The Four-Month Black Hole

Last week, I called a client who serves of CEO of a publicly traded company to discuss a study we had recently completed.  With study results and models in hand, he was in the process of negotiating a major acquisition.  He stressed how helpful our work was in guiding him to a “win-win” posture.

When the discussion turned to future projects, he said, “I’m too busy to think about anything until at least July.” However, when I asked about future strategic challenges, he described a pivotal issue that will require a decision in four months.

I run my own company and advise many CEOs and General Managers. None of us ever seem to do a good enough job of anticipating the research or analytics we will need in four months.  I call this strategic void “The Four-Month Black Hole.”

The Four-Month Black Hole occurs for three reasons:

  1.  Executives think in terms of quarters. We are always looking three months ahead…not four.
  2. Executives who lack a background in marketing research underestimate the amount of time required to execute a first-rate project…and then to devote the time necessary to thinking through what the results imply for the business.
  3. The internal executive charged with marketing research is likely to be overtasked, with minimal time for planning. If s/he has multiple responsibilities (true in smaller companies), marketing research project development is not likely to be at the top of the list.

The problem:  three months simply does not leave enough time to do things right. The typical strategic research and analytics project requires four weeks to initiate and four more for modeling and analysis. If you have three months until final readout, that leaves four weeks to collect all the data.  If you have four months, that leaves eight.

The extra month in planning doubles the time for data collection.  This might allow you to learn how one stakeholder will behave before conducting research with a second.  It might allow more time to recruit and complete interviews in a scarce population. It might save money by avoiding rush charges. Most radically, it might allow your consultants and researchers the time for the thinking to produce the “Wow!” insight that provides strategic advantage.

For General Managers and C-suite executives (the latter particularly in smaller companies), we recommend three rules for avoiding the Four-Month Black Hole:

  1.  Around the first of each month, call a brief meeting with your senior team to identify strategic issues and needs you can anticipate four and six months ahead.
  2. Arrange a lengthy teleconference or lunch meeting around the same time each month with a trusted strategic marketing research or consulting advisor. You might want to have 2-3 different agencies in the mix and meet with each advisor quarterly or bi-monthly, as long as you have one meeting per month.
  3. Mandate the executive responsible for marketing research and analytics to maintain an “Anticipated Needs” list that ensures you will have sufficient time to conduct any pivotal project properly.

The CEO client I mentioned in the first paragraph was initially skeptical about the Four-Month Black Hole rule until we checked calendars on the first project we did for him.  Approval to proceed:  January 10. Final results:  May 12 –  four months later.

After thinking over the timing and importance of the upcoming issue, our client commissioned a new strategic engagement for this “four month” issue. The project will require slightly more than three months.  This will leave him 3-4 weeks after completion during which he can integrate the findings into models, process what it all means, and improve or validate his business decision.

What about your company? Do you run afoul of the Four-Month Black Hole? What steps are you taking to avoid this blind spot in your quarterly planning?