5 Ways Studying Anthropology Can Make You a Better Project Manager

5 Ways Studying Anthropology Can Make You a Better Project Manager

Olivia Jardine has worked in project management for five years. She has a B.A. in anthropology and history from the University of Sussex and the University of California, Berkeley.

When you think of anthropology, you might think of colonial Brits on a faraway island, noting down minute details about their “subjects.”

Despite this being an accurately bleak depiction of the origins of anthropology, the discipline has fortunately since grown.

Anthropology now looks at important global issues from a socio-cultural perspective. In their study of culture and society, anthropologists aim to answer questions such as, “How does gender impact on social mobility in the U.S.?”; “How can we improve access to mental health care?”; and “What does Silicon Valley stand to learn from female IT workers in Bangalore?”

A newer focus of this field is the anthropology of business. Trained anthropologists now study topics such as how different office cultures can lead to desired company outcomes, or how certain working cultures can lead to their sector’s downfall. For example, Karen Ho describes this phenomenon in, “Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street,” which explores the volatility of investment banking, and how it’s not necessarily the result of the boom and bust capitalism, but the consequence of Wall Street culture. Anthropological studies such as these are often considered essential reading for any MBA course.

Businesses such as Microsoft, which is the second-largest employer of anthropologists worldwide, are already investing in those with backgrounds in anthropology. It’s no surprise that the skills gained through anthropological training, including heightened listening abilities, improved cultural understanding, and social research skills, are helping businesses to better themselves, their products, and their understanding of their markets.

These are all hugely important skills when it comes to project work, so here are five ways anthropology can improve your approach to project management.

1. Influence your project stakeholders through ethnography

Ethnography is all about developing an understanding of a group of people or culture by studying their customs, habits, and mutual differences. And for years, companies have been using ethnographic research to gain a deeper understanding of their customers.

In the introduction to his forthcoming book, “GeoPants: Business With Strangers,” Professor Barry B. Levine of sociology and anthropology at Florida International University, cites research from the economic anthropologist, Piore, on how Levi’s uses ethnography in their campaigns:

The jeans company, Levi Strauss, for example, asks their designers to immerse themselves in the culture of their consumers. To anticipate fashion trends, they become avid change-sensitive anthropologists and do field research on their consumers’ favored music, radio and TV shows, magazines, bars, shopping outlets, and ‘how they carry them[selves] on the street.’

Levi’s designers develop a broader understanding of their audience’s tastes and aims in order to produce a product which answers to what their target audience wants to be holistically, and portray how a pair of Levi’s jeans could help them get there. That’s a lot more effective than simply looking at jean preferences in their target markets.

When working on agile projects, project managers need to take a similarly in-depth approach to understanding their stakeholders and the market fit the project must deliver to. Discussing what makes a good project manager in CIO, managing director of management consulting firm Intellilink, Fumi Kondo, explains, “project managers can’t effectively influence others if they don’t understand what motivates their stakeholders. They need to learn their stakeholders’ concerns about a project, take those concerns seriously, and address them.”

So, to ensure you complete a project that fully meets the requirements of your stakeholders, begin by trying to gather a greater understanding of what your respective stakeholders want and need from the project.

This might be via a consultation seminar with investors or partners, or by immersing yourself in your end users’ setting to truly get a feel for what they would need from the project. For example, if you were managing the production of a WordPress plug-in specifically for designers, you could spend a few days in a design studio, understanding your target audience’s workflows, communication channels, and visual preferences.

2. Learn about your target audience with social listening

In their article on understanding consumer data, Professor Susan Fournier and Bob Reitveld share a story about how a large pharmaceutical company significantly altered an ointment product resulting in significant profit for the firm because of “social listening.”

Social listening, they explain, is the art of tuning into not only data-driven feedback from representative samples but also into smaller but sometimes significant, pieces of feedback. Their example is a man who shared a picture on social media demonstrating how to prevent the ointment from staining clothes—an issue that despite years of consumer research, the pharmaceutical firm had no idea existed.

Fournier and Reitveld claim that “social-listening competency may well define competitive advantage in the digital age,” but that “successfully disseminating the results of social listening requires skill at seeing stories and developing insights from messy data. It also requires a penchant for simplicity.” A penchant and skill set that Fournier and Reitveld claim is uniquely held by anthropologists.

Patty Block, President of The Block Group Inc. and anthropology grad, shares how active listening transfers directly into effective project management at her firm:

My company develops operations manuals for small businesses…Since this project is very collaborative, observation and active listening play an important role. We need to talk with every employee to understand their frustrations and needs…the whole process is tied to the a strong understanding of human behavior.

It’s this type of specific but valuable feedback, both demonstrated in the ointment story and gained by interviewing Patty Block’s product users face-to-face, that can determine whether a project outcome is useful or useless.

Try taking an Agile approach to projects by inviting feedback along the way in different forms. Here at MeisterTask (a project management software company), we conduct annual user surveys, but in addition, we’re soon to start a round of one-on-one interviews with current and target users to establish how best to answer their specific pain points with our products—an important factor in any product or project management process, which entrepreneur Myk Pono has written about in great detail.

3. Become an empathetic project leader

Writing on what makes a good project manager, Kondo of Intellilink claims that compassionate leadership is an essential trait, as, after all, “project managers rely on their team to be successful.”

Fortunately, anthropology trains project managers to be just that. Forbes 30 Under 30 listee and anthropology grad, Gemma Sole, shares how important these skills are in her work in retail management:

From a managerial perspective, one of the biggest things anthropology taught me was empathy and observation. Both of these skills are crucial as you begin managing people and are not often taught at an undergrad level.

Dr. Heidi Bludau, Applied Anthropology Lecturer and Career Advising Mentor at Monmouth University, agrees that these interpersonal skills are down to anthropological training, as anthropologists “bring empathy and holistic understanding and perspective to different projects; we seek to understand a problem in its broader context.”

To this end, if you’re struggling with a team member’s engagement, try to take a compassionate approach by recognizing the issue in a wider, multifaceted context. As Subir Chowdhury teaches Fortune 500 execs in his classes on empathetic leadership, without their team, a leader is nothing, so support your project team to do their best with a little empathy and appreciation.

4. Deliver projects worldwide with cultural know-how

In international business and the tech sector, in particular, distributed teams working across offices and time zones are now commonplace. To manage a project and team effectively when working across countries and cultures, having a little anthropological know-how can take you a long way.

Kyle Arteaga runs technology PR firm Bulleit Group, managing global PR projects for clients such as Google and Bloomberg. Kyle explains that there’s a fair amount of navigating local bureaucracy and regulations involved in Bulleit Group’s international work, but feels his cultural grounding with a degree in anthropology assists this hugely:

Anthropology teaches you how to navigate bureaucracy, as well as how to conduct primary research on the fly, analyze and course correct. The growing power of multinational corporations coming at the expense of state sovereignty means that a clear understanding of how to navigate these differing types of bureaucracy is necessary to make any type of impact.

All international projects need to account for local customs and regulations. However, according to Arteaga, taking an analytical and culturally-aware approach to these challenges can put you in a unique position to overcome the bureaucracy efficiently, by working out what really is required to progress.

International project teams can also come up against issues when communicating across working locations. Writing recently on the “Art of Listening in Distributed Teams,” Genevieve Conti, UX researcher, and anthropology graduate explains that challenges can occur especially when coworkers predominantly communicate online, because, with text-only communications, tone can easily be misconstrued.

Genevieve’s solution to this is to make your online communications with a distributed project team more visual, with a simple communication method that seems to transcend cultural divides: emojis.

It might sound silly, but emojis help mirror our emotions and provide valuable context for the tone someone means to convey.

See how emojis can change the tone of communication:

project management anthropology

project management anthropology

Without either emoji, you’d have less information to help you interpret the true meaning of what someone is saying.

With a sound understanding of how to apply an overall aim in a local setting, project managers will be better placed to switch between the local level, when establishing how to overcome local challenges and red tape, and a global level, when communicating in ways that will resonate with an international and culturally diverse team. To help with this, project managers can look to the anthropological theory of “glocalization” to understand how “global” concepts, products, and trends can be locally applied.

5. Take a creative approach to project planning

In their article “Anthropology in Business?” Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland say that “Anthropological perspective can spur creative possibility, illuminate markets, make for more effective teams, and frame a different set of solutions.”

According to Denny and Sunderland, anthropology can lead managers to be innovative in their projects and leadership by encouraging them to take a curious and questioning approach.

Dr. Heidi Bludau agrees that taking a fresh and creative approach to projects is something that comes naturally to anthropologists: “In general, we will be the ones asking different types of questions, seeing the problem within broader contexts and seeking alternative solutions.”

Taylor Larson, Director of Strategy and Behavioral Design at Rêve Consulting, recruits individuals with anthropological backgrounds for that exact reason. He explains that “skills such as ethnography are invaluable for understanding consumer needs, motivations, and mental models that drive behavior and expose new opportunities for innovation and growth. These research techniques are almost exclusively found in those that have studied anthropology.”

So, the first way to spark creativity in your project would be to hire an anthropologist to your team. The second way to bring a curious and innovative approach to project work, regardless of your academic background, is through experimentation.

To create an environment where everyone feels their ideas are welcome, try running growth experiments within your team, where team members come up with a small marketing or product experiment and test it. By framing idea generation as experiments, project managers can reduce concerns over whether ideas succeed or fail, as experiments are simply hypotheses that will be proved or disproved. Either way, the project team stands to learn something. By showing project teams that being open with their ideas is actively encouraged, your team will feel more comfortable to be creative, and hopefully, come up with the project’s next winning project.

More about anthropology and project management?

So to recap, here are the five strategies to improve your project work using anthropology:

  1. Try your hand at ethnographic research when working out how to best influence and garner support from stakeholders.
  2. Use enhanced listening techniques to gain a deeper understanding of your end user.
  3. Practice empathy and compassion in your leadership to improve your relationship with your team members and team output.
  4. Develop the cultural know-how to deliver projects globally, even with distributed teams.
  5. To improve creativity and innovation on projects, ask unique questions and be curious.

Do you have any experience in anthropology you want to share or ways in which you feel unique academic degrees can make you a better project manager?

Share your experiences and tips in the comments below!

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