Pulp Innovation Chapter LXXVIII: Ethnographic Field Trip

Marlow prepares his team to head out into the field to observe the behavior of people using Accipiter's products as part of a larger product or service. When he receives resistance from a team member who believes in the statistical significance of surveys, he asks everyone to go into this with an open mind and the right attitude. He hopes to identify unmet or unspoken needs and identify behaviors that can lead to new opportunities.

When confronted with new information, the average middle manager typically choses one of three reactions.  The first and most likely reaction is to pretend the information doesn’t exist or isn’t valid until it’s been validated thousands of times and is now common knowledge.  The second reaction is to order investigations into proving why the new information is mistaken, wrong, falsely acquired or a statistical outlier.  The third, and best reaction, is one of curiosity – the desire to know more about the new information and what it can mean for a business.  We were off to ethnographic field trips, and were sure to learn which camp each of our innovation team members would support.

To keep the investigation a learning exercise and to remove any taint in the research, we contacted an ethnographic consultant and recruiting firm to help us with our ethnographic work.  The consultant helped us design our interactions and observations to gain the most from our work, and would provide facilitators and videographers to record what we’d be allowed to record.  The recruiter helped us identify and recruit aerospace firms that would allow us to visit.  In this way we felt we’d obtain more unbiased information when we interacted with the people who installed and maintained Accipiter equipment.

To do “real” ethnography is difficult even in a consumer business.  Following people around, watching them use your product or service and observing their behavior creates insights you can’t get anywhere else, but it is a bit artificial.  Even more difficult, then, to observe the behavior of people using your products as part of a larger product or service.  We’d debated the best use of observation or ethnography and opted to observe people installing our products and maintaining the products, hoping to glean insights from their experiences.  The concept of observing people using Accipiter’s products caused several eyes to roll, from people who felt market research and industry analyst information provided far more intelligence than we needed.

“Isn’t this a bit over the top” said Sally, who was having a hard time removing her “market research” hat.  “What are we going to learn watching a few people install or maintain our landing gear?  The sample size is far too small to be meaningful.”

Sally carried weight in the group because she was the market research expert for aerospace.  We were making her uncomfortable with a new technique that provided qualitative results with far smaller sample sizes.

“Sally, we are using different tools to obtain different insights.  Ethnography isn’t equivalent to surveys where we can obtain statistical significance in the result.  The observational nature of the research helps us identify unmet or unspoken needs, identify behaviors that can lead to new opportunities.  We can also identify problems and the level of anger or frustration the problems create, and potential workarounds.  Very little of that can be gleaned from a survey.”

She nodded her head, one foot on the boat and the other still on the dock.

“But we’re only interacting with five or six teams at most.  Will that give us enough data to be meaningful?”

“We’ll have to extrapolate needs and expectations, or our own observations about product direction or needs.  This research is qualitative not quantitative.  Once we have some ideas to test, we’ll come back to a more quantitative set of tools.”

While not completely satisfied yet, she seemed ready to give us the benefit of the doubt, at least until she could spot some gaping holes in the approach or analysis.  I was determined not to give her the opportunity.

“Here’s the plan” Susan said, looking at a map and a calendar.  “We’ll visit Falcon Aviation in Seattle on Wednesday the 15th, and then go on to Sikorski Engineering on the 16th.  The 17th is a travel day to Los Angeles, and on the 18th we’ll visit a maintenance facility for United and a manufacturing location for Southeast Aerospace Limited.”

Everyone nodded their agreement.  Clearing a calendar for a week for one person was a small miracle.  Clearing a calendar for six people for a week – the same week – was parting the Red Sea.

“Red Eye Ethnography will have a facilitator accompany us to every meeting. She will manage the interactions to ensure we don’t tip our hands in any way to what we are trying to learn.  Each group knows we are from Accipiter Aerospace and that we want to observe either installation or maintenance, but they don’t know exactly why.  That’s to keep them from giving us information they think we want to hear.  Red Eye will send along a videographer to each meeting, and we’ll record as much of the meeting as we are allowed to.  Some of the firms have requested us not to film in certain areas or specific product usages, for proprietary or intellectual property reasons.”

“How many hours of video do you think we’ll capture?”  This from Gregg, who was probably dreading the responsibility of watching all the interactions.

“Typically anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the length of the meeting and what they allow us to film.  We’ll capture everything we can.  That will include their descriptions of how they use our products, our questions, their responses, their wish lists.”

“Believe me when I tell you you will be blown away by the insights we get from this” I said.

“We’d better be” said Sally.  “This exercise matches my entire research budget for the fiscal year.”

“I’m not worried about the amount of information and insight that we can collect” I said.  “I’m worried about each of you going into this with an open mind, and the right attitude.  We can obtain as much information as we are willing to allow ourselves, and our teammates, to acquire.  Remember to ask open ended questions and pursue any issue, any problem and any wish list item the people we interview present.  Remember to especially investigate any problem that creates emotion, excitement or anger in their response.  Don’t shut down any line of questions or response – that’s what Red Eye will do for us, manage the conversation.”

“Everyone, book your travel.  We’ll meet at the hotel in Seattle for dinner the night before the first visit.”

Everyone nodded and left, Sally in a hurry to seek more funding for her research budget and James and Gregg in deep discussion about what could possibly be learned from watching a couple of guys install landing gear.  We had our work cut out for us, but so far Accipiter was following the playbook we’d developed.  I was curious to see how much they bought into that playbook, or if they were merely playing along, waiting for the inevitable hiccup to jump ship and revert to traditional tools and approaches.  Years ago I would have wondered what I could do to gain more trust.  The longer I’m in this role the more it becomes obvious that trust is ladled out in very small thimblefuls and snatched back very quickly.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:


Jeffrey 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,” 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.

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