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  • mariellevelander

The enterprise anthropologist

I have traveled a winding professional road to arrive at the nebulous role of “product operations manager”. However, at the root of all those twists and turns was always my training in anthropology, a discipline that has taught me how to derive my purpose in any kind of enterprise. Today I want to share three tactics I use as an enterprise anthropologist.

What is anthropology?

I wanted to be an anthropologist ever since I was in middle school. What could 11 or 12-year old Marielle have thought this involved? To me, anthropology has always been a way of seeing the world, of being curious about other perspectives, experiences, and cultures, and not afraid to ask why and dig deeper into the peculiarity of human life.

Yes, essentially anthropology is the study of human beings, of the human experience. That is pretty broad, and when some of you hear anthropologist, the image that might immediately come to mind is that of an academic conducting research over several months or years among a culturally distinct and remotely based community (with a controversial history rooted in colonialism, like so many other primarily western academic disciplines).

But anthropologists nowadays are embedded in all sorts of roles and organizations, studying everything from how we interact with new technologies like AI and VR to how we experience and perceive public services like healthcare and education.

My preferred definition of anthropology is borrowed from our purpose at Babbel, a language learning solution where I currently am responsible for product operations. At Babbel, our purpose is to create mutual understanding through language. This resonated with me, because as a bilingual Swedish American kid who at an early age lived in places like Malta, Ecuador, and Jordan, I saw the need early on for establishing mutual understanding, and this is exactly why I was drawn to the field of anthropology.

My personal definition of anthropology is about creating mutual understanding by learning about and from my fellow human beings.

To me, it is less a discipline and more a way of seeing, understanding, and operating in the world. That is because anthropologists are curious to their core. Anthropology is about not taking any aspect of our human experience for granted and not being afraid to ask why.


From anthropology to operations

But what do you use an anthropology degree for, especially since it’s not a widely known field outside of academia, as we’ve recognized, it’s very broad? Since anthropology naturally involves qualitative research to surface our understanding of a culture or people, user research is a common path and where I began my career. As an ethnographic researcher, I would answer questions like:

  • How do people access online learning in Brazil and Indonesia?

  • What role does radio play in governance and civic engagement in Nigeria?

  • Why would the residents of NYC have use of public open data?

While answering these questions was fascinating, I couldn’t resist going deeper and questioning how we did our research, or why we made certain business decisions. I also began interrogating the practices of the organizations we presented our research to, how our findings traveled through their organizational structure. And that is what brought me to research operations and product operations, to answer questions like:

  • What constitutes best practice? Who decides that and why?

  • How do we best collaborate across functions? What causes collaboration to break down?

  • And why do we structure our processes in this way? Is there a better way?

So as a result, I moved from anthropology to operations. And while I don’t think anyone at Babbel thinks of me as an anthropologist, having that anthropological mindset has been invaluable to making sense of a role that in many companies doesn’t yet have a clear definition or purpose.

Three tactics to be an enterprise anthropologist

I’d like to share with you three aspects of that anthropological mindset that have helped me.

1. Insights are everywhere

Anthropologists posit that any aspect of human behavior or interactions can be useful insight. I want to share a story that illustrates how this perspective was valuable in a startup setting.

At Babbel, we wanted to establish a new Product Operations strategy after an organizational change. It was already at the end of the year, so time was tight to finalize it before January, and I had only joined the team in mid-September. But fortunately, this was a lower lift than you’d expect, and it is because of this concept that insights are everywhere.

Since I had started, I had treated every 1:1 coffee chat or presentation or company document as an opportunity for insight. I had captured my notes and tagged them according to themes that had started to surface, and broken them down on a Miro board.

When the request came for a product ops strategy, I already had this wealth of data captured to consult and analyze, and could easily pull out some key problems to solve that helped our Head of Product Ops quickly define a purpose that resonated with our wider Product Department.

But how do you apply this tactic?

  • Be a participant observer: First of all, anthropologists see themselves as participant observers. We have one foot in, so to say, getting involved and taking on a special and active role in the community we want to understand. At the same time we have one foot out, objectively questioning jargon used, rituals and ceremonies performed, and roles that are defined. Remembering your role as a participant observer will help you identify opportunities for insight.

  • Have a system for documenting your insights: Also, anthropologists often do research over longer periods of time, that require a set system for capturing and tagging notes to make analysis easier in the long run. In my example, my Miro board and an accompanying question guide saved me a lot of time both in documenting insights and understanding them in the frame of a product ops strategy.

  • Regularly review your insights: Finally, since your insights are usually gathered over time, it can be hard to know when to stop and take a deeper look. I’ve introduced quarterly “insights review” blocks for myself to remember to regularly analyze the continuous ethnographic insights I gather.

2. Discuss to understand

The second aspect of an anthropological mindset is to discuss what you learn. Anthropology requires self-reflection, but this doesn’t have to happen in isolation. I’ve learned to check my assumptions by sharing my insights with a range of peers.

An example of how this proved incredibly important: before Babbel I worked at Dashlane, a digital security startup. I was tasked with understanding why product managers were not adopting a user feedback tool that we had expressly introduced to make user feedback more accessible to them.

Through my initial conversations with PMs, I thought the problem was overwhelm, that they didn’t have time. But after convening a cross-functional working group that cut across product management, engineering, and customer service, I checked this assumption and we collaboratively went deeper.

In the end we discovered that the root of the problem was a lack of understanding of when and how the user feedback was relevant to these teams. So it wasn’t a problem with time management as much as a problem with our mindset around user feedback. This opened up the opportunity for co-creating a solution that actually solved the problem at hand.

What tactics from anthropology can help you apply this?

  • Understand your assumptions: First of all, there are many different kinds of assumptions and biases, like confirmation bias, sampling bias, and stereotyping. Learning about them has helped make me more aware of them and catch myself.

  • Practice empathy: Also, central to any anthropological approach is the practice of empathy. Putting myself in other people’s shoes has helped me have more meaningful conversations to uncover what is wrong. Empathy helps me see the humans I seek to understand in a more well-rounded way.

  • Engage in active listening: I’ve learned that listening is not just waiting for your turn to speak. To actively listen is to let your anthropological curiosity guide you, to ask follow-up questions and probe deeper into what people are telling you. This has led to much more insightful conversations that surprise me in the way they challenge my assumptions.

3. Think holistically

The third aspect of an anthropological approach that I apply is to think holistically.

I see myself as a systems thinker, and that is very much a result of my anthropology background. To me, that means understanding your context and not underestimating its complexity.

What has that meant for my role in product operations? I’ll give a recent example. At Babbel I am rolling out a new tool for making team roadmaps and plans more visible across the company. I wanted a way to indicate how we are pursuing our strategy (enshrined in our OKRs), as that was something this tool could do and that we weren’t doing yet.

In the process of introducing this feature, though, I needed to build the bigger picture. I had to understand the wider process established around our strategy implementation, and how we formulated, documented, and updated our OKRs, so I understood where this new tool and behavior would fit.

Naturally, looking deeper into company-wide strategy implementation surfaced new challenges, around ensuring consistency and accuracy in how OKRs at the team level were updated and reported on at the company level.

I realized that relationships and systems needed to be strengthened to ensure we were united in our purpose. Instead of shying away from this widening scope of what started as a side-task, I decided to engage with this complexity and find a better way forward.

So what tactics helped me manage this complexity.

  • Know your context: First of all, anthropology insists on never separating a subject from its context. Everything we do and think needs to be understood in context, the enabling environment of our behaviors. Paying attention to context helps me recognize interconnections and dependencies.

  • Map your relationships: Secondly, anthropologists know that the meat of the matter is in understanding our human relationships — while our ideal systems are often captured in org charts and diagrams and documents, it is often in our relationships that we understand how our systems really function (or may be breaking down). Mapping and more deeply understanding the human relationships that enable our systems to function has helped ground me in understanding my context.

  • Don't underestimate complexity: Finally, humans are complex. And our enterprises are not some sort of inhuman organism. We have to recognize the random, unpredictable, often messy reality of being human. Thinking in this way has helped me appreciate my colleagues not just as the holders of their titles or responsibilities, but as complex individuals with shifting emotions, needs, and capacities.

What can you do next?

Now that was a lot of text, so let me recap the highlights. This is what I’d like for you to remember:

  1. Appreciate that insights are everywhere, and continuously gather and analyze them.

  2. Discuss your insights with others in order to more deeply understand them and check your assumptions.

  3. Think and act holistically, and understand that enterprises are comprised of humans that live messy complicated lives and have a whole web of relationships that enable our systems to work.

The most important step of learning, however, is to apply the lesson. Here’s what I’d like for each of you to do this week, as you digest the insights from all these great talks and workshops:

  1. Set up a space and system to continuously capture insights that can help inform your purpose

  2. Then, note down any assumptions that may be embedded in your insights, and for each assumption, identify a person you could discuss it with.

  3. Finally, I’ve started a practice of introducing a kickoff meeting to the start of every new change initiative or transformation journey. But the purpose of this kickoff is actually, sneakily, for myself to better understand the context I will have to operate in, and the roles and relationships that will need to be involved and understood.

With these lessons, I hope you have a deeper appreciation for anthropology, and its relevance to enterprise design. These aspects of anthropology have helped me define a purpose that is informed by the reality of our human experience, and therefore bound to have an impact.

This was originally presented as a talk at Intersection22, an enterprise design conference organized by Intersection Group.

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