Last month while working on a strategy for a large client, we had a brilliant idea. This was not the kind of idea that agencies come up with all the time while sitting in a room by themselves drawing pictures on a whiteboard. No, this was the kind of game changing idea that could solve a client challenge and completely engage their audience in a way that no one in their industry had before. Our day to day main client loved it, and the budget was no problem, but before sharing it with the CMO they had a simple but toxic request that I had heard dozens of times before. "We need a similar case study to prove why this will work," they asked. And of course, the idea was so new that there was no comparable case study to be found. And as quickly as it came, the idea died before we could even present it to the CMO who probably would have loved it. Sadly, this is not an uncommon situation. Every day in business, great ideas are killed because of a simple lack of skill and education on how to properly use a case study.
In the business world today, there are few sources of information as revered as the case study. Harvard, like many other business schools, write their own and to be positively featured in one of them is considered to be a badge of honor. MBA candidates learn from case studies, and business professionals in every industry are forced to write and share them with one another in an attempt to transfer earned knowlege from person to person or from division to division within large organizations. The intention is noble: to learn from other's successes and failures as you build your own business or marketing program or operations.
Yet for all of our fascination and idolation of case studies, there is disturbingly little education in the business world about how to properly read and use them. As a result, usually intelligent people voluntarily put on blinders when trying to learn and apply lessons from case studies that they ordinarily would not. This "case study blindness" refers to the situation where businesspeople desperately seek a case study to use internally as permission for starting a new initiative, and are unable to build consensus or support to innovate without it.
It is not that I don't believe in the value of real life examples, or feel they have something important to teach. In every talk I have ever given at hundreds of conferences around the world, I always use real examples and share lessons from them. There is no better way to learn than looking at real experiences. The problem comes in treating a case study as a roadmap – which will only work if you are starting at the same place, with the same product, and the same end goal, at the same time with the same audience. Want to guess how often this is the case? Never.
Instead, what if we used case studies and real life examples as they are best intended … to spark a new idea. They would no longer be used for justification of good ideas, but as inspiration for for new untried ideas that might work and what we could accomplish with them. Getting over our self inflicted case study blindness may be one of the most important things that any business can do to help create a more innovative business culture.