Innovating with Primary Research

The Relationship Age

Businesses, organizations, and non-profits grow with the level of first-hand experiences they have with their prospects, customers, members, or donors. These entities both know themselves and also know their audience, their tribe.

This is the Relationship Age – the era of paying attention. Think of it as winning business by paying respect.

To know yourself you have to go through a detailed strategic process and carefully, consciously create a vibrant culture. To know your audience, you have to learn to respect people deeply. The primacy of compassionate and sensitive primary, first-hand, narrative research is the key that unlocks this world of possibilities.

The hardest thing for organizations to do to accomplish such growth is to realize that traditional marketing research and segmentation is outmoded. The reason: it looks at the people with whom it should be trying to cultivate a relationship as a target, a one-dimensional object, rather than a fully alive human subject with a treasure trove of stories, memories, dreams, hopes, and fears. In summary, the old method edits out the humanity.

Winning the innovation game is about touching humanity, creating something of value for real people.

When the author of The Alchemist and other books, Paulo Coelho, was inducted into the Brazilian Academy of Letters, he said, “The glory of the world is transitory, and we should not measure our lives by it, but by the choice we make to follow our personal legend, to believe in our utopias, and to fight for our dreams.” And then he wrote, “We are all protagonists of our own lives, and it is often the anonymous heroes who make the deepest mark.”

By honoring people in this spirit, primary research gets to the heart of the matter—the human experience with a product, service, or organization—and taps into the personal legends of each of the people with whom they are working.

Consumer anthropology  — the rules of the Talking Stick

Most of the people working in this field are consumer anthropologists who have been trained to listen respectfully, probe deeply, and stay attuned for verbal and non-verbal clues. This tradition goes back to pre-history days in the legend of the Taking Stick. The Talking Stick was a method used by Native Americans, to let everyone speak their mind during a council meeting, a type of tribal meeting. According to the indigenous Americans’ tradition, the stick was imbued with spiritual qualities that called up the spirit of their ancestors to guide them in making good decisions. The stick ensured that all members who wished to speak had their ideas heard. All members of the circle were valued equally.

Whoever holds the talking stick has within their hands the power of words. Only they can speak while holding the stick, and the other council members must remain silent. The eagle feather tied to the stick gives the speaker the courage and wisdom to speak truthfully and wisely. The rabbit fur on the end of the stick reminds him that his words must come from his heart.

The history of AA (Alcoholic Anonymous) and other step programs and the practice of psychotherapy are all based on this awareness: that speaking the truth is healing. But it is healing for the group as a whole because as each individual listens, in silence and reverence, a whole world of understanding opens up.

This world of understanding becomes the basis of innovations that make lives better and makes organizations more meaningful and significant.

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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation,

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Michael Graber




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