Pulp Innovation XXIII: Ethnography Expertise in the Consulting Firm

Matt and Marlow consider hiring an experienced ethnographer and market research consultant to the team. Can a candidate coming from a slow, controlled culture meet the demands of their practice? And more importantly, does she share their same views on qualitative tools?

After my call with Johansen I took my sales frustration out on the piles of work I had on my desk. I was able to plow through several weeks’ worth of messages, followups and introductory calls by the time lunch rolled around. Matt and I had planned a lunch to meet with a candidate to join our practice, an experienced ethnographer and market research consultant who was looking to join an innovation firm. Both Matt and I felt that her skills could effectively round out our team. Matt was the idea generation guy and did a lot of work on culture and communication. I led a lot of trend spotting and synthesis work, and also focused on building innovation processes and methods. Together we both offered training. What we were missing, however, was the capability to help a firm identify customer and prospect wants and needs, especially from a qualitative viewpoint. Meredith could fill Marlow Innovation’s most obvious hole.

Her background and skills were impeccable. She had graduated only a few years before, from one of the few universities that granted an ethnography degree, since that branch of study had only recently split from the more traditional anthropology degree. After graduation she had worked for a mid-sized bank, but given the turmoil in the banking industry and the slow pace of change in that industry as a whole, she was looking for something more interesting and dynamic. We could offer her interesting and dynamic, but I had my concerns.

Moving from a safe, traditional nine to five in the banking space, to a consulting role in the innovation space was a big leap. In addition, Matt and I worked as hunters – we found the work, won the work and as a team we completed the projects we could staff internally, and sourced partners when we needed them. Both Matt and I had sales responsibility, and anyone coming aboard would need to pull their weight in the sales cycle. Would Meredith be able to make the transition from a relatively stable role in a slow moving industry to a consulting role that demanded quick thinking and learning new industries, while taking on sales responsibility and project leadership? It was a steep hill to climb.

I had liked Meredith from the start if for no other reason than that she had contacted us for the interview. I liked that get up and go attitude, and she seemed interesting and engaging on the phone when we first spoke. I’d let Matt talk with her as well before we brought her in to meet in person, to ensure I had his buy in and support. Matt gave her the thumbs up so we planned to meet at Darby’s on Lancaster street – a neutral site that allowed us, and her, to back away if the first face to face didn’t go well.

Darby’s is one of those places that seem to exist only to satisfy my eating requirements. It has a chalkboard full of daily sandwich specials that only Dagwood could truly appreciate. Most of the sandwiches are stacked high with meats, cheeses and vegetables, and make for difficult eating even with good friends. I suppose I should have suggested a place where the food was easier to consume while talking, but Darby’s it was. We arrived and took our regular booth near the back and waited for Meredith to arrive.

“You sure we can afford another person on the team?” Matt asked. We’d been through this before – we had a good pipeline of work for us and a few others, but bringing another senior person on board meant more sales efforts for both of us. However, I thought we could more than recoup the costs by taking on the work we’d been sourcing to other ethnography and research firms.

“I think we can get more work from our existing customers and take on larger projects with Meredith, and we won’t need to outsource so much research work” I said. “No guarantees, but I think her skill set is something we need. You getting cold feet?”

“Cold, no. Cool, possibly. It’s a lot of work to bring someone aboard, and it would be a big change for her as well.”

“She’s probably not the hard bitten type yet, you mean. Used to the 9 to 5 routine. Can she come up to speed quickly on a new industry, and add value quickly?”

“Yeah. It’s an issue. Plus we have this charming rogue image to uphold. Is that possible if we add a younger woman to our mix?”

We were about to find out, as Meredith approached our table. She was younger than Matt and me, not that that mattered, tall and thin, with a slightly pinched face. She’d be more attractive if she smiled, I thought. She looked a bit bookish and shy, unlike what I expected from our call. She had the standard gray interview suit, white blouse with pearls and black heels. Far too put together for a couple of haggard innovation consultants. What a tableau we must have made. Beauty and the beasts.

“Mr. Marlow” she asked.

“I’m Marlow” I said, scooting around in the booth and taking her hand. “And this is Matt Ferguson, my partner. You spoke with him last week.”

“Pleased to meet both of you” she said, but didn’t look pleased. She clasped a portfolio tightly to her chest, as if she might need to ward off unseemly advances or defend herself from disruptive thinking.

“Please join us. Can we get you something to drink?”

“Yes” she said. “Is it close enough to lunch to order a bourbon?”

I knew I had liked her on the phone.

It turned out that Meredith was very nervous, and after meeting a couple of guys like Matt and I you could understand why. After her drink, and a brief introduction from me on the firm and how we operated, she seemed to become much more comfortable.

“I’ve been working for Coastal Bank for over five years” she said “doing primary research, quantitative mostly, and some voice of the customer work. I’ve not had a chance to do as much ethnography as I had hoped, but I have participated in the development and launch of two new products. The work is interesting but slow, given the culture. The bank doesn’t want a lot of risk, so we carefully plan our new products and I think we often miss opportunities. I’d like to do more primary research and ethnography, and I think a consulting firm focused on innovation would be the right place for me.”

“What do you think ethnography and market research can add to an innovation project?” Matt was opening the door. Meredith would make or break her opportunity with us with this answer.

“Most market research tells us what customers like, or don’t like, about the products and services we already offer. Ethnography can give us insights into what people do, and why they do it, and offer a glimpse into needs that they have we can fill. Rather than talk about what they don’t have, or don’t even know they need, we may be able to spot opportunities they haven’t recognized, or needs they have they aren’t aware of yet. Much of the research the bank conducts is focused on understanding satisfaction with existing products and services. While that’s great for our current products, it doesn’t tell us much about the attributes or features of future products and services. That’s an area where I believe I can add a lot of value, deciphering unmet and unarticulated needs using qualitative tools.”

“What’s been the hold up on using ethnography or other tools to decipher future needs?”

“Well, there are at least two primary concerns. First, the bank is comfortable with quantitative results that can be analyzed and are statistically significant. That means simple questions directed at large customer segments. Ethnography and other toolsets interact with customers on a far different level, so it’s difficult to achieve the same volumes or to report quantitative results. The fact that our video footage and qualitative insights are very powerful are balanced by the fact that few people understand how to interpret the information. That points out the second concern. People within the bank understand how to interpret graphs and statistical analysis, but aren’t comfortable having to assess the insights from a more qualitative study. There’s a lot of value in the tools, but sometimes the executives are called on to make judgments about the results, rather than simply assess a quantitative result.”

I met Matt’s eyes and he nodded slightly. These assessments were consistent with our experience. Qualitative tools had extraordinary power to deliver customer insights and uncover customer needs, but often ran counter to existing experiences and expectations. Meredith had the right insights. Now, could she work the way we worked?

About the author:


Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.

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