I’ve always found that opening up the innovation process to clients (or internal stakeholders) is essential for helping them understand how teams get from field to insights to prototypes, and to build buy-in along the way. So it was a bit surprising that after more than a year of working with a client on a range of different projects, our main point of contact (a VP at the client company) suddenly took us up on our open offer and asked if he could tag along with our team. We had already invited many members of his team to join us in various phases of our work with positive results, but he said his request was motivated by the fact that he was unable (after all this time) to see how we developed our insights and wanted to learn more. Welcome to the team, Mr. Client.

We included him in the full spectrum of a complex healthcare project, so that he could experience everything from project planning to field research, data downloads, pattern identification, theme creation, insight development, recommendations, and prototyping. Along the way, we were careful to encourage questions, and to demonstrate how we substantiated our insights through this process, and informed it through integration of anthropological theory. While he understood the premise behind our methods and approach, much of the process was a struggle for him. From his perspective, it was difficult to understand why the team needed to “go through all of this” to reach an understanding of how and why people behaved the way they did. After all, he’d been trained as a physician. For him, his “intuition” about patients’ needs and motivations was easier and faster, even if it might miss the nuances. At the end of the project, he seemed to emerge with a greater appreciation for how we worked, but it often remained difficult for him parse out the difference between his ‘intuited’ assumptions and substantiated insights reached through ethnographic analysis and interpretation.

This example is one with a relatively positive outcome. Eventually, our client was able to make this distinction. In some workplaces it’s not uncommon for decisions to be made that are regularly laden with assumptions based on “intuition.” Statements such as “I just know what our customers want,” or “My wife/husband loves it,” are sometimes all that’s needed to set strategies and determine work streams, especially when they’re delivered as a decry from leaders within hierarchical organizations. Throughout my experience working with many different clients, I’ve experimented with a range of different responses to ‘intuitive’ decision making and it’s underlying assumptions. What follows are some of the approaches I’ve taken as well as some context for understanding how leaders gravitate toward ‘intuitive’ decision making.

Yes, you have cultural insights, but…

First, it’s important to recognize that when ‘intuition’ and ethnographic thinking collide, the latter can disrupt sometimes long held assumptions people have about their own culture, sense of expertise, or even their identity. They may see ethnographic interpretations as challenging or devaluing their worldview and what is obvious (to them) about a culture or group of people with which they have familiarity. This can be overcome if ethnographers carefully contrast ‘intuition’ and ethnographic thinking in three important ways: sampling, method, and analysis.

For sampling, I’ve found it useful to begin by validating the legitimacy of perspectives that come from direct involvement in a culture. Let them know that personal experiences are useful for a particular kind of understanding of the interactions at play within their own culture. After all, ethnographers rely heavily on participatory observation as a method, and there are even anthropologists who study their own culture.

However, the trouble comes when experiences outside of systematic research are used to form a position or defend a decision. That’s because intuited arguments often falsely present accounts of personal experiences as empirical when they’re inherently singular reactions to relatively random or highly personal observations or interactions. Repeated often enough, presenting personal experiences in this way can become so deeply engrained in the mind that they are presumed to be factual and naturally self-evident representations of a culture (what we might call stereotypes). Worse yet, intuited arguments frequently slide into confirmation bias, in which all future observations are selected (either consciously or subconsciously) with the purpose of substantiating the original argument.

When ethnographers select a sample for their research, they do so much more purposefully and systematically. Rather than tapping a single set of un-targeted personal experiences, they interact with a diverse array of carefully selected research participants who are native to a culture to understand as wide a range of experiences as possible from each perspective. Which brings us to method.

HOW you observe and collect behavioral data is as important as WHAT you observe and collect.

Unlike singular, random observations, ethnographers intentionally focus their observations and interactions with these participants on a topic or general area of investigation, based on the objectives they outline in their research plan. They collect all the data they can related to a research topic, without regard for whether or not it supports, contradicts, or even seem relevant at all, to any pre-conceived arguments or hypotheses from others. This allows them to identify unstated norms, shared values, and other interpretations of the collective ways people within a culture interact and understand themselves and each other. These are precisely the kinds of ‘nuances’ that make a difference in truly human-centered innovation work.

Getting from observations to insights requires a systematic process of value-neutral interpretations.

Finally, we reach the topic of analysis. Intuited knowledge often relies on the unsubstantiated and de-contextualized opinions of one person to form a point of view. As such, judgment (or at least singularly formed knowledge) is central to how intuitive insights are formed. In contrast, ethnographic insights are built on a systematic process of value-neutral interpretations to discover the collective meaning behind observed patterns in behaviors, interactions, and perspectives among a diverse range of research participants. They’re developed by explicitly deferring judgment throughout a systematic process of data interpretation to reach fully-substantiated (and trace-able) insights.

Are you really prepared to bank on gut instinct?

Having made these distinctions in sampling, method and analysis, a second challenge often arises: helping people integrate new observations they encounter over the course of a project. Here, the goal is not to simply contrast intuition with ethnography, but to bring co-workers or colleagues into the fold of the ethnographic process itself. To do this, ethnographers need to provide an incentive beyond the methodological advantages of ethnographic thinking. They need to position deferring judgment, value neutrality, systematic investigation, and testing interpretations against established models and theories of culture, as clauses in an insurance policy for the kinds of high stakes investments it takes to develop and market a product, system, program, or service. While assertions rooted in intuitive knowledge may be faster and easier, they represent only one data point—a data point that’s doubly biased since it is valid for only one individual, and is brought to the decision making process through the lens of an insider who is more than likely positioning their observation as evidence to support the success of an initiative they wish to succeed. Intuitive decision making in these cases can be a form of judgment that masquerades as ‘obvious fact’ in ways that dramatically escalate risk for the organization and everyone in it.

By shifting the focus toward ethnographic thinking, ethnographers can help decision makers put their intuition on hold so the organization can benefit from a broader and more carefully considered approach to constituent/customer behavior. In this way, the organization’s exposure to risk is reduced by ensuring that a targeted range of diverse perspectives is systematically and strategically vetted and analyzed to provide substantiated insights that can more fully inform decision making. In addition to risk abatement, this shift from intuitive assertion to ethnographic thinking lays the groundwork for design constraints that guide culturally-attuned (human-centered in the current parlance) ideation and iterative prototyping. Furthermore, the ethnographic approach sets the stage for much more informed quantitative inquiries that can be structured to assess scale in ways that align with the logics, contexts, experiences, and behaviors of the customers’ or constituents’ daily lives.