Anthropology Product Management

A Lesson from an Old Anthropologist

Written by Paula Gray

One of the first things we gain in the study of anthropology is the realization that there is both tremendous diversity and similarity in the world. We learn that while all societies share some basic characteristics, their expression can vary greatly. In the recognition, we hope to avoid ethnocentrism or the belief that our own way of seeing the world, (our culture – our own beliefs, values, traditions, language or processes) is superior or more correct than another.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) an early influencer in the field of anthropology was also a revolutionary who gave us the concept of cultural relativism. Rather than comparing other cultures (read, tribes) to our own in order to determine the other culture’s correctness, Tylor believed that we could view those processes, beliefs, and behaviors objectively without overlaying our own judgment. This was a huge shift from the negative criticism or positive defense of practices, to an objective explanation and analysis of them.

What does all this mean for you the product manager?

You belong to a worldwide tribe of product managers with its own culture, or unique set of processes, beliefs, language, customs, and values. You also belong to a corporate tribe with its own culture, or unique set of processes, beliefs, language, customs and values. You actually belong to many tribes sharing their own cultures but for the purposes of this post, we will focus on the two mentioned.

Much conflict within the workplace, especially in those cross functional teams, stems from a lack of understanding someone else’s tribal culture. Often in an interaction or conversation, you measure a person’s opinion, suggestion or behaviors against what you think to be “correct.” Now, take a step back and ask yourself the questions “is my way really the only way, or could there be some value in something that at first glance seems incorrect to me? Could it be possible that things I believe, say or do seem ‘incorrect’ to someone else?”

By asking these questions, you are creating a bridge of understanding that will allow you to move between these seemingly conflicting viewpoints. By stepping out of rigid ethnocentrism, you can learn to see situations from a perspective different from your own.

That ability is priceless.

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
  Wade Davis, Anthropologist

Paula Gray
the anthropologist

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.

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