Ethnographic Practices #3: Identify Barriers

Last week, we discussed understanding norms and their role in uncovering contradictions in the current reality.

Today, we’ll explore the third practice "Identifying Barriers."

When conducting ethnographic research within a company, finding barriers to change means we are getting closer to understanding the orthodoxies inhibiting innovation. 

For example, job descriptions define specific skills needed to achieve an organizational objective. However, these roles and responsibilities can calcify, becoming obstacles to growth that require more drastic measures to overcome, such as reorganizations and layoffs.

Let’s examine barriers in three parts of our lives that are likely symptoms of an underlying orthodoxy.


Thinking about the barriers I construct that limit my growth, many of the underlying causes are simple comfort. There is comfort in working from my home office. Sending another email could yield a new business opportunity, whereas I do not equally value a thirty-minute walk to my weight loss goals. Is the answer redefining my normal through sheer will and taking a walk or increasing my comfort with ambiguity and embracing the new routine as a step on a bigger adventure?


I often reflect upon John Hagel and Marc Singer’s classic work, Unbundling the Corporation,” which lays out three north stars for a company: infrastructure (economies of scale), customer relationship (economies of scope), and innovation. The punchline is that an organization can successfully pursue only one of these paths at a time.

When a company built upon economies of scale approaches us about “becoming more innovative,” I am curious about the motivations. Tall “river banks” are needed to direct a company’s resources in service to an infrastructure strategy; thus, a pivot to embrace innovation is close to impossible. Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM who wrote Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? would argue the opposite, but I submit he is an outlier, a visionary leader, and not representative of the status quo.

Thus, companies need to question their orthodoxies as being in service to efficiency or barriers to innovation. Before seeking new opportunities, e.g., an innovation strategy, they must diverge and understand the (un)intentional barriers inhibiting this transition.

Social Impact

In my social innovation experience, I find the need for consensus on a policy’s impact takes priority. For example, there is near-unanimous agreement that underserved populations need better access to healthcare. Most initiatives stop their inquiry at this phase and begin well-intentioned initiatives that miss the core issues because access to healthcare is a “wicked problem.”

What if underserved populations do not seek healthcare because of historical trauma, fears of comorbidities, and the financial uncertainties of healthcare costs? Asking these questions threatens the status quo, but perhaps they are the questions we must ask to enact real change.

Next week, we’ll continue with the fourth practice "Uncover the Workarounds," as we are coming to an end in our journey with

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