The trailer appeared one day on the lawn between the fifth and sixth grade wings. It was completely white and unmarked on the outside, with a small wooden staircase leading to the front door. No one really seemed to take much notice of it as we lined up to go to lunch or passed by on the way to P.E., but eventually a small group of us got to know it very well.

When you walked in, you entered what our adult leaders called the “gathering room“—a lounge-y space, loosely patterned after the ubiquitous conversation pits of the 1970’s, replete with burnt orange throw pillows, U-shaped built-in bench seating, and shag carpeting. This is where most of our brainstorms were held. Past this room, and down a hallway, were work rooms, each set up for a different function. One room was a sound editing ‘suite’ with tape recorders and log sheets; another had rolls of paper with art supplies and easels; another was a listening room with a record player and albums that I think were mostly recordings of classical music and spoken word, some books, and a couple of bean bag chairs.

On the first day, I remember feeling especially relieved when I saw my friend Preston there, the only other kid I knew. Most of us were from different classes or grades, and it quickly became obvious that we were a really diverse mix. Among us were kids who excelled selectively (today they might be thought of as ‘on the spectrum’), kids with learning disabilities, kids with outstanding creative skills (music, dance, art), and the academically ‘gifted’—basically a collection of anyone who stood out in one way or another. We were never told anything about how we were selected, however. I only clued in once I started thinking about why both Preston and I were there. He wasn’t particularly scholastic, but was certainly very creative. In our school talent show, he bravely performed a solo dance routine from All That Jazz, and he once invited me to play a dragon (no lines) in a play in which he starred as a knight (most of the lines).

We were all pulled out of our regular classes twice a week to gather at the trailer. Once there, we were put into small working teams and given very loosely defined assignments. These usually emerged from discussions with our teachers – two very groovy women, one of whom I remember regularly sported knit vests – and often concluded with a loose ‘brief’ that was something like “Why don’t you and Katura try and make a radio program about this topic?” From what I remember, it didn’t even seem to matter what the topic was. What did seem to matter was that the teams of two or three were always selected by our teachers, and they were always different.

On a typical day, you’d find groups of us pursuing missions we created to achieve whatever goal we decided was important. We struck out in little pods of continuous motion, darting from one room to another, heading out of the trailer to collect necessary items, staging a photo shoot, recording and documenting, drawing up plans, and occasionally consulting with our teachers because we urgently ‘needed’ something to complete our assignment. We were never stopped in the hallways by other teachers or adults as we scampered about the campus. In fact, I remember the feeling of being almost invisible.

Tempers sometimes flared within the teams, and it wasn’t unusual to hear occasional shouting matches erupt. But for the most part it was more bee hive than dog fight. Actually, a circus is probably the best metaphor. Either way, it was intense; which is appropriate, because the program itself was called (no kidding) High Intensity. Maybe elementary school education in 1970’s Florida was some sort of experimental hotbed, I don’t know. I don’t even know how aware my parents were of the program, other than they probably signed a permission slip at some point.

In any case, this combination of assignments and mix of kids made for some really colorful interactions and project outcomes that ranged from the delightful to outright puzzling. Every few weeks, we were all brought together in the gathering room and some teams were asked to share their projects with everyone. Usually, the teachers would begin by asking questions about the details of our project, and then transition to questions about how we accomplished what we did (even if the outcome was unfinished or wasn’t much of an accomplishment at all). I remember playing part of the radio show Katura and I produced using a cassette recorder to interview kids in the school about lunch menus. Other groups showed drawings, or photos, or danced, or sang a song they made up. Many projects made no sense at all, or seemed like only part of an idea.

At the end of these share-outs, our teachers would often lead us through brainstorm sessions, and give us challenges to solve. The only one I remember was something like “What invention would make life better in the home?” There were lots of ideas, most of them silly (which seemed like the goal for some); but, I distinctly recall my friend Preston saying that we should invent stronger toilet paper—which really threw me. When the teacher probed “why?,” he said that his mother often used toilet paper to quickly wipe things down in the bathroom, and that he noticed that it always fell apart. I remember thinking to myself “What a dumb idea. Why doesn’t she just use a sponge?” But the teachers ran with it. They probed the rest of the group with “How would we go about making a stronger toilet paper? How would we test it? What else could we use this product for?” My skepticism dissolved, as I was swept up into thinking about processes, features, uses, and tradeoffs; instead of judging my friend and his idea.

I won’t say that this moment changed my life, but it has stuck with me all these years. I don’t know where Preston is today, but I do know that his “dumb idea” still stands as reminder for me.

Collaboration, innovation, and culture

In a survey of over 1700 CEO’s, three out of four identified collaboration as the most important trait they are seeking in employees. That’s because collaboration introduces divergent forms of thinking and speeds up “chains” of connected ideas that trigger and accelerate creative new approaches to challenges. Both are critical for companies that need to innovate.

Most experts agree that “building a culture of collaboration” is the key to making this happen. More specifically, Evan Rosen, the author of The Culture of Collaboration, argues that providing collaborative tools alone aren’t sufficient. Instead, organizations need to dismantle traditional formal hierarchies, reduce formality, shift reward structures toward cooperative work models, and adopt more spontaneous work styles.

If your organization’s culture is command and control, the culture must shift to let collaboration happen. The expectation that team members must go through channels or move requests for decisions “up the flagpole” runs contrary to collaboration. Introducing collaborative tools into this type of culture sends mixed messages and breeds confusion. Therefore, senior leaders must first focus on reducing formality throughout the organization, because formality poisons collaboration and diminishes value…The most effective culture shift happens when senior leaders set the stage, so that people at all levels, functions, business units, and regions want to collaborate rather than internally compete. Part of the equation is changing the recognition and reward system to compensate people for collaborative rather than internally competitive behavior.

—Evan Rosen

Collaboration and Ethnography

While the conditions these experts recommend are clearly conducive to collaboration and innovation, I’m not sure they actually constitute creating a culture of collaboration. In the anthropological sense, cultures form from the shared values, priorities, behaviors, and norms that arise from patterns of interactions over time. Cultures aren’t manufactured, and people don’t typically need to be incentivized to participate in their practices.

However, even if we can’t create culture, we can navigate it. This is very different from adapting institutional structures for collaboration, advocated above. The actual practices of collaboration occur between people, and are incentivized by a very wide range of motivations, both intrinsic and extrinsic. That set of motivations may be so complex that some forms of collaboration may even be more likely to arise despite the lack of tools or structure designed to encourage collaboration. In any case, the point is this: navigating cultures is critical for fully understanding the everyday motivations and interactions that drive practices of collaboration. This understanding provides the insight into a culture that’s necessary to respond in-the-moment to support ongoing collaborative behaviors—an inherently ethnographic undertaking.

If we take a deeper dive into how ethnographers work, we can see that collaboration is actually critical to what they do on at least two levels. First, at the macro level, an understanding of the dynamics of collaboration within a culture is a critical part of how ethnographers discover how cultures develop shared meaning. It’s the analytical and interpretive space in which ethnographers identify the forms of cooperation, alliances (both obvious and uncanny), and inventive workarounds that tell the stories of how cultures develop their own unique ways to come together and form collective values, behaviors, priorities, norms and beliefs.

At a more granular level, ethnographic field research requires ethnographers to collaborate with the people who are the subjects of their work (many of whom may have very different views of the world than the ethnographer). Empathy, curiosity, flexibility, deep listening, deferring judgement, and holistic thinking, are among the core skills they use to build rapport with research participants. That rapport is essential for developing the mutual trust necessary for engaging in the intimate set of interactions needed to understand people in the context of their culture.

Given the deep familiarity ethnographers have with collaboration (both in terms of navigating field research and understanding how people come together to form cultures), they are highly qualified leaders for collaborative work. If they’re doing their jobs well, they have a deep understanding of the customer/constituent AND team dynamics AND company/organizational culture. In fact, they should always-already be collecting and analyzing the data on all these fronts (whether formally or informally) to optimize for collaboration and alignment.

How does this look? By facilitating collaborative practices on the granular level (field and team), and pairing that with an understanding the broader cooperative dynamics within cultures (company/org/nation, etc.), ethnographers are in a unique position to 1) identify synergies and tensions between these layers 2) inform effective organizational strategies to adapt accordingly, 3) ensure that teams benefit from the efficiencies of collaboration and are aiming toward productive alignments across these layers. This dynamic approach requires in-the-moment, ongoing reflection and adaptation (hence the term navigation) that I argue is far more effective than many of the remnants of assembly-line work streams we still see operating today; and organizations should be enlisting ethnographers (and their brethren) to orchestrate it more often.

Where to start?

Any experienced ethnographer will tell you that successful collaboration doesn’t mean that everyone is equal, or has an equal say. It does mean that a group is syncing up their best skills at the right time and place in an environment that prioritizes open communication, de-prioritizes ego, and always aims for the greater good. And, it takes at least one person whose senses are finely tuned for picking up on signals from different players to help usher the process.

Before tackling the bigger challenge of understanding the cooperative dynamics of a culture (organizational, national, etc.) and a group’s position within it, it’s likely easier to begin with a tighter scope. Many of the principles ethnographers use to respectfully build rapport in the field can be used to optimize for collaboration within teams. I’ve added some pointers I’ve found effective below. You may even find some techniques below that echo my teachers’ guidance from High Intensity!

  • Set expectations early: When ethnographers introduce themselves to their research participants, they often need to explain the nature of their work, which is often unfamiliar and unusual for most people. This includes letting participants know that this type of research differs from surveys or focus groups, and that their own behaviors and practices will shape the interactions and outcomes of the research. In this same way, team leads should let teams know at the outset that this will be a different working model—one that privileges collaboration and distributes responsibility. They should clearly convey the values and ways of working that will be prioritized, including roles, expectations, deliverable development, tools, and interactions.
  • Keep the lines of communication open: Ethnographers depend on the generosity of their participants, and have to establish trust with them to gain access to their perspectives. That means prioritizing open communication devoid of power games. Likewise, encouraging collaboration within a team requires that everyone recognize that information hoarding isn’t useful for the team; exposure to more ideas, and helping make critical connections between them, is. More communication is better; transparent and authentic communication is best.
  • Cross-pollinate often: Ethnographers are always looking for the unseen and unspoken connections that help them construct an interpretation of a culture. These often include things like workarounds, behavioral patterns, and distinct outliers. Transferring these skills to a team involves keeping an eye out for modes of thinking that are headed down well-trodden paths, and encouraging the integration of other perspectives. Help the team pause and reflect; and find ways to help them ask the questions that are sitting in the back of their heads but haven’t come out yet. Curiosity above all, especially when it comes to familiar processes and practices.
  • Build on trust: Deferring judgement is critical for ethnographers to understand even the most controversial feelings that most participants would never share with others who live in their culture. This requires deep listening, careful timing, and sincere interest. Similarly, in a team you’ll want to lay the groundwork so that everyone can feel comfortable expressing themselves. Anyone should be able, at any time, to respectfully ask ‘why’ and get an honest response.
  • Work it out and move on: Conflict is part of learning about cultures; and ethnographers will also find themselves in conflict with their participants from time to time. However, the most important thing for them is to learn from those conflicts and to use them as a means for forming deeper and more nuanced interpretations. Within a team, you’ll want to find ways to work through differences in ways that expand, rather than narrow, the collective understanding. Model language that conveys respect and works toward finding common ground. Ask: What hybrids might work? What analogous models might help shift the team’s thinking and reveal new opportunities? Wrap up by asking “Have we fully considered the most important factors that will help us build toward our collective goal?”


If you’d like to explore this topic more, I’ve gathered a few resources below:

Discover more from Ethnographic Mind

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.