Understanding, inside and out

Every company, every team is its own system and works in its own ways. There are universal abstractions, but these are only useful when someone can translate them into the particular context of one company or team.

Corporate anthropologists do this. First, they adopt the role of “participant observer.” They get deep into the context of teams and workers at many levels of an organization. They stand on the factory floor, they ride along, they share kitchens and coffee breaks. All the time with “the ever-present notebook in your pocket, jotting down observations.”[1]

They learn the inside perspective. To explain how the system works in the language of the people inside it, the way they experience it.

Then, the anthropologist considers what they saw from the outside perspective, in the frames of various theories. How do these particulars fit into universals of leadership, organization, and work?

This combination of inside and outside perspective provides insights invisible from either one. They might see where the intentions of leaders are lost in communication. They might see that work gets done only by circumventing certain rules.

I am not an anthropologist, but I want this kind of understanding. I want to see the workings of my team both from inside and from outside, to recognize what is particular and what is universal. All the time while doing work.

I am an observing participant.

Developing software with a notebook in my back pocket, I notice how my team gets work done, what rules they circumvent and what unstated conventions they enforce. I notice when I feel surprise or frustration and when others do — clues to deviance from unspoken patterns.

As a member of the team, the inside perspective is natural. I take conscious steps to learn the outside perspective.

I talk with other people at meetups and in Slack communities. Read books and dig into conferences. Seek frameworks and theories of work in online materials and workshops.

Combining this outside view with my natural inside view lets me think about the wider purpose of our work, identify paths that can help us reach the goal more usefully, and flex when the wider system’s needs change.

Do the work, and while watching work. Seek outside perspective. Afterward, reflect. Be an observing participant.

[1] source: Danielle Brown and Jitske Kramer, The Corporate Tribe. Technically they talk about the two perspectives as emic (inside) and etic (outside).