In conversation with…Tom Johnson

We met Tom Johnson a few years ago at one of Trajectory’s inspiring Breakfast Briefings. Trajectory is a consumer insight and futures consultancy. Tom joined the team as an analyst in 2010 and is now their MD – an impressive personal ‘Trajectory’!

We always find thought-provoking thinking and an energising start to the day Trajectory’s Breakfast Briefings (we don’t just go for the coffee and croissants, honestly!). Thinking about the future isn’t just interesting but essential for any organisation. We love Trajectory’s strategic thinking and evidence-based approach – less about the fads and more about credible realities we may all face in years to come.  It’s always good to take a step back, lift our heads out of the weeds of the day job and get some refreshing perspective. So we’ve become regulars at their events and always find something compelling to take away…

What was your first-ever job?

A paper round when I was 13. It’s amazing how trudging around residential streets in the rain prepares you for a career as a qualitative researcher.

Who would you most love to share a coffee with / go for a drink with?

I think I’m supposed to think of somebody famous or inspirational, but the honest answer is friends and family – it feels like there’s less and less time for this.

Highlight of your career (so far?)

I’ve been lucky enough to work on a lot of fascinating projects, but our Time Use studies have been a real privilege to be a part of. It’s hugely complex data following a rigorous academic method – so a big challenge – but the insights you get from it underpin so much of what we do. At a macro-level, you understand the long term changes that govern how we spend our time, which can challenge conventional wisdom (like how even in the downturn we prioritised out of home leisure time above all else). At a micro-level, you see how people are learning to integrate new technology into their lives.

Nature or nurture?

Bit of both?

Best advice you ever heard or received?

Listen – let the respondent talk. Whatever type of project we’re doing – futures, qual, quant – we’re usually interviewing someone at some point, whether a consumer or an expert. There’s often a temptation to interject, or clarify, or prompt, but that time is pretty precious, so let them speak.

What talent do you yearn for?

Anything musical.

What is your favourite brand and why?

I’m very interested in the brands that are responding to our current – very polarised – political climate, so Nike, Gillette, Patagonia, HSBC. For a long time brands shied away from sticking their necks out like that but the centre-ground they once operated from is disappearing. Politics is part of meaning and purpose now, so brands are being forced to take a side. It’s a difficult line to tread because you run the risk of alienating others or coming across as inauthentic.

What book do you most recommend to others?

There’s a few that always seem really relevant to our line of work. Steven Pinker’s work, especially The Better Angels of our Nature reminds us that the world isn’t getting worse, and Bobby Duffy’s The Perils of Perception is great for understanding why we think it is. But reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow at quite an early stage in my career was a real eye-opener as to why people act the way they do.

What last impressed you at work?

Seeing our analysts more than meet some new challenges lately – whether that’s in presenting, proposal writing or mastering new techniques – has been both hugely impressive and really valuable to the business.

Which lesson has been the hardest to learn? What failure did you learn the most from?

I found it hard to delegate for a while – having started in junior roles in a small business, self-sufficiency was (and still is) an important thing. I wanted to try and take on as many new challenges and possibilities to see what new skills I could learn, both in terms of research and analysis techniques or project management and prioritising. But micro-management stifles the kind of creativity and autonomy that you want in researchers and analysts, so I keep trying to stay back.

What do you want to do when you retire?

Honestly, I have no idea what I would do or even if I will retire. In our trends analysis on demographics and the future of work we talk a lot about the end of retirement – even if we don’t stay in the 9-5 job we’ll continue to be active one way or another, perhaps through volunteering or education. Perhaps I should try and follow this trend!

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