Brian Briskey joins InsightsNow as a highly collaborative strategist, known for his extensive use of strategic frameworks to visualize strategic options. He has practiced the Army Design Methodology and Strategic Foresight schools of thought, where he applied 4th Psychological Operations Group decision-making processes for the military. This background led to a career as a business consultant, advising entrepreneurs and business leaders to leverage offset strategies for product launch and market entry. Briskey is active with the Association of Strategic Planners and received an MBA from the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine with a focus on consumer insights and disruptive innovation. Here we get to know Brian and what his vision and strategic approaches bring to InsightsNow’s portfolio of services.
Brian, you specialize in visualizing strategic pathways for more successful business outcomes, going beyond the status quo to disrupt the market. Tell us how your passion for strategy and background in data science applies to the kind of strategy-based market research we do at InsightsNow—and to our focus on innovation of new products for a cleaner, happier, healthier world.
BB: Let’s make the argument that the greatest questions in all of marketing and product management are, “who is my customer?” and “what should be my value proposition?” When your overtime is spent aggravated by these questions and other dilemma then you too will begin to experience a deep need for strategy. My passion for strategy, to connect the dots between research insights and decisive decisions, was burned into me from repeated exposure to double-bind scenarios while serving in the military. The training to evaluate tradeoffs between multiple complex choices was bolstered by my first civilian work that began in data science at a time when social listening tools were reshaping the industry. All those things have combined for a perfect match with the InsightsNow mission, to provide leaders of Innovation, Product, and Brand, the insights and strategic options they need to be successful.
In addition to your experience in data science, marketing, and operations, you have applied your strategic thinking to military applications. What was that process like, and how has it influenced the work you do today with strategic business decision makers like those we work with at InsightsNow?
BB: Word War II veterans reentering the civilian workforce brought industrialized strategic thinking with ‘command & control’ approaches and outcomes-based focus. A boon for pre-globalized businesses with linear value chains like Henry Ford’s vertical integration throughout the 1900’s. Since the US Army faced exceptional complexity in its 2000’s operations, it shifted to “Army Design Methodology,” a design-thinking approach with effects-based focus. What this means for businesses in fickle markets with intense rivalry and technological disruption is an opportunity to design strategy that is more robust for good times and more agile for chaotic times. I’ve applied the methodology while serving in Psychological Operations to ‘win hearts and minds’ without use of established brand equity. I adapted the methodology for business use on market entry and expansion projects where significant ambiguity, or ‘fog of market,’ was misdiagnosed as risk and causing leadership to stall their decisions making. Breaking analysis paralysis was the first step in the process. Techniques in abstraction, synthesis, and visualization helped deliver a menu of strategic options. Ultimately, clients emerged from our design sessions with a playbook, like a general or field commander, from which they were able to decisively prescribe strategy to their context in real time and effectively grow market share.
You talk about “safe to fail” in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. What does “safe to fail” mean for business leaders in market research?
BB: “No business plan survives first contact with the customer,” a rewriting of an old infantry adage and sound wisdom for leaders to not treat plans like a task list but swap out plans and sub-elements opportunistically by understanding the underlying principles and logic (cause & effect) of competition in their market landscape. True strategy is really a set of underlying business logics used to guide effective execution. Strategy Design is the approach that articulates that business logic by viewing uncertainty, what you might call “assumptions,” as a strategic dilemma to resolve in pursuit of ‘perfect information.’ Think of your mission as a recon scout or A/B tester in marketing; your safe to fail’ experiment is the price your business is willing to invest for reaching perfect information. Some generic strategies are well known and taught in business schools. However, most strategies are unnamed, undefined, and therefore unknown to a majority of business leaders.
At InsightsNow, we focus on the entire research cycle from the initial strategy to the thorough and thoughtful activation of insights for all stakeholders at the other end. Many market research firms only focus on the “middle” of the project cycle—not spending enough time at the beginning (whitespace identification and strategy) or the end (insights activation) of the process. Tell us how strategy through a design thinking approach and framework can help researchers ensure that each stage of the research process is the best it can be.
BB: We can certainly be excited about the middle of the research cycle where ‘breakthrough’ often occurs. What I advocate for in addition are the ‘epiphanies’ found at the front and back-end of research, the wrapper where leaders can illustrate many of their strategic options beforehand to then connect with insights for decision-making afterward. An effective way to scope research is to work backwards from the ultimatums of strategic choice and then backfill only with the minimum amount of data needed for a conclusive or confident choice.
Building on the last question, insights generated in market research could be used in such a wider application—especially internally across departments. InsightsNow deeply encourages this complete approach with our clients. Tell us about your vision for greater utilization of insights to make the MRX industry more effective and efficient.
The shared language of business is said to be finance, or financial figures to be precise. However, in practice what we see are a variety of concepts, most are abstract, and often not articulated but implicitly stated by way of presentation slides. My vision is that companies turn ‘strategic documentation’ into ‘strategic frameworks’ that visualize the strategic choice before them. Most frameworks today are diagrams which are a great starting point for developing a habit to communicate at the executive level. What really bring up the quality of strategic thinking is when the geometry begins to depict more than ‘A is connected to B.’ A SWOT Analysis is a reasonable classification tool, but it lacks the same power as an Ansoff Growth Matrix, which is overshadowed by a Perceptual Map and Trend Radar. As you begin to look around there are many ‘visual decision tools’ available. I want to help business leaders curate a Galler of Stategic Frameworks from which the entire organization can communicate.
At InsightsNow, we like to look at “moments”—those moments in the consumer decision-making process that drive action—tell us how connecting strategy comes into play here to take research into these moments further.
What makes ‘moments’ so impactful for strategic thinking is that is provides a level or granularity more precise than any other segmentation approach. Demographics are corollary to actual purchasing behavior whereas the heuristics of consumers down to the very moment allows us to execute a strategic option at every moment along a consumer journey. Thinking of ‘strategy’ as business logic and ‘moments’ as hyper-granular slices of the consumer journey helps leaders zoom in to see a greater magnitude of options.
Let’s look at the types of projects we are working on at InsightsNow. Our recent studies have shown that sustainability is of rising importance to consumers. As our clients look to create new products or innovate on existing ones, how can they create in a way that looks to the future and folds in this consumer concern around sustainability? Where is the whitespace to capture market share, and how do they find it?
Visionary leaders doing their best with limited attention to work out the future across three, ten or more yearlong horizons may sufficiently by informed on trends cited by trade press. Yet for all the keywords floating around in their minds there is rarely if ever a full landscape view of how all changes are taking shape. Imagine your first step toward innovation or renovation as the right moment to draw a map of the problem space. Selling the same value proposition but at a higher price because sustainability requirements eroded your margin? Consider a map of ideal customer segments as it will be in several years’ time. Charting higher willingness to pay with our Aspirational Compass is a purpose-built solution for visionary leaders seeking to navigate the whitespace of growth and profitability. Suffering from the blowback of consumer perceptions that your brand is greenwashing? Consider adding a topographical layer to depict trust gaps and pockets to patch with product and brand innovation.
Can you share any real-world examples of how the application of strategic design thinking has disrupted the market?
Strategy Design from a military origin is still early in its application to the civilian world. Several key tenants are espoused by strategists when you hear of the OODA Loop by Col. Boyd and VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). Some of the methodology seems to appear in the work of Eric Berlow to simplify complexity. It also agrees with the view of strategy as a set of choices by Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and the integration of strategic frameworks into roadmaps by Dr. Robert Phaal at University of Cambridge.