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Asking “why” is seldom the answer

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In the December 2017 issue of Research World there’s a piece by David McCaughan on questions researchers across the globe regret never having asked.

There were some inspiring examples quoted:

– asking clients for past mistakes, case studies of things that didn’t work.
– probing: “what happens if we find an answer to this question?”

There were also a couple that seemed to jump out of a Marketing textbook:

– what creates long-term competitive advantage? (let me get back to you on that one….)
– where is the right place to start for highly effective Analysis? (can I just take that call?….)

But the author plumped on his favourite “omitted question” as the simple word-cum-question: Why? suggesting we don’t ask that question often enough.

Fair enough you may think – but it’s an extremely tricky undertaking, with direct methods of questioning often failing to access System 1 style responses.

The author expressed a robust, let’s-get-this-thing-done style attitude, citing the technique of simply repeating the question “why” for five times to get to the root cause of something.

This can and does make sense in certain circumstances – root cause analysis, for example. But as anyone in the qual area will tell you, directly asking “why?” often doesn’t get you very far.

We don’t know more often than not why we do what we do.

Qual Researchers weren’t mentioned or quoted in the article, and maybe there was a previous article I missed already covering the techniques needed to uncover motivations,
taking in context, social pressures and all the manifold BE influences.

Those in the Qual business – full disclosure here – know plenty of indirect ways to get more authentic responses, including:

– observational research
– longitudinal studies
– replacing questions with tasks (so we can observe behaviours)
– using games to overcome overrational Responses
– storytelling techniques

Plus there’s the whole armoury of implicit methodology too – including facial recognition, biometrics – that is becoming scalable/affordable.

The diagnostic quest is central. Asking the question “why” directly needs to be treated with extreme care.

So here’s the one question that I would like to ask but never did: why are qual voices heard with less volume and frequency than say analytics folk or quant guys?

Maybe that’s the topic for a separate blog post.

Curious as ever as to others’ views.



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