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How to Foster 'Workable Wondering' to Harness Consumer Insights

by Gerald Zaltman, Lindsay Zaltman  |  
November 18, 2008

The following article is excerpted from Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers, by Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman. It is reprinted here with permission of Harvard Business Press.

In our work, we have come to refer to the process of thinking deeply as "workable wondering." Workable wondering involves the use of empirical, rigorous, and relevant information, also called "workable knowledge," to challenge our assumptions and to engage in disciplined imagination.1

It means more than collecting information. It means thinking deeply about the consumer insights that we have surfaced. It requires reading between the lines and detecting what else is present, well beyond what we already know.2

Some executives evaluate their staffs in terms of this ability. One told us, "It is not just the sense they make out of the information they have, it is how they add value by going beyond what they've got. That is what I look for. Do they dare to imagine?" Another executive said, "It is not what is in front of you that provides real competitive advantage. Competitors may have that, too. It is what you think that no else thinks to think, even when they have the same information."

Regarding their experiences in generating deep insights, every executive underscored the importance of contemplating that which is missing. An executive explained, "The 'Aha!' is in spotting the missing connection between the dots. It's there but no one else sees it until you point it out."

That is what happened when IBM brought out its first personal computer, and when Toyota introduced its Prius amid the craze for sports utility vehicles. Until those introductions, no one imagined a market.

Without workable wondering, many of the goods and services we now take for granted would not exist. Someone had to engage in deep, disciplined, and imaginative thinking to see such possibilities as the need for personal computers, energy-efficient automobiles, cell phones, iPods, and gourmet coffee houses.

Most executives in our interviews felt they were making progress in encouraging workable wondering and overcoming the depth deficit. But it is clearly an uphill battle, one that requires commitment at the very top.3

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Gerald Zaltman is the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at the Harvard Business School.Lindsay Zaltman is managing director of Olson Zaltman Associates (

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  • by Gareth Cutter Wed Nov 19, 2008 via web

    Fascinating! As someone who is interested in language from a creative writing standpoint, I thought this article was very thought-provoking and educational. I'd never considered the importance of metaphor in marketing before.

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