It would be an understatement to say that a lot has changed since 2018, when the first edition of Ethnographic Thinking was published. As the second edition hits the shelves, I’ve been thinking about the context in which this new release is landing. While I believe strongly that ethnographic thinking is more valuable than ever, we’re at a critical moment where strategically (and creatively) positioning that value is essential.

This post is a personal reflection on what I’ve seen shifting in the broader world of research / insight since the first edition, and how I’ve tried to leverage ethnographic thinking to respond. As always, your mileage may vary. Let’s start with a couple of high level observations, and then focus on a three-pronged strategy I’ve been using to address them.

Hold on a Sec

The first observation is simply this: Nobody wants your strategy. While this may be a bit hyperbolic, it’s a healthy premise for framing your approach. Across our stakeholders, many think of themselves as providing strategic insight in one form or another through the lens of their own practice. From their perspective, there’s no reason for them to prioritize your strategic insights simply because you’re a researcher. If you enter into engagements assuming that your insights should take priority, you risk coming off as arrogant — not a very effective strategy for influence (especially in an unsettled work environment). It’s our responsibility as practitioners to build a case and connect the dots to strategy, and research insights are not inherently strategic for many of our stakeholders.

So, you may be thinking that if positioning insights to inform strategy is an uphill battle, then you can lean into the role of messenger who conveys customer sentiment. Which brings me to the second observation: The ‘voice of the customer’ is not enough.

For this, I’d like to share a brief story about a failure that helps bring the point home. I was working on project focused on understanding the needs of young entrepreneurs. Our team had recently wrapped up initial analysis from a set of field visits across the US, and the company’s leadership was eager to hear what we’d learned. Because we hadn’t fully developed a set of actionable insights, we decided to pull together a set of video clips from field visits with some early theme statements for a screening with the leadership team.

On the day of the meeting, we briefly reviewed the background of the project, set the context for the video as a ‘first look’ into lives of our target demographic, and hit play. When the lights went back on, the room was deadly silent. The leadership team’s reaction can be summed up perfectly with just one gif:

Clearly, we hadn’t provided either enough of an on-ramp to help them recognize the state and intent of the deliverable, or offered enough interpretation to give them an invitation to engage with the work. We were so steeped in our own process that we failed to recognize where they were in theirs.

The takeaway from both of these observations is that your insights won’t resonate with stakeholders if they don’t have a way to understand them from their own perspective—and it’s your job to determine what that is. The reality is that any of your stakeholders who aren’t researchers are working in a completely different headspace most of the day. Your deliverables need to help usher them to your POV. Give them compelling points of entry and fresh interpretive approaches that will lighten their cognitive load and seed their engagement.

How? You need to tell a story that resonates with each person in that room so that they internalize your insights. There’s much more that can be said about the craft of storytelling and tailoring narratives to different listener dispositions, but I’ll reserve that for another post. For now, I want to highlight the question of both when stories have the greatest influence with stakeholders and what types of deliverables could help.

I bring these two considerations up because I think they’re essential for effective engagement; and, also because I see a professional landscape in which many organizations are more idiosyncratic about the ways they integrate research insights than they were back in 2018. Once companies began building internal teams to bring insight work closer to product work, they also started to understand how that relationship did or did not jive with their approach to innovation, their organizational practices, and their interpretation of what impact means. As insights provisioners operating within this context (in-house or as consultants), navigating how and when orgs ‘digest’ insights is increasingly important. The good news is that doing so involves tapping ethnographic thinking in ways that are very familiar to many who operate in the insights industry.

The When and the What

So back to the when and what. A while ago, I started to reflect more on these two questions in the context of research deliverables. I decided to go back through key projects and really dissect what worked, what didn’t, and why. I focused on the context of deliverables in particular, so it wasn’t just an assessment of rigor or research quality, but also a consideration of reception, audience, engagement, and demonstrated momentum. What I found overall was that in the vast majority of cases, success hinged on instances where I consciously considered the timing of insights, and de-emphasized efforts to convince my audiences.

To follow is a three part strategy I devised in response to this assessment. As I mentioned before, it may not apply to your set of circumstances or work style, but it has proven effective in many of my settings. The strategy relies heavily on turning the ethnographic lens toward your teams or org so that you can understand their values, priorities, behaviors, norms, etc., and adapting your contributions accordingly. It also relies heavily on collaboration with your core team to pull together the right insights, in the right form, at the right time.

The starting point is to consider where your stakeholders are in their workflows, and tailor what you have to offer based on their current set of priorities. I’ve always found the catch phrase “meet them where they are” a bit cringey since it leaves little room to challenge the status quo, stimulate new thinking, or evolve ideas; but it comes close to conveying the general approach here, at least initially. So, to begin, ask yourself: Is your team heads-down in their current work streams, operating in get-it-done mode? Or, are they at a pivot point where they need to pause and assess or prioritize? Or, maybe they’re starting something new and are just beginning to give shape to the project goals. Each of these should trigger a different response in the way you frame and engage stakeholders.

Just in Time

Let’s begin with what is often the most common scenario — a team that’s mid-way through their product development process and is fully immersed in execution. The circumstances here usually include a lot intense, heads-down concentration on building and revising features. Weekly, or sometimes even daily stand-ups, prototype testing, and breakout squads are a common part of the team’s workflow. Do they have time for an extensive research read out, or a mentally-taxing workshop? Likely not. Instead of trying to force the team to disrupt their workflow and adapt to your process, step back, and ask yourself where they are in theirs. Attend their stand-ups, get to know their priorities, their short term and long term goals, try to understand their pain points, their promising bright spots, their motivators, what energized them and provides them with momentum, etc. Then, revisit your insights, break them down into subsets, and determine which ones you can bring back to the team in the form of a ‘just in time’ deliverable (or deliverables) that will help them most. Ask yourself what would help accelerate or fine tune their work best right now? How can you deliver this in ways that dovetail with their workflows so that your work offers added value.

This may delay some of the plans you had in place, but guess what? That happens all the time to your stakeholders too. Adaptation equals success in these circumstances, all the way around. Effective research insights that I’ve seen fit into the ‘just in time’ deliverables bucket have been adapted to the needs of the team in a few core ways: they are succinct, directional, and tied to the team’s current priorities and processes. You’re shooting for small-scale adjustments that have potential for outsized impact. Keep your deliverables simple and brief, prioritized for immediate relevance.

A useful conceptual model here is something like a newspaper brief — with a tight headline and just enough information for relevance and action. It’s helpful to craft phrases and generate labels for concepts that help people remember key points. Similarly, it’s often useful to illustrate the value of critical takeaways by highlighting one or two key images that help reinforce your message. And, most importantly, keep it short. Outputs that I’ve seen work well in these cases include resources that allow the team to quickly absorb insights, apply their learnings, and then revisit the deliverable when needed. Some examples include:

  • A simple visual diagram / framework that helps define an ecosystem, the flows within it, and current opportunities for action.
  • Brief walkthroughs of competitor products and features to illustrate marketplace context and steer shifts in development that offer product differentiation.
  • Co-creation sessions with stakeholders to quickly iterate on product specifics and prepare ideas for testing.

Insight Ignitors

It’s not uncommon for researchers to regularly have our own ‘aha moments’ in which we identify valuable connections across our insights and others. As insiders these moments are often exciting realizations, but they aren’t readily apparent for stakeholders who aren’t immersed in research workflows. If you want to highlight the value of these broader themes, you need to bring them on a journey and help them reach the same conclusions you did, and hopefully ignite the same enthusiasm you have along the way. If successful, igniting insight with stakeholders helps them internalize the connections and higher order insights you’re highlighting, and gives them ownership of both so that they can leverage them in their own work.

Timing insight ignitors includes two considerations. First, do you have a set of insights along a theme that can lead to a larger POV? This doesn’t have to be a grand thesis. It can be as simple as pattern identification across four or five projects, paired with secondary foundational insights, and possibly a framework that ties them together. What’s most important is that these insights collectively lead to a higher order POV that has direct relevance to product decisions. Second, where are your stakeholders in their own process? Are they open to pausing a bit and joining you on this brief journey? I’ve found that these deliverables are best shared at key milestones within a project’s lifespan — moments where project pivots might be necessary, or where priorities need to be set (or re-set).

As for crafting these type of deliverables, you want to guide your stakeholders through a clear and compelling story, with actionable results. You might imagine yourself an attorney who’s building a case for a jury. Set the stage, use (and carefully time) multiple data sources, alternate dense and lightweight content, use visuals to drive home key points, and edit down to just the essentials. Your job is to help them reach the same realization you did. Some forms I’ve seen this take include:

  • A short video to illustrate key themes across research insights and their connection to current product priorities;
  • Competitive landscape analysis that situates your team’s product within the context of current offerings.
  • Residual, Dominant, Emergent analysis that positions your team’s product within industry trajectories spanning from the past, through the present, and into emergent paradigms in the marketplace.

Host an Exploration

For these deliverables, your goal is to help expand the team’s thinking and guide them toward a ‘North Star.’ You’re not there to convince them of the importance of your work, but to provide the fodder and insights that can stimulate creative, generative thinking. Ask yourself what’s most compelling about the insights you have that can accomplish this. And, further, what sorts of provocations might you offer that spark curiosity and engagement?

While there are generally smaller windows of opportunity for these deliverables, they can have outsized impact if they resonate well with stakeholders. In most cases, the ideal setting is when a team has either just finished a project, is starting a new initiative, or is in a strategic planning stage of some sort. You want to catch them while they’re in a reflective mindset, and are pausing to consider critical direction or set key priorities. Sometimes this takes the form of adding to a de-brief or strategy session, or maybe contributing to a vision initiative. Explorations are typically welcome components at of any of these.

A useful model here might be think of yourself as a director staging a play. What are the key touch points that help your team connect personally with your insights? How might you offer a variety of content that helps people gravitate toward what interests them most? Have you shared what captivates you most about your insights? Have you left ample room for the team to engage, contribute, and interpret their own views? I’ve found that the following deliverables have worked well when hosting an exploration is the goal:

  • A podcast series or ‘fireside chats,’ followed by an open Q&A, where you invite stakeholders to explore and discuss different facets and considerations on a key strategic topic;
  • A consequences wheel exercise to frame and stimulate long-term thinking and actively integrate stakeholders insights;
  • A microsite or ‘museum’ accompanied by an open forum that collects and curate different POV’s, and gives people the chance to roam, interact with insights, contribute their own perspectives, or bounce ideas off of one another.

A Summary

To encapsulate the key points of this strategy, and help readers quickly decide where they might leverage these strategies best, I’ve summarized some prompts, models, and approaches for each below.

Just in Time — Is your team midstream in product development?

  • What would help accelerate their work best right now?
  • How can you deliver key insights in small ‘bites’ that dovetail with the team’s workflow?
  • Model: Newspaper headline writer
  • Approach: Offer simple statements, images, or summaries that emphasize action and direct connections to current team goals.

Ignite Insight — Is your team at a key milestone in their work?

  • What connections across your insights would be most valuable to help your team make better strategic decisions?
  • How can you bring them along to reach the same conclusions you found valuable?
  • Model: Attorney making a case
  • Approach: Usher your team through a clear and compelling series of insights that build on one another.

Host an Exploration — Is your team pausing to expand their thinking or find a North Star?

  • Do you have a set of insights that could be configured in ways that stimulate creative thinking?
  • How can you convey engaging, compelling insights that set the stage for generative work?
  • Model: Director staging a play
  • Approach: Curate themes across insights and offer easy ways for the team to explore and dive deeper where interested.

Some Final Thoughts

Although most of us aren’t operating in the entertainment industry, there are some interesting parallels embedded within this strategy. The following quote has always resonated for me:

“You have to have the talent for the art–the music, the acting, the writing, the art–but you also have to have the talent for being in the right place at the right time with the right people with the right approach. I had to become a certain physical person and I had to place myself in certain places in front of, beneath, and around the right people. It’s an art to be noticed; to be necessary; to be needed and desired. Develop it, if you can. If you can’t, then I don’t think any amount of talent will be of any use to you. Talent has to move. Talent has to walk up to people and ask to sit down and talk a bit. Most talent stays at home, and it remains a gift, but it doesn’t get out enough. Someone has to see it in the right context. The context is entirely your job.”

Marlon Brando / Interview with James Grissom
Photograph of Brando and Marilyn Monroe at the Actors’ Studio benefit screening of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo”

Main photo credit: Jay Hasbrouck 2016, Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City