Mastering The Craft Of Market Research

Paul Hague has this week been contemplating whether, after some 40 years in the market research industry, he can truly call himself a master in his chosen profession?

I used to work with a marketing trainer who introduced his session by saying “Most of the fundamentals of marketing I can teach you in three days – but it will take you a lifetime to master”.  

I was reminded of this homily recently when I heard an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, the author of best selling management books Blink and Tipping Point.  This academic and guru claimed that you must spend 10,000 hours honing your skills if you want to be a success at anything.

He backs up his theory by citing sports stars such as Boris Becker, Jonny Wilkinson, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, who have all become world-beaters because of the obsessive devotion they have shown to their game since childhood.

In his new book Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell says that if you examine the greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians and scientists, you will notice they only emerged after spending at least three hours a day for ten years practicing.

He claims that the principle holds everywhere.  You can’t become a grand chess master without your 10,000 hours of homework; you need to start playing the piano at 4 if you want to début in Carnegie Hall at 15, and so on.

Of course, innate ability, work ethic, the age you start to learn and a good dose of luck all play a role, but it is the repetitive practicing of the craft that gives you mastery.

This got me thinking about market research and how long it takes to master our craft.  There are no formal apprenticeships in this job, most people fall into it and if they like it they stay, sometimes for only a few years before moving on, usually into some broader field of marketing.  Assuming that there are 200 working days in the year and we have our heads down grafting for seven hours each of those days, this means there are 1,400 working hours in a year so we should reach mastery of our craft in around seven years by applying the 10,000 hour rule. 

Of course, every hour of every day is not spent on pure market research.  In this job we spend a good deal of time solving logistical problems.  However, Gladwell has a point; it probably does take us around seven years before we have seen a wide variety of different market research problems and become good at solving them.

And where does that leave someone like me?  With 40 years spent on the front line of market research, all of them at a frenetic pace, managing and doing the work, it ought to mean that I am the Yehudi Menuhin of the business.  I have done my 10,000 hours five or six times over. 

The trouble is, it doesn’t feel like it.  Every job seems more and more challenging.  This is no bad thing – in fact, it is this adrenalin rush you get from the job that has kept me interested over the years.  Certainly past experiences are helpful in giving us hints and wrinkles that we can use, but there is nearly always a new learning in every job – something that you hadn’t anticipated or that surprises you.  And whereas for a footballer the goalposts always do remain 24 feet apart, in market research they are always changing.  More emerging countries to research, more new techniques to apply, more to learn about e-research, another new software programme to master.  So, buckle down Paul, you are not there yet – there are still 9,999 hours to go.  Phew!

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