ethnography meets brainstorming (going Israeli)

Img_0090 Jan Chipchase and I were chatting by email and I was telling him about my ethnography course at MIT.  (Honestly, I’m not sure he cares, but he is a fellow anthropologist and I thought it might interest.)  I was saying that I labored this week to persuade students that the corporate world, so forbidding and apparently immutable from the outside, is actually always "a work in process."

This image shows a note I wrote to myself on the board and "china historian" refers to Joseph Needham who said the history of thought is actually the history of people thinking, and that’s the notion I wanted to get across, that at any given time the corporation is being driven by ideas that are themselves driven by many things: intellectual fashion, the best efforts of senior management, the ideas of Tom Peters, the demands of the Street, the corporate culture, the opportunity of the moment, the company’s place on its critical path, to name a few.  In any case, the corporation is entirely different from the University where occupants may change but the form remains pretty much the same.  In the corporation both form and content are open to constant reworking, as these ideas come and go, as consultants, even ethnographers, offer up new compelling concepts.

This means that when we are working up our ethnographic conclusions and beginning to contemplate our recommendations, we are free (and forced) to cast the net very wide.  We are talking in this course about a reinvented PBS, and I said, as an example, that we should consider even recommending that the subscription model at PBS creates more problems than value, and that PBS should consider doing ads of a conventional kind.  People looked at me like I’m nuts, a point well taken.  At this point in the idea generating process, we are obliged to go a little nuts, and canvas all ideas, even implausible ones.  The idea is to work from a large, imaginative, and relatively fearless  set of options.

Naturally, the consultant who always comes back with crazy ideas is not long for this world, but every consultant is obliged to give crazy a chance to happen in the idea generating process.  Or she is not doing her job.  After all, the corporation is prepared to change itself altogether.  It is always asking Theodore Levitt’s question, "what business are you in".  And it is sometimes prepared to answer this question with bold departures from present idea and practice.  (Consider AG Lafley’s contribution to P&G, Jeff Immelt‘s to General Electric, Gertsner’s to IBM).  The corporation runs on new ideas and every project is an opportunity to canvass these. 

The other thing I was trying to communicate was the importance of brainstorming "like Israelis."  (My assumption is that Israelis understand better than most of us that invention is a responsibility to be seized and exercised constantly in a world that’s got more menace than momentum, that they engage with this collective invention with a certain intensity.)  I had the feeling that discourse at MIT is more a matter of cool assessment, that students operate more like intellectual snipers, picking off offending remarks from a great and disengaged distance.  What is missing is that all-in intensity that characterizes a good working session inside the corporation.

Of course, people don’t just know how to do brainstorming.  I had to learn.  What made me think they would be any different?  But brainstorming is a messy process, and that makes it hard to teach.  There are some rules of order, I guess.  Let me see if I can sketch them briefly.  First rule: talk flat out, don’t censor.  Second: play well with others, don’t compete.  Third: ignore the bad ideas, they will go away on their own.  Fourth: build on the good ideas, wherever they come from.  Fifth, tag the good ideas with a little phrase that secures its place in the discussion and makes reference easy.  Sixth, keep putting the good ideas into new configurations.  (I like to glance at the person who’s idea I am referencing…to acknowledge the debt.)  Seventh, came at it till the group eventually finds a configuration of existing and new ideas that looks like the right way to think about the problem.  Eureka.  Your work here is done.   

We are building a kind of air space.  Ideas are noted and tagged but kept ill defined.  The air space is porous.  New ideas are welcome.  Old ideas free to leave.  And this air space is dynamic.  No necessary relationships between ideas are specified.  We are being deliberately vague because this "problem set" will be reconfigured several times before our work is done. 

To mix my metaphor, ideas swim up. (Oblige me if you would, and swap air for water, and yes, ok, water for chocolate.)  Ideas are moving, the good ones ascending, growing in power and complexity as they go.  Ascent is consent.  Ideas rise if and only if the group find them interesting and useful, find them things they like to think.  And it’s very like the way thought happens in the head.  Sometimes the group knows it has an idea before it knows what this idea is.  It can sense the idea moving.  People exult in this moment.  Eyes shine, bodies move, people lean forward. It’s really fun.  (You know who is good at this is Susan Abbott.  I worked with her on a P&G project and she was just brilliant at it.) 

Academic discourse tends to be more "stand and deliver," more free standing, less cooperative.  Everyone takes away what they will.  It’s ok if at the end of the class you are obliged to say that the sum of the conversation is less than the whole of the conversation.  Many of the moments of illumination are assumed to happen "in head," not "in class."  Indeed, many "serious thinkers" think this process is insufficiently, er, serious.  Real thought should happen inside the head.  Anything that happens in public circumstances is a degraded currency.  In a sense, academics are engaged in a private harvest.  Good ideas occur but they occur privately and they are not shared except to trump an opponent or make a show of one’s intelligence.  Academics cherry pick their own and other’s best ideas…silently.

I am not share where I learned this.  I am certain that one of my instructor’s was Denise Fonseca and Charlotte Oades of the Coca-Cola Company.  I may owe a debt to JWT where I remember doing lots of projects.  I have seen Faith Popcorn give permission for brainstorming to take place.  And I’m not sure how. Bill O’Connor is very good at it and again I’m not sure why.  In his case, it is something to do with intelligence and courtly grace.  All of this is to say, that there are secrets here.  Some people who just seem to make it happen.  In a perfect world, you would have all of these people in to speak at a class.  And as that’s not practical, someone should interview all these people and see if they can capture what is going on.

In sum, ethnography depends upon the exercise of a creative intelligence and a strategic one.  (I haven’t really had a chance to talk about the latter.  Another post, perhaps.)  And that means it has to be built into the classroom that offers ethnographic instruction.  Otherwise, the ethnographer really is engaging in a brute empiricism.  All they can offer are video clips and lively descriptions of "what people told me."  This is a corruption of the method, and it is precisely the matter with a lot of the ethnography on offer in the commercial world. 

5 thoughts on “ethnography meets brainstorming (going Israeli)”

  1. The corporate world doing ‘ethnography’ often do ‘pragmatic ethnography’ meaning observe a ‘trendy’ place for a couple of days, or interview some persons to get funny quotations. ‘Doing ethnography’ has become the new focusgroup, “every consumer company should do some qualitative research”, but more fun because it invloves photos and film. The anthropological knowledge is sadly dismissed when a marketer only want to be hip and show some photos for his/her boss or agency. The anthropologists need to recapture a space in the corporate world that never even was captured.

  2. A great deal of modern management is still, despite Robert S. McNamara and his whizz kids, management-by-anecdote. I’ve lost count of the number of telco managers tell me that some new cell-phone product idea will (or won’t) take off because their teenage son does (or does not) like it, or because they were talking to a friend at the country club who’s sister-in-law did (or did not) like it, and so there’s no need (in either case) to collect any harder evidence regarding potential customer reactions. I wonder to what extent the current fashion among senior managers for ethnographic studies plays to this senior corporate addiction to management-by-anecdote. One challenge for corporate ethnographers, it would seem to me, is to support business decision-making without becoming an enabler for further anecdote-abuse in the C-suite.

  3. Good gravy man! I was just taking time out from rewriting endless proposals to catch up on your blog. And I tagged a couple of paragraphs on delicious, because I love your ideas about how to brainstorm well. We should get these engraved on stone tablets and sell them to people, you have it nailed.

    And as I am cruising through this article, I see that I should refocus my commercial efforts into “brainstormer for hire”. (Actually, believe it or not, this is starting to happen in some limited ways, no thanks to my careful positioning efforts, it just seemed to emerge as a concept for some clients. Others, as you know, are so threatened by new ideas from their hired help that you need to keep your creative tendencies well in check if you want repeat work.)

    More to the point, when will we get to brainstorm again? Will we ever? It would be transcendent.

    Warm regards, your friendly neighborhood brainstormer.

  4. Good gravy man! I was just taking time out from rewriting endless proposals to catch up on your blog. And I tagged a couple of paragraphs on delicious, because I love your ideas about how to brainstorm well. We should get these engraved on stone tablets and sell them to people, you have it nailed.

    And as I am cruising through this article, I see that I should refocus my commercial efforts into “brainstormer for hire”. (Actually, believe it or not, this is starting to happen in some limited ways, no thanks to my careful positioning efforts, it just seemed to emerge as a concept for some clients. Others, as you know, are so threatened by new ideas from their hired help that you need to keep your creative tendencies well in check if you want repeat work.)

    More to the point, when will we get to brainstorm again? Will we ever? It would be transcendent.

    Warm regards, your friendly neighborhood brainstormer.

  5. There’s some good comments in the Art of Innovation about brainstorming, much of what Grant said, but some other pointers about assigning a couple roles — someone to monitor and someone to orchestrate if I remember. But it’s been awhile.

    I was just reading a list of rules of the innovative former Immaculate Heart College of Art and one of the rules is about how you can’t create and analyze at the same time. So don’t.

    One of my favorite Anthropology professors, Richard Handler at U.Va. (I took so many of his classes, that he told me to stop, because I got knew his schtick and I needed to learn from others) was absolutely one of the most brilliant teachers (in part because he worked at teaching. it was important to him.) He had the amazing ability to move beyond the stand and deliver. He could make a 250 person lecture class operate like a 15 person seminar. Mesmerizing in his ability to both lecture, and manage Q&A simultaneously. I will never forget how fantastic that was, especially in a class where the topic and his theories were controversial.

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