Ethnography in the strategic core, non-attachment, & weaponising empathy

(*This is a post on ethnography, strategy, & non-attachment written in first person voice for ease of reading, in many cases there are many ‘we’s’ involved and entire villages that helped me see clearly)

There is this older blog post of mine where I proposed uniting agile & ethnography through their common thread of stories . It has been getting heaps of readers this week. To be very honest the stats kept pinging through which reminded me I should maybe write something of interest for my future self to recall this time in life and my vision emerging from the fog.

Lately I’ve been attempting to weave. Working to weave together the concepts of ethnography and the strategic core of business decision making. In the last year I felt my career vision crystallising into “how can we get empathy to be felt & utilised in the core strategic business decision making machinery?” This is a timely vision with the huge shift in the market place toward purpose driven businesses. I feel this mirrored through our species beginning to awaken to the fact that if we don’t figure out how to be kind to our home and ourselves we might not even want to live on a diseased and discontent rock swirling around a fireball.

This recent thinking brings me to today’s musings and proposal: I propose we meet the world’s wicked problems with weaponised empathy, there is no better way to make a better world. The risk of confinement to a single mindset exceeds the cost of expanding your skillsets into the realm of weaponised empathy.

It would be hard to change a lot of the fundamentals behind how our planet is run by our 8 billion strong tribe. After all, culture is a very slow technology, and don’t let the speed of subcultural developments fool you. The fundamental mechanisms of scapegoating and emulating drive our desires and actions in such deep ways that even those most committed to the growth mindset fall into their traps. We must have examples of good and bad in order to learn, and we learn by mimicking and reading reactions to behaviours. Even the most profound buddhist teaching of non-attachment must be passed through language and example. (I resonate with these words about non-attachment)

Now back to the vision that’s been emerging: “how can we get empathy to be felt & utilised in the core strategic business decision making machinery?” My hypothesis behind this is that ethnography’s power lies in the transformation of the observer. Not in their ‘going native’ but in their ability to take on perspectives in order to expand their own knowledge and conciousness. I’ve only been doing ethno-work for a few years now, and I feel so empowered to spread the influence of the customer into the minds of leadership in organisations. In fact I got so attached to this role of going into the field to bring back the points of view that I threw quite a few tantrums earlier in my career when the bulldozing of the space to get out into the field took too long or caused the precious time spent with customers in the field to evaporate. Then 2 years ago I flipped my thinking & my role, I started to work to become the best bulldozer I could be and began teaching others to do the work. I became non-attached to doing the work and the outcomes of the work. Any ethnographic thinking was more helpful than none at all. At least there was a glimmer of a chance of empathy. I simply delighted in the ability to get to propel others out there to have the transformational perspective taking experiences that I had had the privilege of having previously. That moment was my first true understanding of combining a growth mindset with non-attachment.

Now about ethnography at the strategic core. This is a hypothesis many of us have heard of, or attempted, or mused upon. It’s one of those funny things which feels weird when you mention it to people… ethnography? in core strategic business decision making? You must mean ethnography to ideate on which products to build and how to build them. You might mean ethnography used to transform the organisation itself so it produces better upon its strategy… That’s not what I mean. I mean ethnographic practice that directly transforms the leaders, employees, & customers themselves into the powerhouse of driving strategic decisions & change. We’re all in it together and we can only learn from each other. Empathy through ethnography to empower a changing of the lens as we move into the era of purpose driven businesses. For all these very reasons most design thinking methodologies begin with empathy and insight discovery tools.

We’ve read and heard how PARC at Xerox & Intel have done it at times in a variety of ways. It is likely there could be a company out there kicking a** at it right now, but I’d never know. It is weaponised empathy, a smart business wouldn’t announce their latest greatest strategy artillery to the world. But on the other hand you see it everyday in the world’s most successful Kickstarter campaign, TED talks, start-ups, & radically astute solutions to world problems. Weaponised empathy is at the strategic core in all these cases, and those weapons are aimed directly at the world’s wickedest problems. 

Let’s come back to non-attachment and why it matters to the weaponisation of empathy, that thing we need to tackle the world’s issues. If you can imagine everyone getting a little bit of an ethnographic skillset. Give folks out there just a touch of ethno-mindset to help them take on perspectives through a human centric, design research methodology. Sure it would be hard to teach so many people something so deep. If we were to non-attach ourselves to the business outcomes, and just injected those ethno-skills as well as we possibly could, what would happen? Would we not achieve the business outcomes anyway? Would people not be more open and observant of others? Would communications and actions in organisations not become more mindful of perspectives? Would customers needs today and tomorrow not be more easily understandable or accessible? Would insights not be readily available at the finger tips of every single employee? Would those employees not be more happy, effective, and mindful of customers current & future needs? Would not these people create better outcomes… even if those were not the outcomes traditional business strategies would dictate?

Wicked problems take empathy to tackle because the only thing in common in every wicked problem is that there are people and motivations involved. If we were to become non-attached to the outcomes and just did the absolute best we could from a place of compassion and empathy… how could our results not be ‘better’?

A great many of us in the innovation world, the ethnography world, the whole world just want to make an impact that makes this world a better place. We want to give a little bit of a contribution so that the next one along or the one next to us can learn from our journey. We can’t let the machinery we’ve been born into crush our ability to act upon and for the best outcomes for this place. No more can we become attached and paralyses by the outcomes we might achieve or fail to achieve, we simply must strive to do our best. I propose our best is to meet the world’s wicked problems with weaponised empathy. 

From @picardtips: “Picard economic tip: The risks of confinement to a single planet exceed the costs of interstellar travel.’

Hedge your bets because we’re all in it together.

The risk of confinement to a single mindset exceeds the cost of expanding your skillsets into the realm of weaponised empathy. Love is all you need to make the world a better place, but the knack is in how you use it. Weaponise your empathy and you can aim your sights at the world’s wickedest problems. Ethnography for all and into the strategic core. Intrepid explorers! Who is coming along on the journey?

“If there is one ideal that the Federation holds most dear, it is that all men, all races can be united.” – Captain Jean-Luc Picard






Why should you do user experience at the highest corporate level?

Why should you do user experience at the highest corporate level?

You should do it at every level in your organisation and everyone should own it.

It is a damned good question. One that is in the hearts, minds, and wallets of  many executives. The ever-increasing community of CI, CX, UX, UI, UCD, DE, etc. practioners are all scrambling to get their ideas included in discussions at increasingly higher stratas of companies. It is our newest incarnation of “the customer is always right” philosophy: new and improved, specially tailored to our rapid, demanding, technological, complex, and abstract world. After all it is harder to understand your customer when they aren’t coming in to have a chat at your shop like in the old days. Business is big and the public is savvy.  The battle for what we want is getting tougher for both businesses and consumers. Business competition is rough and the world’s economic challenges aren’t making it any easier. Consumers are being bombarded by insane amounts of messaging all demanding behaviour changes and dollars from their hard-earned pay checks. Then why don’t we work together to  create mutually beneficial situations? Like Apple, makers of what consumers want: an ecosystem that eliminates decisions regarding logistics and focuses all your decisions on content wrapped in an intuitive package. That is a very mutually beneficial situation and the sales say it all.

Everyone’s interactions with each other, spaces, devices, and almost everything in our increasingly modern world is growing at astronomical rates (see any info-graphic representation of how much email, Facebook, Twitter, sms, YouTube activity has grown over the last 5 years, I can recommend dozens). You can’t just take your customer out of their highly connected information dense environment and study them in a lab. You also cannot just go around asking customers what they want all willy nilly. Too many risks are involved. Did you get the right people? Did you ask the right questions? Did you get insights from the customers that impact what you are trying to do?  Too many people have to contribute too much time to research, create, and sell, for businesses to go firing shots in the dark, that costs a lot of money. We need structured approaches to tackle these problems and we need them to be proven in the field and in the battle for behaviour change. That approach exists and it has many names: CI, CX, UX, UI, UCD, DE, etc.  These are all the exact same thing, a user or customer centric approach to conducting business and creating new assets. Those folks at the top of bog organisations might look at all this and dig in their heels proclaiming, “Those are project or implementation level concerns, I do strategy… BIG strategy. We engage stakeholders just fine to drive that big strategy.” Thank you very much, come again. Well Madame or Sir Big Strategy I have some news for you. However you have been “engaging stakeholders” in the past is fine, but there are systematic and scientific ways to maximise your return on investment in engaging stakeholders. In other words, you are not getting your money’s worth, yet. You might do UX at the lower functional levels, but if incentives, key performance indicators, and overall  management support does not align with a core UX philosophy then what is the point? The awesome UX  will be a one-off affair or the change will revert as soon as you are done. Your money will be like a flash in the pan with no sustained effect. People involved will disengage and become quickly disenchanted with being customer centric if the impact is not evident and lasting. To counteract these risks UX must be embedded and supported throughout all levels of the business’s strategy and management.

You and your customers are in the same boat and making your customer experience strategy the core of the decision-making process will get you both rowing in the same direction.