What Businesses Can Learn About Innovation from Cultural Anthropology
My good friend, Jeff Salz, is a fantastic speaker and a Doctor of Cultural Anthropology. Lately we have had some fascinating conversations about what businesses can learn about innovation through the study of cultural anthropology.
To get things rolling, I suggested that there were two areas where the innovation world would benefit from his expertise:
- Studying customers through anthropological means.
- Learning about organization culture through the study of the history of civilizations.
In this blog entry, I discuss the first point. A future blog entry will address the topic of culture and civilizations.
Anthropological Studies of Your Customers
The traditional way to get customer insight is to do one of the following:
- Focus groups
- Customer analytics
Although these techniques are useful, they have quite a few shortcomings.
In my article on “Why Statistics Kill Innovation,” (pdf) I suggest that if you are crunching numbers, you are probably gathering information from existing customers. This will give you insight into their buying habits, usability behaviors, and other patterns. But most likely you are only gathering data about YOUR customers. As a result you are missing the input of former customers or people who never were customers.
Another reason that these techniques – especially focus groups and surveys – don’t work, is that they tend to test the conscious mind rather than the unconscious mind. For more on this, don’t miss my article on “Are Your Conscious and Unconscious Minds Aligned.” In it I discuss a testing approach called “Implicit Association Testing” that can help test the unconscious mind. However, you can’t always get access to your customers in a way that they can take such a test.
What can you do?
Become Indiana Jones
You can don your Indiana Jones hat and do some anthropological studies. Where possible, you can observe your customers. By doing this you can find unarticulated needs and wants.
One client of mine decided to do this. They publish text books for students and instruction manuals for teachers and professors. It wasn’t until they started to watch the teachers in the classroom that they developed some interesting product enhancements. For example, during one anthropological study, the publisher found that teachers lugged several extremely heavy books from class to class. This led the publisher to create a version of the instruction manuals that could be segmented. This enabled teachers to carry only the section of the book they needed that week, and not an entire semester’s worth of paper. Teachers never made this suggestion during surveys and focus groups.
Jeff has another interesting suggestion. He believes that the best way to understand a culture – and the unconscious beliefs – is through the stories people tell. By engaging in storytelling and listening to stories, you can uncover the true culture. These aren’t the typical business-like conversations you have in boardrooms. Rather they are more akin to the stories that you would tell while sitting around a campfire. Jeff said to me…
Whether Neanderthal, Neolithic or New Yorker, our most important decisions are made on an ‘affective/emotional’ rather than ‘cognitive/objective’ basis. To accurately apprehend the subjective elements that drive and inform a culture – and its decision-making – there is no substitution for personal immersion. The only way to understand people is to learn their language – spoken and unspoken. Break bread, swap tales, share coffee, wine, laughter and sorrow. In the process you will discover the ways you and they are the same. From this ‘sameness’ may come not only the understanding you seek but – if your mind is fresh – a new awareness of yourself and your society as well.
Now is the time to don your fedora and see the world – and your customers – with fresh eyes.