Practical Ethnography

Once again I’m packing for my return to the Copenhagen Business Summer School (ISUP). I am so looking forward to teaching Business Anthropology and Organizational Ethnography – big mouthful but basically … its people-watching with some theory thrown into the mix. Key textbook is written by a fellow Canuck, Sam Ladner who is an Anthropologist at Amazon. She has written a yummy book, Practical Ethnography – a what the heck is it and how to do it book. Great for students. Great for those who wish to explore the new worlds of understanding meaning. Ever taken a survey and found you didn’t fit into the neat little boxes? That is because traditional market research uses an ‘etic’ position – defined by the researcher.  Somewhat useful but sometimes misses the mark.

Ethnography is the study of culture. As Ladner explains “Ethnographers connect details to wider patterns of social life.” It connects direct insights about people and what they care about and why. It takes what is called an ’emic’ position – being from the person’s point of view. Redefining the box or in many cases, removing the box altogether to obtain actionable insight that leads to a game changer. Ethnography puts the needs of the consumer first. And its about time.

If you care about having a competitive advantage, its time to care about ethnography. I can hardly wait to introduce it to the excellent students at CBS. People watching! in the summer! in Copenhagen! Let the educational games begin ….

Practical Ethnography: A Guide to Doing Ethnography in the Private Sector

The Orange Line

I love doing keynotes! It gives me a chance to not only share my story but also to hear the story of others – where they are and where they may yet go. Recently I keynoted a conference of Women Entrepreneurs in Guelph, Ontario in celebration of International Women’s Day. The conference was sponsored by Innovation Guelph, a fabulous organization dedicated to the entrepreneurial spirit.  Many women and men brought their daughters to the opening keynote and I had the chance to speak to many of them. What incredible potential waiting in the wings! I started thinking about what kind of advice I wished I had been given when I started my career path. And, I found a great book especially for women. So I am sharing this gem with you.  The Orange Line is about creating the space to realize that potential in all of us … in many of us, yet untapped. It is about recognizing the social conditioning that informs limitations rather than opportunities. Its about choosing BOTH a career and a life. The authors research uncovered how women get trapped in outdated modes of thinking that define the “perfect woman”.  An easy read on a difficult topic that needs exposure to sunlight! Many thanks for Jodi Detjen, Michelle Water and Kelly Watson for telling it like it is.

So that we can change it.

The Orange Line: A Woman’s Guide to Integrating Career, Family and Life

Leadership BS

Have you ever wondered why organizations keep spending thousands of dollars on leadership programs and the evidence actually indicates that our workplaces are filled with distrustful, disengaged and dissatisfied employees? Have you noticed that the qualities we select most leaders for in an organization are unlikely to produce leaders that are good for employees or long-term performance?  Maybe its time to tell the truth about leadership – and the shadow side of organizational life. Jeffrey Pfeffer knows of what he writes. He teaches at the Stanford School of Business and has authored or coauthored fourteen books on topics such as power, management people, organizational design and evidenced-based management.

It may sound like a depressing topic but I find it somewhat comforting.To build a science of leadership you need reliable data. I am tired of the ‘feel-good’ stories of incredible companies that never seem to reside in my backyard. I teach a course in how to survive organizational politics for change agents. Every individual so far comes to me battered and bruised from the realities of organization life. At conferences, I am frequently asked to speak on building corporate cultures that support innovation. The topic discussions quickly come to shadow side of leadership and how to survive until trust can be rebuilt. Many people, maybe most people, have soul-crushing jobs. That is the reality in which we live. Pfeffer is blunt, yes. He states that if we don’t have baseline measurements of leader and workplace conditions it is simply impossible to know what to do to make any improvements. So … do you want to be the one to ask for 360 reviews on your leadership team? Me neither.

Research tells us that people who deliver bad news sometimes suffer adverse consequences. If we want to change the world of work, Pfeffer claims that we need to act on what we know rather than what we wish and hope for. Great leaders are rare. So what to do? What is the implication for the average person in an average organization? Pfeffer recommends becoming a skilled and unbiased observer and pay attention to what your leaders do, NOT what they say. The most fundamental principle of learning theory is behaviour is a function of its consequences. What behaviour is rewarded in your organization? Leadership for the people or leadership for  profit?

This is not a feel good book about leadership. But, if you are looking for confirmation of workplace reality and some solid suggestions on evidence-based management, this book is for you. It balances the heroic tales of exceptional leadership and organizations on my shelves and gives practical advice on how to survive until you can find one (or build it yourself). Consider this book a practical survival manual if you are not in the enviable position of working with a great leader and/or a great organization. I truly believe we can get there. But, not just yet.

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time

Leaders Eat Last

Fall is always an exciting time for me.  Maybe because it is the start of a new school year – so therefore full of possibilities and potential. Maybe because Fall is my favourite season – transformation is literally in the air.  I had an excellent summer in Copenhagen at the Business School.  It is such a pleasure working with students who are dedicated to their learning and celebrate their own potential. Is that every student? No, but enough to rejuvenate my spirits and feed my soul.

One of the highlights this summer was visiting NOMA – an experience best described as living ‘food art’.  Definitely a bucket-lit item for any foodie. The meal was superb as could be expected, but the experience was made transformational for me in hearing a sous-chef state: “I don’t work for a restaurant. I serve NOMA. I serve my country. I serve a movement.” The statement left me in tears, for I have never heard such a powerful statement about corporate culture. I only wish I could hear that level of commitment more. But first, it has to be earned. And that is the role of the leader.

Simon Sinek has written a great book about leading an innovation culture. How you get it and how you keep it. What if you got up every day and could not wait to get to work? How many of us can actually say “I love my job” let alone “I serve” as above? The title comes from a marine general who states that leaders go to the back of the chow line and the most junior soldiers eat first. Why? Because it symbolizes in no uncertain terms that the role of a leader is to sacrifice individual comfort in service to the good of those in their care. Walk the talk. What a novel concept and what a shame it is so rare. Have you had an experience of that type of leader? I have. And would follow them anywhere.

Sinek also covers his topic from a biological/sociological perspective which provides additional insight into how cultures thrive. If you are contemplating any initiatives this Fall, as part of your own organizational transformation, this book is a must. It is one of the best business books I have read in a while. And for this book addict, that is high praise indeed. A Fall Feast for you.

Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

Ethnography for Marketers

If you are serious about understanding your customers, you need to hone your ethnographic skills.  In plain english, how you watch and listen to people in order to obtain actionable insights. My favourite go-to book for advice is a gem from Hy Mariampolski. It is a practical guide to understanding ethnography – for those of you who didn’t study anthropology. Some business schools are getting smarter and suggesting business students study both anthropology and psychology in order to obtain better and faster customer insights. As Mariampolski states: “The greatest challenge for market research nowadays is to deliver value by linking findings to the strategic business decisions that confront corporate decision makers. Ethnography responds to this challenge by observing consumers in the their ‘natural’ environments and then turning these consumer encounters into ideas that transform brands and product categories.”  The book gives you basic theory and very practical guides to implementation. For beginners or experts, this is a great reference guide.  A recommended text for my business anthropology classes in Copenhagen and here in Canada.


Ethnography for Marketers: A Guide to Consumer Immersion


People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch

The door is round and open, don’t go back to sleep. – Rumi

Another exceptional find for you from the Spirituality and Creativity in Management conference in Barcelona. Judi Neal has written an exceptional book about those who walk on the leading edge of creativity and innovation. A friend of mine calls it ‘the bleeding edge’ – as you can bleed to death out there. It is not a place for the faint-hearted. Judi Neal has courageously walked this path all her life.

Judi Neal is the retired director of the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas. Judi has been one of the earlier and consistent professionals and academics dedicated to the topic of Spirituality in the Workplace over the past years. She created the Spirit at Work association and website more than a decade ago, played an essential role in creating and establishing the Management Spirituality and Religion interest group within the Academy of Management and developed the Tyson Center for Faith and Spirituality in the Workplace from 2009 to 2013 as its first Director. Judi is an officer at the Academy of Management and co-founder of the Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion. She has earned her place as an Edgewalker and moves freely across the bridge she has built.

Edgewalkers tells the tales of those change agents who wish to truly revolutionize the role of business in the world. Edgewalkers are those that don’t ‘fit’ the conventional roles in an organization. Edgewalkers have a strong sense of their purpose in life. Edgewalkers are the ‘bridge builders who link different paradigms, cultural boundaries and world views’. Judi speaks to five major attributes of all Edgewalkers: self-awareness, passion, integrity, vision and playfulness. Who do you know that has these traits? She believes that Edgewalkers are the leaders of the future and calls them the corporate shamans who walk into the invisible world and bring back wisdom and guidance for their organizations. Any organization that embraces and nurtures their Edgewalkers will have a unique competitive advantage. I couldn’t agree more!

This book provides both stories that inspire and practical tools to enhance your edge walking skill.  So … will you come to the edge?

Edgewalkers: People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education

Some books you just inhale, and this is one of them.  I have loved Ken Robinson since his first where he speaks to how schools kill creativity. Viewed over 33 million times, you might say it struck a collective nerve. His latest book does it again. One of my colleagues mentioned it to me today and I grabbed it on Kindle almost immediately. Over dinner, I read. Feed the body and feed the soul.

He speaks of the need for revolution by thinking of how schools current work (or most don’t actually), asking what counts as a school and how we might tell a different story about education. Why? His words. “If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it. If you run an education system based on standardization and conformity that suppresses individuality, imagination and creativity, don’t be surprised if that’s what it does.” This books belongs in the hands of every parent who is worried about their child’s education. It belongs in the hands of every teacher who is passionate about their students – who knows that educare means to ‘draw forth’ NOT stuff in. We need to stop the profit focus on what has been called “educational puppy mills”.  If you care about educational reform, this book is a recipe for revolution. Other countries are paying attention and have transformed their educational system.

So what are we waiting for?

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education