Mr Churchill what are focus groups for?

I saw Darkest Hour this week and was rather startled to find Winston Churchill aka Gary Oldman Oscar laureate, resolve his agony of uncertainty about whether to make peace negotiations by following royal advice from George VI and go and ask the people. This apparently involved wandering onto an underground train instead of attending a war cabinet and holding an impromptu focus group.  Who would have thought that the research industry in this country would find such a surprising and distinguished ally? I have probably spoiled enough of the plot for you so far but it won’t surprise you that this underground conversation turns out to be pivotal in the film.

Just in case you aren’t clear about why this is such a surprise, let me rehearse why focus groups are rubbish. Because Churchill’s focus group perfectly embodies the issues.

What’s wrong with focus groups

1/ Dodgy ampling – you can’t just wander onto a train, accost the first people you find and ask them questions. Why? Because they will all influence each other. But they will also distract each other because coming from completely different backgrounds they will dislike each other and cordially disagree. After all, what they have in common is that they happen to be in the same tube carriage. Critics of focus groups don’t like who turns up and how they come together.

2/ An unreliable intermediary. Churchill might not have been quite as famous as the king but was perfectly recognisable to those riding the underground.  So if the prime minister asks your opinion about foreign policy, how reliable are your answers going to be? Answer not very.

3/ Artificial questioning. Churchill is unfamiliar with the underground, he barely knows how to engage with his audience. He shoots from the hip asking about what is preoccupying him. He gets the answer he needs in less than 5 minutes.  Which is lucky because he gets the feedback just when he reaches his stop at Westminster.  A regular criticism of research is that it isn’t like real life. Well no it isn’t and it never could be. This certainly isn’t remotely like real life.

4/ The respondents were not in possession of all the facts. Churchill knew the war wasn’t going well.  And he had taken care not to inform the public. They had no idea how bad the situation was. So their confidence was misplaced.  If they had known what he knew, they would probably have answered differently.

What research IS good for..

churchill on the tubeLet’s pivot (I think that’s what the young turks like to murmur at this point). Why might this impromptu focus group be a helpful example of where qualitative research CAN be useful?

1/ Firstly because it gives a clear outcome – Churchill doesn’t need a topic guide.  He wants to know the mood of the British people. So more or less he asks them – and is surprised by the vehemence of their answer. That is all he needs. To go back to the house of Commons and tell him he has a single focus group (sorry the nation) on his side.  The value of research is when we use it for decision support. They could have told him it was all rather scary and they weren’t sure what to think. They didn’t.  It didn’t matter whether they were informed or not. What mattered was their mood. And they got that across to him.

2/ Because Churchill needed to make a binary decision. Either to accept defeat as inevitable or reject it. This is where critics of research don’t understand it because they don’t like the lack of science. It’s not scientific – you’re using it to make decisions, not to make the decision for you.

3/ Because there wasn’t a professional intermediary. Compared with your average researcher who spends the first 10 minutes carefully detaching themselves from any opinion or emotional engagement whatsoever, it was perfectly obvious that the Prime Minister was serious and genuinely needed whatever feedback the carriage was willing to give. If you have skin in the game – ask the questions. You might get a sensible answer.

4/ Because what decision makers value above all else is not objectivity but momentum.  Research can provide that very quickly when objectivity is far far harder to put together.  A balanced sample would have taken weeks and required a small army of intermediaries.

Brexit, focus groups and supporting your decisions

Last question Should Theresa May conduct her own focus groups? On Brexit say? Well, perhaps she does.  It is time we recognise the role marketing plays in shaping culture and challenging it. We have been through a supine few years when data has been collected and slavishly followed. That’s a predictable and lazy way to do research. You have to have some idea what your customers are going to buy. But you can’t assume they’ll know what they want or be able to put it into words. Research is how you make up your own mind about the decisions you have to make, how you support those decisions.  How much you adapt what you are doing to current realities. But as important how do you understand how to change the current realities. Darkest Hour is an intriguing reminder that it ain’t necessarily so – nor does it have to continue to be either.

CAVEAT – Did it happen? Is it true? I should say in mitigation that this is the most controversial scene of the film because there is no evidence that anything like this happened or COULD happen. Here’s a link if you want to explore that further.  But it IS the pivotal moment of the film. So for me, the point stands. Whether or not it is factually correct – the role in decision making stands.


Designed by Matthew Pattman