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On the Brink

Easy-to-Use Anthropology Toolkit to Grow Your Business

Easy-to-Use Anthropology Toolkit to Grow Your Business

Easy-to-Use Anthropology Toolkit to Grow Your Business 

At Simon Associates Management Consultants, we have the privilege of working with business leaders across industries, and I hear the same questions over and over:

  • How do I make my company culture better?
  • Sales have stalled – how to increase sales?
  • How do I keep growing my business in a tough economy?
  • And boy, the speed of change is just "killing us!" What do we do?

When I see that look of desperation in their eyes, I start talking about the benefits of anthropology for businesses. If you’re asking yourself those questions and feel that tinge of anxiety, you’re in the right place.

Maybe corporate anthropology can help you sustain your business's growth in these rapidly changing times.

What is Corporate Anthropology anyway?

Corporate anthropology is the systematic application of research tools that academics use for studying cultures to learn about businesses and corporations.

Anthropology in the traditional sense focuses on all those things that make us special as humans: the language, symbols and stories we share; the things that we value and believe in; and the wonderful variety in our groups, cultures, and sub-cultures. Just like these things exist in broad civilizations, every business has its own distinct culture.

Applying anthropological methodologies and techniques to business can help us better understand culture, behavior and values and gives us a framework for making new connections that are hiding in plain sight. It’s a powerful tool kit for exploring the most persistent questions about culture, sales, and growth that business leaders like you face everyday.

What kind of problems could it help you solve?

What is your business culture? Your business has a set of values, beliefs, and behaviors that are unique. As humans, we need culture to live and work effectively. Businesses are constantly creating this culture with every passing interaction and passing it on to new hires through onboarding. You need to understand what intentional and unintentional messages and norms make up that culture so that you can just as intentionally craft the kind of culture you want moving forward.

What do your customers actually do? We spend too much time in our own heads. We do our work and analyze our results with spreadsheets and dollar signs, but they don’t tell the whole story. You need to interact with customers directly to understand their needs. Being there when they use your products or services, observing them go about their daily lives, and asking the right questions to get at their stories and memories is how you see the hidden reality.

What opportunities are you missing? There are new product, service, and sales opportunities waiting right under your nose. If you’re like most leaders, you’re too buried to see them, or there just isn’t a good system set up to separate the wheat from the chaff. That wheat is too valuable to leave in the field. That messy mix of ideas is where the future lives, and you need to figure out how to harness it. Anthropological methods and tools like observational research, ethnography, deep hanging out, and storytelling allow C-suite and management teams—even your own employees -- to see, feel, and think about your customers and potential customers with fresh eyes.

Ready to try some tools in the anthropology tool kit?

Culture Change for Your Business 

  • Culture Assessment: Any kind of culture change starts by understanding what’s going on already. The Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) is a powerful baseline for getting an overview of your organization’s culture. It is a validated tool developed by University of Michigan professors, and has been taken by over 10,000 employees around the world. You can try it yourself at www.ocai-online.com.

    Once results are synthesized, leaders and employees alike will have a clear baseline for understanding their current culture. Then you can see how your team would like to change its culture, or retain it. And, you will see if it is the right culture to adapt to the fast changing pace of business innovations.

  • Deep Hanging Out with Employees: Most executives spend a lot of time thinking about the big picture and the market, but not much time authentically listening and observing in their own hallways. For a pop culture primer, watch Undercover Boss and see the kind of insights that are waiting for you. For this kind of “hanging out,” the focus is on listening, observing, and asking questions. Spending time in meetings as an observer, a silent copilot with your sales team, or listening in on customer service calls are all great opportunities to make notes, take photographs, and jot down thoughts. 

  • ChangeMap™: Extensive Research by Vital Smarts shows that the difference between effective and ineffective change is the use of several sources to influence that change, not just one. We have seen this over and over with our own clients, and have developed a specific process for identifying and linking four or more sources of influence so that businesses can create and actually sustain the change they want. 

Customer Research

  • Culture Probes: This exercise takes preparation, but will drive conversations you never knew you could be having. Executives prepare open-ended questions they want to know more about from customers and non-customers alike. These can be asked on site visits, over the phone, or in the field. The idea is to get people talking, telling stories, and sharing what matters most to them. Open and wide-ranging conversations work best, not narrow problem solving discussions. You’ll use what you learn to solve the problems later.

  • “A Day in the Life” Shadowing: If a client will let you shadow a day in their life, do it. Spending time on the factory floor, at their store, in their meetings, watching their work, and observing all the intangibles of their day will provide powerful insights. The purpose is to learn more about their habits and preferences. Unsolved needs that you see can be new business opportunities, and may even be things they don’t know to ask for! Each time we do this with a client, they see business growth staring right at them that they never saw before. 

  • Video/ Photo Diary: When you can’t be there in person, ask customers or clients to keep a diary with videos and/or images. It’s likely that your vision of their daily life isn’t the same as what it’s really like. Particularly if you have a service or product business, understanding the actual interaction between customers and what you provide will uncover many mysteries. 


Often the things that you and your team obsess over turn out to not be as important to customers, and the things you don’t spend much time on mean a great deal to them. Having pictures and video from the moment, not a written diary later, enhances the authenticity of the information. 

Want to Learn More?

There are lots more to explore on my website www.andisimon.com or in my book "On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights."

Here are a few other blogs in which we discuss the what and how, as well as the why, of corporate anthropology:

Come exploring with us and tell us what you learn about your business, your employees and your customers when you open your eyes to the possibilities. We are easy to reach at info@simonassociates.net.

From Observation to Innovation,

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Andi Simon, Ph.D.
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants
@simonandi
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