Corporate Anthropology -- Helping Companies Move Past Fear: An Interview With Andi Simon

By Randi Zuckerberg

June 27, 2017 6 min read

In business and organizational settings, cultural anthropologists observe what people are doing, observe their habits, listen to their stories, capture the meaning of their symbols and rituals, and try to better understand their values, beliefs and behaviors — all of which are essential components of human cultures. The application of anthropology to corporations and businesses helps to understand how staffs do things, as well as what they aren't doing, so that they can thrive.

That's why I support this woman's work.

Dr. Andi Simon uses an anthropologist's toolkit to help businesses see, feel and think about their company in new ways. She is the principal and founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants and has been helping companies achieve meaningful breakthroughs and growth techniques by applying corporate anthropology to their businesses.

1) Why is it so important to be able to look at your company objectively?

Humans have a major flaw: They believe their own stories about what they are doing and why this is the best way things should be done.

For companies trying to adapt to today's fast pace of change, that comfort with the past throws an anchor into those rocky waters, dragging them backward, just when they need to be innovatively embracing change.

Why is this? Because our brains hate to change. Our cultures are very happy not changing. Consequently, if you stop for a moment and step out and look at your company as if you were an anthropologist on a foreign island, you might be able to see big ideas, large opportunities and untapped areas where you could reimagine your company and its offerings so that it could thrive in changing times.

2) How can anthropological perspectives help women accelerate their roles as innovative leaders?

Anthropologists have a particularly deep focus on and affection for "culture." While there is a great deal of discussion about how "culture eats strategy for lunch," the real challenge for organizations is to excel at what they do while still remaining who they are.

As executives in financial services and health care organizations, we at Simon Associates Management Consultants have seen and experienced firsthand that gender matters in the way people listen, embrace and act upon ideas. If a man suggests a course of action or an innovative solution to a problem, it is far more readily adopted than if a woman suggests the same approach.

Yet extensive research proves that women-led organizations — even hedge funds — often outperform their male counterparts.

The reason? Women, as we saw in our research, prefer a business culture that is grounded in collaboration, teamwork and coordination. This does not mean that they want a firm that is so focused on consensus that decisions are never made and follow-through is not enforced. Rather, they understand that "how" you come to decisions and "how" you implement them achieve better results when these actions are for the betterment of the organization. They definitely want to lead, not follow, but they want to lead collaboratively.

In our study, women also expressed a strong preference for innovative organizational cultures where empowerment encouraged people to take risks and assume responsibility for their ideas and actions. The end goals were bottom-line results and an understanding of the policies and procedures, which they realized were necessary but not sufficient by themselves for an effective organization.

3) How do "gut feelings" play a key role in making business decisions?

With the massive rise of "big data," there is growing literature on how even the most granular decisions are made using data and that we should table intuition or "gut feelings." Perhaps there are reasons to do that, but the brain makes decisions based on emotions and justifies those decisions with data, not the other way around.

Very efficiently, the brain takes data and converts it into a story that makes sense and then crafts a mind map and a perceptual reality, around which future decisions are made. Next, it sorts all future data to conform to its mind map and story, even ignoring and/or repelling new data that challenges the story. When decision-making must take place, the brain relies on what it knows from the past, molding new information to fit its tried-and-true process. Which part of this is the head and which part is the gut is not clear. Often, we as humans think we're acting rationally when in actual fact we're letting feelings drive the story.

4) Studies show that storytelling is the best way to make data visual. Why does data need visualization?

For data to have meaning, it has to be turned into something beyond the numbers themselves. Likewise, for the ideas behind the data to have the intended impact, others need to "see, feel and think" about the data along similar lines as you do.

This is where storytelling comes in. The brain takes data and converts it into stories so that it can be visualized and shared among others. Visualization is what enables people to effectively tell a story to an audience so that they, in turn, can gain insight from the data. Essentially, visualization is really a dynamic form of persuasion, for what is as persuasive as a compelling narrative?

How do you know when you've connected with your audience? When, through your visualization and storytelling techniques, they not only hear it but feel it. That's when you know they "get it."

Randi Zuckerberg is the founder of Zuckerberg Media, a best-selling author and the host of a weekly business show on SiriusXM, "Dot Complicated." To find out more about Randi Zuckerberg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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