Discover more from Mark Dancer on Flourishing Business
Widening our lens
Can applying social science principles to business deliver newfound hope for the future of distribution?
In this edition, I introduce a powerful tool for distribution's innovators—a discipline that studies humans as humans in the spaces where we live, play, learn, and work. This tool is the science of anthropology, and below, I share what I have consumed from one author, knowing that future editions will add many more insights and experiences and will explore what I learn from many others. My exploration of anthropology as a method for innovating distribution may help today's leaders take stock of their company's innovation methods, guide their people, and reimagine what is possible. But even more, I want to inspire and arm distribution's new innovators—those driven to do business differently in the future where they will work. This edition is a start; I am looking for others who are on a similar journey. If that's you, reach out. Let's talk. I need your help.
Seeing things differently
We live in epic times, creating opportunities for extraordinary innovations guided by purpose and executed through business models that align with the emerging modernity. To achieve the best possible future for distribution, innovators must see the world differently, with effective methods for translating what they observe into actionable ideas and plans for implementing them.
Looking for help, I found Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life by Gillian Tett. Tett knows business; she chairs the editorial board, US, for the Financial Times and writes columns on finance, business, and the political economy. Tett also knows humans, as she holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Putting both together, Tett offers a radical approach to dealing with the challenge and opportunity of data and digital technologies.
Tett asserts that we can understand behaviors by studying customers, companies, and markets through an anthropological lens. She calls this "anthro-vision" and explains how to do it with wit and wisdom, exploring a comprehensive list of catastrophes and calamities, including the supply chain crisis, COVID-19 pandemic, Great Financial Crisis of 2008, corporate ineptitude and cultural oddities, social and political polarization, working at home and the future of work, sustainability, and more.
Working through her book, I find hope for finding the future of distribution. I was intrigued, but I know nothing about anthropology. As defined, anthropology is the study of humanity, achieved through social and scientific methods that seek to understand cultures and societies. The purpose of distribution is to help us all do our work and, through our work, live our lives. If distribution is a human endeavor, anthropology must offer deep insights and usable tools. But anthropology also appears to be the kind of discipline that businesspeople deem irrelevant, inconsequential, or frivolous—something that is not useful for brass knuckle competition and the pursuit of profits as a guiding light. Tett has an answer. When asked to explain the "point of anthropology," she offers:
We need anthro-vision to survive the half-hidden risks all around us; we also need it to thrive and seize the exciting opportunities created by cyber silk roads and innovation. At a time when AI is taking over our lives, we need to celebrate what makes us human. In an era when political and social polarization is surging, we need empathy. After a period when a pandemic has forced us online, we need to acknowledge our physical, "embodied" existence. When lockdowns made us look inward, we need to widen the lens. And since problems such as climate change, cyber risk and pandemics will threaten us for years, we need to embrace our shared humanity. Moreover, I think that the rise of the sustainability movement means that more people instinctively recognize those points, even if they never invoke the word "anthropology."
Please take a moment, reread that passage, and unpack it. Anthro-vision is seeing things differently, noticing what isn't noticed, and embracing a wider lens, meaning thinking beyond what confronts us in the daily grind of doing business. Anthropology is additive. Anthro-vision does not seek to replace strategic planning, continuous improvement, benchmarking, best practices, or any other proven business practice. Instead, anthropology asks us to think about needs and aspirations and how they are pursued in human systems, organizations, communities, societies, and economies.
Tett's justification for anthropology touches on blind spots, risks, and the exponential gains made possible by digital technologies. She acknowledges what ails us: social contagions, polarization, climate and environmental damage, cybercrime, and threats to our public health. She calls for resiliency and regeneration. And she offers hope—an optimism that humanity's problems can be solved by, wait for it—humans!
Foresight and footsteps
I have much to learn about anthropology, but I will find my way through conversations with distribution's innovators and my work with industry associations and their members. At the end of her book, Tett offers five ideas for developing anthro-vision. I accept them as the start of a new journey and share them here, followed by a few initial observations:
We need to recognize that we are all creatures of our own environment, in an ecological, social, and cultural sense.
We must accept that there is no single "natural" cultural frame; human existence is a tale of diversity.
We should seek ways to immerse ourselves—repeatedly, even if only briefly—in the minds and lives of others who are different to gain empathy for others.
We must look at our own world through the lens of an outsider to see ourselves clearly.
We must use that perspective to actively listen to social silence, ponder the rituals and symbols that shape our routines, and consider our practices through the lens of anthropology ideas such as habitus, sense-making, liminality, incidental information exchange, pollution, reciprocity, and exchange.
For distribution's innovators, a wide lens is about looking beyond distribution as the act of delivering products with added value. Our impact on people and cultures exists at the loading dock but carries through every customer team to the point where products and services create value for the customer's customer. We must also look upstream to understand the humanity of suppliers, and in all directions to look at the ecosystem of vendors, academics, policymakers, and more that are doing what they do, sometimes aided by distribution, but often not.
Doing this work adds a new language to innovating distribution; telling stories through the experiences of others; looking back to explore distribution's people, companies, and institutions; and finding a way forward to the future. That's a lot; I can imagine many newsletter editions coming your way.
Please share your ideas and experiences, and let's talk, as humans, about the future of distribution. Share your thoughts below or reach out to me at email@example.com.