Specialization: If All You Have Is a Hammer …

by | Oct 20, 2014 | Uncategorized

Specialization can be, well, quite special. At its best, it can indicate status and mastery over information — like being the most knowledgeable member in a particular field — or even over nature — where a specialization to one’s physical environment allows for perfect niche exploitation.

But often when I think of specialization, I think of a quote by Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” The narrowing of focus to just one thing, one ability, reaching repeatedly for the only tool in your toolkit, can stand in the way of adaptability to different and changing circumstances and can bias your approach to solving problems.

Specialization Pros and Cons

The pros and cons of specialization are frequently apparent in the world of market research. There are a lot of research organizations that do a great job of specializing in quantitative methods (e.g., ATU and conjoint studies, etc.) or qualitative methods (e.g., ethnographic research, focus groups, etc.). They’re great when a customer has a very specific need and a particular method in mind. That said, it’s far more valuable for research organizations to possess a toolbox that boasts both depth and breadth of methods and techniques.

Here are just a few reasons why:

  • A rich research toolbox allows for a research organization to meet a client’s varied and changeable research needs
  • Offering broader capabilities can drive repeat business by providing a consistent partner across multiphase qual/quant projects
  • The ability to openly discuss various techniques and methods provides more opportunities to nurture a consultative relationship
  • Firms can minimize their “all eggs in one basket” exposure if you can avoid reaching for the same “hammer” when a customer’s research question is no longer a nail.
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An interesting example of this happened with us recently. A client approached Six Degrees with a large international project that was a follow-up to another market research group’s work. The previous research had done a good job of elaborating the rational assessments of a medication by prescribing physicians, but the client wanted to go deeper, and their former research partner didn’t have the tools for the job. As a general rule, when you ask physicians direct questions about their relationship with a particular medicine they prescribe, you should not expect to get an outpouring of emotion. Their answers will default to clinical experience and training and usually entail a rational recitation of the medication’s efficacy, safety profile, appropriate usage, etc.

Fortunately, we were able to reach into our deep tool set and employ some of our psycho-sensory techniques — in this case, a series of visual galleries — that allowed physicians to think differently about the medication and their relationship to it.


It was remarkable watching as physicians across six different countries — through their interactions with our language and culturally neutral image galleries (e.g., more than 60 photographs of animals) — slowly but consistently gave themselves permission to speak differently about the medication. When asked, “If this medication were an animal, which would it be?”, doctors from Japan were just as likely as those from European countries and the U.S. cities to choose the Labrador retriever and explain that they chose the dog because the medication is like “a trusted old friend” — warm, reliable and not dangerous. This remarkable contrast in responses — from the rational, clinical responses elicited by direct questioning to those uncovered by our psycho-sensory tool — is a testament to how a slightly different approach, our usage of an uncommon tool, brought remarkable value to a research project. The insights delivered by our research were powerful and driven by the perfect match of method to research need.

Our success in that particular project has also left us in a position for follow-up work, whether that be further qualitative, exploratory research or more confirmatory quantitative work. Fortunately, our organization has encountered such a wide variety of research questions and challenges over the years that we’ve developed a toolbox rich with a variety of research methods to meet and anticipate customer needs. We’ve done so by pulling together a collection of experts — dare I say specialists — in both qualitative and quantitative methods across a wide variety of topic areas, from health care to hospitality to CPG.

Oh, and we do have a hammer in the office, just in case.

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Six Degrees
Six Degrees uses psycho-sensory tools and techniques to build more successful national and global brands. Brands are rooted in human perception. And our psycho-sensory approach is designed to identify deeper and richer insights from human perception and then develop brand communications that change suboptimal perceptions or reinforce the right perceptions. More than 80 percent of the information humans process is nonverbal, making it essential that brands manage the sensory signals they send out. Our people are passionate branding experts wielding powerful psycho-sensory tools to build stronger and more successful brands across the globe.

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