these
really boring methods classes (sorry to all of my professors out there). Of course, I don't really think about those theories in my everyday Market Research world, and I probably couldn't name more than one if you put a gun to my head. Yet, there's one that has always stuck out for me - Grounded Theory.
I have no idea if this is the exact right definition of Grounded Theory, but I think of it as the ability to develop and evolve your hypotheses throughout the research process. It's very different than the traditional scientific method where you must lay out your hypotheses beforehand, test them, and then prove or disprove them. In Grounded Theory, everything is a little greyer from the start, but what you learn comes into focus as the research progresses.
As you might expect, this evolution of findings is great for academia, but in the real world - forget it! We just don't have the opportunity to slowly and methodically develop, test, and evolve our hypotheses in Marketing Research studies that needed to be completed on time and under budget yesterday. Plus, there's the nuisance of clients' own theories which they actually think we should test just because they are paying for the research - the nerve of some people!
However, just because we can't design entire Grounded Theory studies, doesn't mean we should toss the whole idea aside. In fact, I've come up with a short cut to remind myself to allow my own hypotheses to grow and develop during every study. It's two simple words, and I'm going to give it to your right now free of charge - STAY CURIOUS. That's it. BOOM! Worth the price of reading the first three paragraphs?
Sure it's simple - stay curious. But it actually can be a profound shift in how you think about a study, and I hope that it's the direction that the industry is going. Let me explain. In the good ole days of research, we used to be given a set of 4-5 objectives for every study. We'd then take those objectives, write a questionnaire and come out on the other end with a report summarized as the answers to those 4-5 objectives. It was simple, effective, and straightforward. We still need that kind of research, but we've also realized that the world is a whole lot messier than what we can get from that approach. That's why we, as an industry, have evolved a lot of different methodologies and tools (qual and quant) to address the messy world in which we live.
But the methodologies only get us so far, we still have to be open to moving beyond the straightforward objectives when the opportunity presents itself. We have to be able to "go off script."
For example, I'm working on a Bulletin Board with members of the LGBT community, and one word that they threw out a few times was "pandering." Exploring the concept of "pandering" really wasn't in the objectives, but I felt like the respondents were opening the door to a topic that we hadn't even thought of when we were writing the guide. We quickly threw another question in asking for a discussion on the topic, and what resulted was a deeper understanding of how to speak with the LGBT community in a more sincere and meaningful way. It's going to turn into one of the important findings of the research, but it would have never happened if I had been forced to only work within the confines of the agreed-upon guide.
Not all clients or researchers are trusting enough to allow the research to have some natural evolution, but those that do can reap so much more from what they sow.