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Why Nations Fail and What We Can Learn from Knowing

imaginelehrerOn vacation I read a number of books (love my Kindle) including Why Nations Fail by Daron Acenoglu and James Robinson and Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. While clearly quite different, one on what has allowed some nations to grow and endure while others fail and the other one about unlocking the creative processes of the brain; I took away lessons for my work from both.

“How Nations Fail” isn’t a business book. It is more of a history book than anything, but I saw parallels with what we are facing. The book details a long string of historical examples of nations that either failed outright or that saw some success but then reversed course. The central core is that nations that succeed over time always feature the same factors which feature truly inclusive systems. Meaning, everyone has a chance to succeed on an equal footing. 

A common way that successful nations are undone is when they start to create protected monopolies or use regulation to prevent new competitors from starting up. Doing so can temporarily allow the status quo to remain (thus entrenching the success/power of those already on top), but over time this limitation on the creative destruction that is the earmark of capitalism, brings about stagnations and ultimately failure. Often those seeking this protection do so on the claim that they are somehow protecting society from danger. It was this point that returned my mind to market research.

Fortunately, market research doesn’t have the power to prevent new ideas from taking hold. It has not kept many from trying to limit their impact either through industry groups or by simply decrying them as being of poor quality. Many of these claims may in fact be true in the context in which they are made, but they often miss the bigger picture…change will only happen if it brings value that the existing market has not.  

To be clear, I certainly understand fear of the unknown. I started in this business as a telephone interviewer when I was in college. I always loved walking through a well run call center and the intense pressures required to meet all the requirements of huge tracking studies. As we work to meet our clients increasingly complex challenges there are times that I wish we could return to what today look like fairly easy to achieve objectives, but as noted, that isn’t an option.  

I also won’t pretend to know what the industry will look like in five years. I just accept that new ideas need to be fairly considered and our businesses have to incorporate the good ones no matter what happens. To accomplish that we’ll need to be creative and that is where Lehrer’s book comes in.

He discusses what sets creative people apart and provides some concrete advice on how to unlock our own creativity. If you’ve never read one of Lehrer’s books, I would recommend it. I won’t try to summarize it here, but I will share one thing I found very helpful. He makes the point that creativity is not always the same. In some cases you need to work very hard at it and in others it just comes as a flash of insight. The trick is knowing when to keep working and when to stop.

President, TRC


Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.  

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