2017-09-07 / Business News

New direction

An anthropological approach can help leaders conquer change in their business

FORGET WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT love. It’s change that really hurts. Corporate leaders will tell you it’s the biggest challenge they face today. Constant change makes it difficult to remain relevant and to create value for customers. “As humans we hate to change,” says Andi Simon, Ph.D., the author of “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights.” Whether it’s introducing a state-of-the-art computer program or transitioning a company to a wholly new and innovative way of working, she says, “Your brain literally creates chemical pain that says, ‘Please stop all that new work.’” And so, instead of enjoying the challenges that come with trying something new, we resist.

“To be sure, our brains are elastic and can, in fact, adapt,” Ms. Simon says. “But it’s not a smooth, easy or comfortable process.”

Dealing with challenges

Business challenges come in many forms, often stemming from external forces such as economic crises or macro shifts in consumer behavior. Yet sometimes roadblocks can come from within a company, when comfortable, but rigid patterns prevent the adaptation and change needed to remain competitive.

When a business hits a point where big ideas have stalled, sales are in a slump and it feels unable to keep up with quickly evolving trends, the emerging practice of “corporate anthropology” can help.

Based on the same principles as classic anthropology — the science of observing humans to understand how they live — corporate anthropology encourages business leaders to step outside their day-to-day processes to observe not only how their enterprises operate, but where unmet needs truly exist. The rationale is simple: Your customers, employees and partners can’t objectively tell you why they behave in certain ways, but when you view them and your business with fresh eyes as an outsider, it’s possible to see the opportunities otherwise overlooked.

SIMON SIMON In “On the Brink,” corporate anthropologist and management consultant Ms. Simon provides a crash course in the game-changing business techniques behind corporate anthropology, while giving examples of organizations that have used the method to bounce back from crisis.

From a medical center facing multiple years in the red and a rural college battling decreasing enrollment to a large plumbing equipment manufacturer whose award-winning product just wasn’t selling and a major customer care company searching for growth, the stories of seven companies struggling to innovate and grow powerfully illustrate the solutions that corporate anthropology can reveal.


It’s tough enough for the people at the top to think about reworking processes and policies; imagine the difficulties when you’re talking about altering the culture of an entire workplace.

Companies have cultures, whether they know it or not, Ms. Simon says. “It’s an amalgam of core values, beliefs and behaviors that pertain to the business and the way it is conducted. Employees live out that culture every day.”

And when the corporate culture has to evolve, getting employees on board can be a challenge. But if company leaders can provide purpose to the changes — by showing how they’ll improve business and create stability after the transition — they have a better shot at a quicker buy-in.

To do that, though, they have to interact with their employees and also get out of the office and witness firsthand how customers use the product or service. Ms. Simon suggests adopting an “anthropologist’s tool kit” to:

¦ Conduct observational research – Consider shadowing clients and employees as they use a product or service. Find out what their challenges are, and what trends have them concerned or excited.

¦ Find customers’ pain points – What happens when someone contacts the company’s customer service center? What works and what doesn’t? Are emails and phone calls answered? What happens when people visit the website? If responses are delayed or unsatisfactory, find out why.

¦ Use culture probes and storytelling – What are the stories customers and employees could tell if they had a company leader’s ear? Put away any defensiveness and just listen.

Ms. Simon also advises companies to expand the research role past the executive level. Allow team leaders and others to be a part of the company’s new story, she says, and encourage them to visualize how they can play new roles in an emerging business environment. “They’ll be the energy behind your innovation,” she promises.

Whether you’re searching for a way to revitalize your business or to expand a currently successful operation into new and profitable directions, the strategies outlined in “On the Brink” will give you fresh eyes and a fresh approach to achieve meaningful business breakthroughs.

About the author

Andi Simon is the founder and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants. She is also a public speaker and an Innovation Games facilitator and trainer. She served as a tenured professor of anthropology and American studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and was a visiting professor teaching entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis. She has appeared on “Good Morning America” and has been featured in the Washington Post, Business Week and Forbes, and on Bloomberg Radio. ¦

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