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Unlocking the exponential power of insights – an interview with Zachary Heinemann
Interviews with leaders

Unlocking the exponential power of insights – an interview with Zachary Heinemann

Last month we caught up with Zachary Heinemann, who throughout his fascinating career has held insight leadership roles in companies such as Twitter, Activision Blizzard and Spotify - today he shares his experiences and advice for unlocking the true power of insights within organisations.

Dan Robins
August 24, 2023
Being an effective insights leader is no easy job. Amongst many other responsibilities, it requires exceptional communication skills, a knack for identifying emerging patterns and trends, and the capacity to inspire actionable strategies beyond the realm of research.

Last month we caught up with Zachary Heinemann to talk about his experiences in the field. Throughout his fascinating career, Zachary has held insight leadership roles in companies such as Twitter, Activision Blizzard and Spotify.

This interview is full of actionable advice and unique perspectives inspired by a career at the intersection of business, product, data science and research. 

Let’s dive in!

Zachary, we've talked a lot about the fixation on 'net new' insights – or in other words, forging ahead without revisiting existing research. Why does this occur, and why might this be problematic?

I can't even tell you the number of times that I will have research insights from about a year ago on a topic, and I'll get a lot of pushback from stakeholders saying it’s “too old”.

I think that to a certain degree, the propensity towards ‘net new’ insights does mirror a wider cultural norm, particularly in Western society. There’s this sort of fascination with originality and the mindset that “it's only good if it's new”, and I can certainly understand where this comes from - we see this in media and entertainment for example –we always want fresh new stories and content. 

But I think the problem is that there’s often an overall bias towards the newest information being the highest quality and ‘most trustworthy’, but this is simply not always the case – new things can be bad in the same way that a lot of old things can be – what it comes down to is our confidence in the data. 

In your experience, what’s the best way for researchers to respond to this kind of mindset?

I think it starts with education. Acknowledge that of course things move fast, but these are durable insights about underlying human psychological processes. When we're repeatedly asked to replicate the same research in identical settings, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the results largely remain unchanged.

In today's resource-constrained environment, there's an ongoing industry-wide discourse on maximising research value while minimising resource usage. This viewpoint often leads to counterproductive use of valuable time within insights teams – organisations scrutinise teams for apparent lack of value, yet often fail to examine the underlying burden of unproductive tasks imposed upon them.

Recently too much focus has been placed on finding quick wins to boost operational metrics, but we should avoid trying to tackle a deeply rooted cultural norm with short-term fixes - these are inherently long-term issues. 

So we need to help our peers reevaluate the concept of insights and their potential impact. Whilst educating them about the enduring value of insights is crucial, we should also encourage those individuals who are treating insights as ‘comfort blankets’ or ‘decision justifications’, to embrace hypotheses, questioning, and openness to uncover new possibilities. Ultimately, insights should be guiding us in understanding what's important for the organisation's future. 

So how do we inspire this shift towards more strategically leveraging research and insights? 

I love insights. I've been an ‘insights person’ my whole career. 

But in my experience a lot of insights leaders hide behind the numbers and they hide behind the methods. Your job is to make sure that we can trust the results and develop an opinion or a point of view to champion those results – and what they mean for the business.

I do think a lot of insights professionals, specifically insights leaders, need to be more open to having those difficult conversations. The reality is that we are people pleasers by design - we always want to be able to provide that number, or that clip, or that quote from the user. But what we really need to be doing is scrutinising and challenging our stakeholders, and in my opinion, that’s one of the most valuable traits of an insights leader - to help stakeholders reinterpret their requests.  

They'll say things like, ”I need this number”, and our first questions back should be “okay, but why do you actually need it? What will it influence? Where are these timelines actually coming from?” 

It starts with us in many ways, and how we’re able to educate stakeholders on what value the insights can provide. So I think a lot of it comes down to being more vocal, and a willingness to ruffle some feathers and say “no”. That way we can help strategically advise the organisation on the information it actually needs. 

Can you share an experience where you've had to address low faith in insights within a team, and how you went about building that trust and value for the function?

In teams I've been part of, faith in insights often wavered due to underinvestment in the function. When a department faces resource constraints, its value can easily be underestimated. And in one particular role, my responsibilities encompassed not only expanding the function, but also building organisational trust. We collaborated with data-centric teams that weren't as research-oriented. 

To be effective partners, we initially conducted substantial 'net new' research, consistently producing fresh studies. This approach, essentially starting from scratch, significantly bolstered the function's reputation. But as time went on, we started to notice that a lot of the same questions were coming in over and over again. It was at that point we became very focused on spending more time at the beginning of each project, reviewing existing information, often realising that much of what we needed was already available. Frequently, this existing data proved sufficient for informed decision-making.

And so we started to more proactively look back on all of these individual studies, and begin identifying the patterns and the trends, and the things that were persisting - and unsurprisingly, a lot of the fundamental principles held true across many different studies and contexts. This gave us the capacity and ability to start being more strategic and drive more value from the new research we were doing. 

And with that, we started to become and be seen as more like strategic consultants – spending time packaging and synthesising what we already knew, and understanding how this could be applied elsewhere. Of course we needed to do new research, but the meta analysis is what we began to place more focus on up front.  

What was the process you took to be in a position where you can say with confidence that these are the insights that are relevant and can provide value?

That's a good question, and honestly, it was difficult because we were a small team. When we kicked off projects, often we wouldn't be in every single meeting because there were many teams, and nowhere near enough researchers for each one. 

So we would ask ourselves “where can we draw inspiration from what we know already?”, “How do we synthesise a little bit better and start creating durable content that we can reuse?”. So we created a library of synthesised research around what we’d learned so far, and a lot of it came from just observing patterns in our existing data. 

"We noticed that an insight in one study kind of popped up in a different flavour across a number of other studies - and these often became the insights that actually led to the most strategic value because they came from uncovering something fundamental about people that won't change quickly."

It's about challenging yourself and your team to say “we’ve run 10 surveys on this topic in the last two quarters, and in each individual readout we had an insight all around this one particular concept.” 

As we went through the process of synthesis and delved into the existing work, we often uncovered a fundamental underlying human psychological behaviour.

And so over time, we started transitioning a little bit away from only net new research, towards more of a synthesis role. What we had found is that because we’d invested so much in building a really robust body of knowledge, we were able to more efficiently deliver value and impact by drawing on what we already knew. 

That is what I think of as the ‘long game’, but a lot of research is not well built to understand those deeper needs. Instead it's really just focused on looking at a very specific snapshot in time. Long game research is understanding the fundamentals of why we do what we do and what fundamentally motivates us.

At the end of the day, one study in isolation can be valuable, but when you start to connect the dots, the value becomes exponential.

Closing thoughts

Zachary has so much wisdom to share, and it’s unfortunately not possible to fit all of the fascinating topics and stories we covered into this post.

We'll surely take him up on another interview in the not-so-distant future, but until then...

Happy researching folks!

About Dualo

We understand that regardless of your experience, building a knowledge management process capable of inspiring org-wide impact like the ones Zachary described in this interview can be overwhelming.

If you’d like to understand the ways in which we support teams at Dualo (both on and off platform), reach out to set up a call and a member of our friendly team will be in touch.

Dan Robins

I’m a design, UX & strategy lead with a passion for storytelling. Proud member of Dualo’s founding product trio. Always seeking new inspiration.

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