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Spotting Studies that Sidestep Action

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Abstract: Research, papers, and publications have contributed directly to improving the work done by ESG and social impact teams. As time goes on, the scales have tipped in some cases where the process of producing research takes away from progress. Consider when research may not be the top priority course of action.

Research Has Propelled Results

Decades of studying social issues have yielded a wealth of insights on root causes, troubling trends and the most effective interventions. But there comes a point when our preoccupation as a sector with gathering information—of generating the “proof” that urgent investment is needed—starts to get in the way of doing the work to make change.

Research and publications have undoubtedly helped focus people on the most important solutions. Project Drawdown publications are one favorite with climate solutions that factor in people and environmental justice. They focus people on what’s most effective. Written, well-researched content is also catalytic when it presents a truly groundbreaking idea or presents a compelling case to convince people to take a new direction of new habits or breaking old ones.

When Groups Choose Papers over Producing

Research certainly has its place. However: When a report as the deliverable is seen as the finish line, the hard work is delayed or worse, never even gets started. The team gets stuck in a kind of self-congratulatory purgatory. We may feel good about convening conversations and bringing light to issues, but presenting at a conference is rarely the end game.

We can’t expect papers and publications to do the work of solving the problems of the world. We shouldn’t blow corporate social impact budgets commissioning another report and leave little funding for enacting solutions. The desire to know is, in some cases, a delay tactic to doing hard work.

Discerning the Delay Tactics

I know why well-intentioned leaders get stuck here. There’s a group of people gathered (virtually or in-person) who are inspired to do some good. They agree on the issue or problem. But what, specifically, to do about it? In studying, they take a stance of humility. They take a stance of being ready to listen and learn. They allay their fears of picking the “wrong” action or next step. These postures can be beneficial, but we can’t get stuck on posturing as a proxy for problem-solving or acknowledging that those who are subjects of the study may already know the solution themselves.

We give ourselves the opportunity to live in the land of research because sometimes our human instincts are more inspired by the view from the tower’s 20th floor than the view from the on-the-ground work.

Rather than scheduling a meeting with the COO about allocating funds to hire part-time community outreach workers, commissioning a study on a neighborhood’s priority issues gives those least affected by the issues more time to gaze at a promising horizon.

Perhaps supporting a study feels politically safer than organizing around an issue. It’s time to get granular about how to rehab transitional housing that has fallen into disrepair but some people avoid it because it requires directly addressing how racism has shown up in current and past policies.

It’s more comfortable to celebrate the launch of a report on trends of diverse suppliers than to challenge an individual CEO to make critical shifts in the company’s vendor selection.

People in a position to commission a study have a certain amount of privilege. And for those building a career in roles and organizations focused on social impact, it is difficult to continually ask ourselves whether our choices are deeply in touch with the change we’re seeking to support. As a purpose-driven professional, I’ve been complicit. I can think back on projects I’ve contributed to that aimed to advance understanding but sacrificed a focus on taking action. With all this in mind, I offer up:

5 Questions to Ask Before Commissioning a Study:
  1. Are we focusing on research to avoid taking an uncomfortable action?

  2. How else could we use this money? What's the opportunity cost of doing a study or research?

  3. Who wants to know more? Is the person affected by the issue asking questions that aren't answered or is it someone else?

  4. Are we doing research because we don't have the right network of collaborators to take action?

  5. Who's going to read it? (And what action would we expect them to take?)

Are you part of a coalition and you can feel the idea of commissioning a study brewing as a sidestep? I can help your team pressure test the decision through landscape analysis, benchmarking, and facilitation with you or your team. Let’s connect.


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