In text books about innovation and entrepreneurship, anthropology is often prescribed as the go-to methodology for creating a deep understanding of a certain target segment’s needs. The idea is that you should immerse yourself and without prejudice walk miles in the shoes of your prospective users, learning to see the world the way they see it. This looks great on the page, but I’m not so sure about the practice.
One of the big reasons why people don’t scratch their own itches, is that they suffer from ”hemmablindhet”. That’s one of those Swedish words that doesn’t translate, even though its meaning seems perfectly universal: the deeply human tendency to stop noticing what’s right in front of you.
This is to say: most people are really good at withstanding pain, and contrary to what one might think, a growing pain rarely works as incentive to start seeing solutions. In fact the opposite tends to be true: if someone has lived with pain for long enough that it’s become chronic, they’re usually stuck in self-reenforcing patterns. Immersing yourself into the world of such a person risks being a draining experience, one where just like your prospective user, you fail to see the wood for all the trees.
To avoid that, I think the journalist is a better role-model than the anthropologist.
But before I get to why, let’s take a step back and see what the differences are.
Modern day anthropologist do everything in their power to make sure they don’t ’taint the sample’ by imposing their own perspectives, but this hasn’t always been so.
Instead, early anthropology was really just an extension of imperialism. Or as Jaganath Pathy puts it in Imperialism, Anthropology and the Third World:
”The discipline of anthropology had its origin in the colonial milieu. It was meant to meet the political and administrative problems which the colonial, and later, the imperial forces faced in the process of expansion and consolidation of their dominions.”
This is the heavy baggage anthropology comes with; the whole discipline used to serve the state interests just as diligently as ever the military. Seen against this historical backdrop, it’s quite understandable that the pendulum has swung to its other extreme. Where once the perspective was normative, the ideal has now become the non-interfering fly-on-the-wall.
And fair enough, wide eyed openness to the infinite complexities of the universe can probably lead to nicely open-ended, and in a sense ’true’ views of the world.
The problem however is that entrepreneurs aren’t looking to understand the world ’such as it really is’, they just need to get a good enough grasp of a given context. Good enough, that is, in order to be able to identify the kinds of problems that lends themselves to technological innovations.
Because what entrepreneurs really look for, are the gaps between the world their user inhabits, and what’s technologically possible to solve. (Good innovations are a bit like good jokes that way, they thrive on the sometimes tiny mismatches between the expected and the unexpected.)
And if you’re out hunting for gaps, then some amount of bias is indispensable. Because you’re so much more likely to find something if you know what you’re looking for.
So instead of shying away from bias, we ought to be more mindful of what we bring to the table.
One discipline that does this well, is journalism.
Journalists are trained to keep a split vision: to take in the world ‘as-is’, while at the same time looking patterns which fit a certain angle.
‘Angle’ is journalese for a clearly stated point of view. Unless you have an angle, there’s just no way you can tell an interesting story.
(You might interject that there are novels which tell stories perfectly well, even in the absence of an angle. That’s sorta kinda true, but does nothing to disprove this post’s angle. If you can live with the simplification: let’s just think of novelists as anthropologists).
When you’re ‘pushing an angle’ it means you have a story that you want to tell and you go into the field in order to find people and situations that makes that story come to life. Push your angle too hard and you end up with fake news, don’t push it enough, and you get a weak story that nobody cares about.
Stories are curated slices of reality. They have distinct beginnings, middles and ends. They’re cordoned off from the jumbled noise of unfiltered reality because they’re products of human creativity, they don’t exist in the wild. They have clearly defined senders and receivers, and the bonds between these two are often emotional.
Now try reading the above paragraph again, and replace the word story by product, or service, or simply innovation.
You see what happens?