Listening + Learning = Innovation

There are some basic principles to anthropological research that should factor into any project or business problem, whether you’re an anthropologist, a marketer or the CFO.  Frequently, they are somewhat difficult to get comfortable with, particularly if an anthropological approach hasn’t been used in the past.  But if the hurdles of getting past the accepted research comfort zone can be overcome, the benefits to your brand are tremendous.

First, cast a wide net. Recognize that everything is potentially data. You know your business and, like your competitors, you know what the numbers are telling you. But, do you know in advance what aspect of your core target’s culture will be most important to your business issues?  We often find it’s easy to assume why your numbers are coming out the way they are. We also find that these assumptions are often incorrect or only part of the picture. So, begin by observing everything and worry less about getting answers immediately.

The next step, learn the difference between observation and interviewing. And then learn how to let your subjects lead this effort for you.

Observation: take time to observe people, processes, conversations, behaviors. Many questions you wouldn’t even think to ask, but which may be of tremendous importance, emerge during this phase so don’t be afraid of quite time. Sit back and be a part of what is around you. Many people feel  threatened by this, as if they are wasting time. But real insights and understanding come from living and working alongside your population of interest.  Insights and understanding emerge from participating in their activities and gaining first-hand knowledge of how they see and act in their world.

Interviewing: even though your job is to ask questions, learn to be silent and let those around you guide the interview. Ultimately you are in control of the direction of the interview and that is the danger. It’s hard to listen and learn if you’re talking. You may feel that you know the solution to the problems of your participants, but you run the risk of inserting meaning and explanations that may not be accurate.  Let your participants educate you, don’t interrogate them.

Finally, pay as much attention to what people do as to what they what they say they do. It isn’t that people lie, it’s that they have idealized understandings of how they think things should be done.

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