Two Design Anthropology Phrases of Doom

In general, companies hire an anthropologist to conduct an internal or external ethnographic study for a simple reason: to uncover new ways to achieve competitive advantage. This usually like research to understanding new opportunities for products or services, or internally focused to change organizational issues, among other things. Unfortunately, our clients often have no idea what to do with the research. That’s the fault of anthropologists by the way.

Over the years, clients have told me about experiences they have had with social scientists of different stripes. Here are a two phrases that come up repeatedly when they talk about working with anthropologists. To be fair, this is not limited to anthro-folks, a lot of academic disciplines that cross over into business have the same issues. If you hear these words, the best thing to do is tell the client you will re-work the material until they like it.

“It’s too academic.”
Translation: “I didn’t hire you to offer a seminar in theory and method. I don’t really care about that. It’s incredibly long-winded, and I have to read 40 pages in or listen to you for an hour to get to the meat of it.”
Why they react like this: Your presentation is a necessary evil in an executives life that is already double booked with mostly useless meetings. Anyone that actually wants to be at your 2 hour presentation most likely has little decision making authority, otherwise they would be working. I have seen Sr. VP’s walk out of presentations in the first five minutes. You have about two minutes to convince them you have something of value to say.
Solution: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, then tell them what you told them,” is an old cliché a lawyer once told me. Since he had presentation skills that could talk a starving dog off a meat truck, I tend to follow his advice. A corporate presentation or report is not a well crafted mystery novel or joke. People are not interested in a big reveal at the end. Start with five simple bullet points that say why they care about any of this. For example, of your research starts with “For 20 years, you have thought people liked your yogurt. We have discovered they toss away the yogurt and use the container as a funny hat.” people are going to stick around to see what happens next, if only out of morbid curiosity.

“We didn’t know what to do with it.”
Translation:It was a really interesting story and everyone loved the video of the woman being forced to use a meat cleaver just to get into our packaging, [authors note: that actually was video I shot once] but what now?”
Why they react like this: People really do need very concrete bridges between insight and new steps spelled out: how would you change a product or service based on your findings. Many academics making the jump into the corporate world see themselves as the consumer research version of National Geographic. I have even had a former anthropologist that did some of the earliest design ethnography tell me that its OK for an anthropologist to do the research, so long as they don’t get involved in actual strategy of the company. Look, that footage to the lions running down a gazelle looks great on the TV specials, but its of little strategic value if you happen to be gazelle. The value for clients in hiring an anthropologists is not just the cultural lens we use to look at the world, but also the holistic view of the world we are trained to take in.
Solution: Get over any notion that your job ends with collecting and interpreting data. Companies are realizing there is less value in it, and people like me, and my organization, Jump Associates are shouting this fact from the roof tops. It does not really matter if you don’t think you have any expertise in product design or development, partner with someone who is. You can also take the real plunge, ask your client what they need (perish the thought!) to actually make this actionable. If you are a one person shop, make sure you take their designers and marketing folks into the field with you. I have always taken my clients in the field with me whenever possible, and also have them help with the analysis. The work is better for it and gets more traction in the organization because my clients help me craft the recommendations for actions in a way that will be useful for their corporate culture.

Maker Faire Rocks.. again

So I’ve been struggling all weekend trying to think of a unique take on the Maker Faire. Frankly I’ve given up. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it and I think it is best to point you to this Wired article. I know it’s cheap not to write my own, but frankly, if you ever been to Maker Faire, its hard to understand the concept of “Maker Faire shock.”

Two online statistics resources NationMaster.com and Swivel.com

swivel.jpg I’m a bit of a data fiend so I’m always seeking out websites that give access to statistics in immediately useful ways. I recently came across Swivel.com, which is billed as the YouTube for data. The website has tools that allow you to upload statistics from public domain sources, and then they are publicly displayed for other people to see, comment on, and compare against other data sets that have been uploaded to the site. An interesting feature is the ability to put data directly into Google spreadsheets, and then upload directly from Google spreadsheets to swivel.com. Of course since this is a community statistics effort, the quality of the data and the output relies on the density of people participating.

nationmaster2.jpg The other one is the poorly named NationMaster.com statistics site. The name is somewhat ironic when you realize that their initial and primary data set comes from the CIA world factbook. However, Dr. Evil overtones aside. It really is a wealth of statistics on a wide variety of topics, from agriculture to lifestyles. You can get raw data, you can create comparisons, and it will generate graphs to make the data a little easier to digest.

“broken promise fatigue”

Well, Bruce Nussbaum has being making me think alot apparently, I posted yet another comment to his recent entry asking if CEO’s have “innovation fatigue.”

I think that is partly true, but I wonder if it is more about “broken promise fatigue” rather than “innovation fatigue.” Companies that you listed: the Nikes, GE’s, Apple’s of the world have all seen great returns on big bets, and can also stomach the loss they have experienced in the past as well. They know what this Practice of Innovation can offer when done in a disciplined way, and are experienced in working through the failures that are also part of the process. Trying to squeeze out more efficiency is a short term bet that has short term results. The fact is that most of the world-class manufacturing players are pretty blasted efficient already, and there is not much water in that well. Many are already seeing the best efficiencies of scale they can get. Who are the people that are most susceptible to broken promise fatigue? I suspect they are the ones that approach trying to create compelling new opportunities for their companies in the same way, and with the same expectations, as they think of squeezing profits from efficiencies. Rather than being part of a systematic whole, expressed strategically, it is approached on a very tactical level. It would be like building the iPod without iTunes, partnerships with the music industry, and signaling a direction for the entire company.

So this word “innovation” popped up as the next silver bullet to improve revenue streams as the other methods: downsizing, manufacturing, squeezing other people in the food chain, have been tapped out. I suspect that over time, innovation as the primary word for this practice will fade into the background, as it should, to be replaced with a core intellectual competency that is as standard to a modern business as having an HR department. Humans (as opposed to companies, a legal construct with no thoughts or feelings) have been in this business of innovation for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The printing press, the cotton gin, the original walkman, all innovations that somehow changed the landscape.

I think what is tangibly different now is that shift we talked about previously. Now companies are talking about making the practice explicit, rigorous, embedded in the culture so it is far less random. People are realizing the problems of waiting for the company guru, like a Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, to have a eureka moment, or the seemingly scatter-shot approach to R&D of many avenues of research in parallel. Instead, we are drawing the threads of the company together in a conscious and deliberate way to create an approach to increasing revenue that can set a large strategic vision, and has an output of a roadmap of tactical action.

Perhaps the job skill of the future might not be “manager” but “facilitator”. Who cares about your degree, can you help different parts of the company tie diverse activities together in delightful and unexpected ways? Are you able to have draw out and help people expand on their best ideas? Can you prescribe for them the actions to take to go to the next level? That’s how you build revenue in the long term.

About the Practice of Innovation

This is the comment I made on the Nussbaum on Design blog the other day for those that prefer to read it here. Its not the first time I’ve tried to define the Practice Of Innovation, it’s part of an earlier entry.

James Todhunter over at Innovating To Win also picked up the comments, emphasizing that The Practice of Innovation, rather than simply innovation is a core competency that should be seen as a C-level issue. Based on my experience at Jump Associate, I would say that companies are certainly taking notice at that level. The new VP’s of innovation that are emerging are not on-off imagination product wizards, but intertwined with corporate strategy on a very deep level.

clown%20one.jpgAh yes, the “Clown Theory” of innovation. I prefer to call it the manure theory, toss a bunch of “wacky” people into a room and hope something tasty grows. Your post points to a couple of issues, that people are still looking for that magic bullet to solve problems now, and the other, more problematic phrase, that people don’t “get it”. People still tend to think of innovation as a one-off product, they see the iPod as spawning all these other goods and services. The innovation was in the how’ and the whys of reframing what the model for digital entertainment looks like. The iPod is an extremely important cog in the machine, but it is not the primary innovation. This is why I prefer to think of the Practice of Innovation, rather than just Innovation as a verb.

Companies that are on the cutting edge of the Practice Of Innovation are ones that have learned that a groundbreaking product or service (the innovation) is the happy outcome of a lot of hard work. In my view, this Practice of Innovation can be defined as:
The art and science of unraveling knotty problems in a way that reveals underlying needs then reframes them in a unique and robust way that guides and inspires long-term strategic development.

People are slowly coming around to the fact the we can craft a discipline around innovation, and those that are doing it are combining design, social science and business brains in clever ways. Rather than tossing all the clever company rebels into a project, it is about finding and cultivating people that have a passion for all three areas, and developing rigorous methods to combine them to gain insight for competitive advantage. Somewhat counter intuitively, the broader the area you are working in, the more disciplined your team needs to be.
I also don’t think it is a question of who get it or does not get it. That is actually a phrase that I am trying to encourage people to stop using. In my experience, when someone says that another person doesn’t get it, particularly when talking about innovation in the abstract, it is often a gloss for: a) I really couldn’t explain my position very well, and they kept asking me questions I could not answer clearly, or b) It’s a neat and tidy way of separating the “smart” people from the “dumb” people. Its just too easy, once you say someone doesn’t get it, you let yourself off the hook for being better at articulating the why.

Aside from the time tellers that have the, sometimes well deserved, belief they already have a good handle on the pulse of what’s coming next, there are other reasons why people appear like they sometimes “don’t get it” so to speak. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t care. When someone tries to explain to me their magical experience at Burning Man and why I should go, it’s a bit of a waste. I get it, I simply don’t care and trying to convince me I should care is taking valuable time away from playing Zelda on my Wii. Another reason people appear as if they don’t get innovation is fear. They understand quite clearly that to make whatever it is being suggested means big changes. Big changes are scary and risky, especially if your business serves the latter side of the adoption curve.

Then there is the worst reason: they have been burned in the past. An ill-conceived or executed “innovation project” was approved and failed on their watch. Lots of cash went with little value in return. But I am hopeful that enough organizations out there are making the turn to the “Practice Of Innovation” that the risk/reward ratio will come into a better balance.