Leading Edge Forum Blog

What is an anthropologist?

At its simplest, anthropology is the study of people: how we behave, think and act, and most importantly, how we make meaning together. The core characteristics of an anthropologist are curiosity and empathy. Anthropologists want to know about people’s experiences, and we are delighted and humbled by being invited into people’s worlds. A key discovery of anthropology is that we all have our own version of ‘normal’: what is common practice or goes without saying in my world might be interpreted completely differently by someone else. Anthropologists learn to step outside their version of ‘normal,’ suspend judgement, and consider things from many different perspectives.

Learning to think like an anthropologist can radically impact your business by empowering decision- makers to continually update their information about what customers want and need. There is no substitute for spending time with customers and service users (these are not always the same) and understanding what your product means to them in the context of their life or in their work. This continual immersion in the user experience, keeping up with changes in user needs over time, lets you know what small tweaks you need to make and keeps your eyes open for big changes on the horizon. As Yodit Stanton of OpenSensors pointed out in her talk at Map Camp 2018, your customer needs get more sophisticated over time. You need to keep up the conversation as their needs move from a rowing boat to an ocean liner.

But it doesn’t stop there: learning to think like an anthropologist can also improve inter-team relationships as team members learn to explore with an open, curious and empathetic mindset, stepping into their colleagues’ shoes and seeing pain points from their perspectives. Anthropology is an invitation to explore what is sometimes humorously called ‘vuja de’: approaching a situation you’ve been through a thousand times before with a fresh set of eyes, enabling you to see things in a whole new way.

How can an anthropology mindset help your teams?

Problem/Opportunity Identification

Perform the earliest, contextual sensing functions that enable you to understand what problems your users or potential users have. In one well-known example, Adidas shifted its mindset and brand image from a focus on competitive advantage based on the aspirational image of elite athletes to a welcoming brand culture centred around enabling customers to live healthier lives 1 . By learning from anthropologists to spend time immersed in customers’ experiences—not just in athletic contexts like at the gym or in sports competitions, but in the jog before work and choosing the salad instead of the burger at lunch—Adidas was able to see that its customer’s problems, and Adidas’s product opportunities, were quite different from its earlier expectations. Anthropologists can recognize emergent patterns, tracing how memes flow through culture or how ideas flow through corporations and eliciting information about why ideas take hold when they do.

‘Vuja De’

See old problems with new eyes. Design consultancy Ideo focuses on the power of the anthropologist to embrace a ‘vuja de’ mindset: approaching a situation that is familiar and bringing a whole new set of questions and interpretations to the table 2 . You might notice the anthropologists in your business developing a relentless fascination with a process or an object that everyone else takes for granted – something that everyone else deems ‘just one of those things’ but your anthropologist is convinced could be done better. This is especially valuable for shaking up settled, entrenched beliefs and challenging long-held assumptions to bring new creative options to light.

Sense-Making Your Big Data

Balance your meaning-making strategies. As Tricia Wang and others 3 have stated, every business needs to leverage the power of qualitative, lived-experience data as well as quantitative, operational tracking data in order to truly understand the shape of its market now and to come. Failing to do so comes with real business risk: Nokia went from the world’s largest mobile phone company in emerging markets to a bit player due to a myopic dependence on existing customer data; it failed to spot warning signs of a sea change in the market outside the areas where it had robust user tracking already set up. Well-rounded multidisciplinary teams of specialists in quantitative methods partnering with skilled qualitative colleagues can see into each other’s blind spots, creating a 360-degree view of the customer landscape.

Iterate to Validate

Advocacy for the end user. The anthropological mindset is a call to constantly be ‘in the field’ – in touch with users’ lives at the most visceral level. Anthropologists seek the perspective of the person they are building for at every stage of the design process, from conception through prototyping to delivery and beyond. In one example from Photoshop, an anthropologist embedded himself in self-organizing communities of designers to understand their workflows 4 . Photoshop transformed its design process, throwing open the doors to designers and arranging participatory design sessions where users could not only give feedback but also take an active role in shaping how the product would work in the future.

This iterative way of working – constantly taking ideas back to the end user for validation and to test assumptions – can superpower your relationships with customers.

Go Forth and Learn

In the context of LEF’s programme portfolio, Digital Anthropology has the power to bridge the gap between the individual level of 21st Century Humans and the organizational level of Winning in the 21 st Century. Digital Anthropology is about how we make meaning together in our technology-suffused world: companies are increasingly embracing the view that all companies are ‘digital’ companies now that our lives and our work are so enmeshed with digital technologies. By developing a personal Digital Anthropology toolkit, leaders can understand the micro-cultures of their teams, giving critical insight into how information capital flows throughout the organization. Anthropology is also a route to embracing the Matrix Mindset: looking beyond the organization’s internal capabilities and knowledge to discover the earliest signals of shifting patterns in customers’ lives, which is essential to maintain competitive advantage in a rapidly changing market.

The quickest way to embrace an anthropological mindset is to get out of the office. Leave the space you habitually occupy and seek out new perspectives. Get into the world of the people you serve and learn what their habits, practices and – most importantly – their needs are. Find the pains they shout about and the pains that are so ingrained they’ve forgotten about them. Those are the problems you are working to solve. The more time you spend experiencing the world of your users, co-creating the future with them rather than dropping product on them from a great height, the better your chances of building something truly world-changing.

Are you ready to see your world in a whole new way?

1 Drake Baer, “Here’s Why Companies Are Desperate To Hire Anthropologists,” Business Insider, March 27, 2014,
2 Tom Kelley, The Ten Faces of Innovation: Strategies for Heightening Creativity, 2nd ed. (Profile Books, 2016).
3 Neal H. Patel, “Methodological Rebellion: Overcoming the Quantitative-Qualitative Divide,” The Handbook of Anthropology in Business, ed. Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland, Routledge, 2016
4 Charles Pearson, “My Two Years as an Anthropologist on the Photoshop Team,” Medium, July 14, 2015,


We use cookies to improve the user experience of our website. If you continue to browse, we'll assume you are happy for your web browser to receive all cookies from our website. See our cookies policy for more information on cookies and how to manage them.




Future thinking & strategy

Re-imagining business

Leadership & capabilities