We met in an airplane hanger with three maintenance guys from XYZ company. They seemed slightly amused by us, as their management team had merely told them that a crew from Accipiter was coming to see how Accipiter landing gear was maintained. I don’t think anyone warned them about the videographer, and there was great curiosity about the camera. The lead maintenance engineer took it upon himself to call the higher ups, to ensure they didn’t have any concerns with us taping the interaction.
My experience with ethnography and direct observation tells me that people will follow one of three paths when they are being videotaped. A small group of people will mug for the camera. Rather than do the things they would normally do, they’ll preen and constantly find a way to be in every shot. Another group of people shy away from being filmed, for a variety of reasons. They clam up and find ways to be out of every shot. These two groups aren’t helpful for an ethnographer, because they are conscious of the camera and don’t get on with their lives in the same way they would if the camera wasn’t there. Our goal is to focus on the third set of people, the folks who understand that the camera is there, but get on with their lives in a fairly normal fashion. Fortunately for us, the three maintenance engineers at XYZ fell into the latter category. After a few minutes of introduction, we spent some time explaining what we wanted them to do, which was simply to get on with their work maintaining Accipiter landing gear. We told them we were interested in seeing their workspace, understanding any issues they encountered that didn’t have a good solution, and following their work as they would normally proceed. After a few questions, they got on with their work.
During our time with them, we recorded about four hours worth of video, and at the end of our session I had about ten pages of notes. Some of those notes were problems or challenges that the maintenance guys faced that I thought could be solved. Some were ideas and recommendations the team made as they did their work. We discovered two work-arounds and one tool that had been invented by one of the engineers, which helped them install the gear once it had been maintained. In the debrief we spent about 30 minutes with the engineers, trying to understand why they took certain actions and understanding their work and how Accipiter products were better, or worse, than other products.
As we drove away there was silence in the van. I nudged Gregg.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“Hmm. Where to begin? I think I learned more about our products today than I have in several years as a product manager and line of business leader. What’s most interesting to me are the insights we gained without really even asking for them.”
Sally, too, seemed impressed.
“Did you see how angry what’s his name, John, got when he couldn’t simply reattach the cowling? We can never learn about these issues with a survey, and certainly can’t understand the passion or emotion that our products create.”
“OK” I said “so far your team is on course with other ethnography work we’ve done. We’ve spotted a lot of low-hanging fruit that made the trip here worthwhile. Did anything strike you that would suggest an unmet need, or perhaps a need that exists that the maintenance engineers didn’t recognize or annunciate?”
James looked at me, then looked away.
“Come on, James, what’s on your mind?”
“Well, this may not be our problem to solve, but those guys were lifting the cowlings and fittings by hand and struggling to keep them in place while reattaching them to the frame. The effort seemed uncomfortable and unnatural, and I bet they suffer a lot of injuries because of that linkage. What if we could provide a hoist or sling that would make it easier to install and maintain our gear. I mean, I know it’s not an advancement on the gear itself, but if we make those guys’ jobs easier, maybe they prefer Accipiter gear and demand to work with our products…” He eyed Gregg nervously.
“All these ideas are welcome and valuable at this stage” I said, pre-empting any negative feedback from Gregg. “We need to consider all the unmet and unspoken needs we find, and use them to generate ideas. Some of those may be in line with our goals, some not, but we aren’t going to pigeonhole ourselves too quickly.”
“Did you see that crazy wrench Tomaz created? I’ve never seen anything like that, but it definitely solved a problem for them. Perhaps we’ve discovered a lead user?” Susan was excited about the outcomes and definitely on board for more ethnography.
“Here’s what I want each of you to do, tonight, as soon as we are back at our hotel. Transcribe your notes and write down any need, any problem that you saw. Do it while it is fresh in your minds. Then we’ll look at the video and compare notes. We want to capture all of these issues, challenges and opportunities, then we’ll begin to consolidate them once the ethnography visits are complete. Don’t start making conclusions yet, just document everything.”
The more convergent folks among the team were clearly ready to start idea generation after one visit, but I wanted to go into the other ethnographic visits with an open mind and no pre-conceived notions. One visit may introduce an anomaly or an outlier. Several visits would establish clear threads or trends.
Sally pulled me aside as we disembarked at the hotel.
“Sam, I need to apologize to you. I was very hesitant about this approach, and it was a hard sell to my management team. But having seen the reaction from James and Gregg, it’s clear we need to incorporate more observation and ethnography in our research work. You’re making a believer out of me.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to see it to believe it” I said. “I’m glad you see value in this approach and that you may be a champion for ethnography. I suspect it will still be a hard sell in your organization.”
She nodded. “Even though we are going to get some great insights, the form and substance of what we take back will be based on our observations, video and synthesis. The results won’t be quantifiable or statistically significant, which is what most of our researchers, and the people who use our reports, expect.”
“Tell me what to do rather than ask me to draw conclusions?”
“Yes. Most of the folks who use our research want a simple, crisp conclusion from the research backed by incontrovertible data. Using ethnography we’ll create valuable insights, but we won’t be able to draw one conclusion or back it with deep data. Ethnography will require that the executives are more involved in the synthesis of the research. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it will require them to change.”
No one ever minds change when it’s someone else who has to change, and everyone minds change when they have to change. The difficulty with innovation is that it requires change, and in uncertain, ambiguous ways that promise great benefits. In the end, people don’t resist innovation; they resist the change that innovation creates.
By Jeffrey Phillips