Ethnographic Practices #4: Uncover the Workarounds

In our previous post, we examined barriers in three parts of our lives that are likely symptoms of an underlying orthodoxy and explored how we, as design thinkers, can unlock opportunities by challenging orthodoxies.

As we are closing these blog series, we’ll examine the the last practice "Uncover the Workarounds."

The Power of Asking "Why?"

As consultants, our first goal is to ask, “why?” to uncover orthodoxies representing entrenched norms and barriers to change within client organizations. Often called standard operating procedures (SOPs), norms are implemented in the name of efficiency but fail to evolve with customer needs. This failure to develop manifests as workarounds erected by employees who perceive change out of their control as a loss of power. Our job is to uncover these workarounds and determine if they represent underinvestment in new systems or a planned, defensive tactic to maintain value in an organization.


In our personal lives, orthodoxies are necessary to move efficiently through our days. Every day, we take the same train to work, buy coffee at the same café, and sit at the same desk in the same building. The consistency of routines, managed by the amygdala portion of our brains, conserves energy for critical thinking activities led by the prefrontal cortex.

However, expending energy on critical thinking during our day leaves little energy at the end of the day for our families, meal preparation, and self-care. At this point, we all fall victim to our subconscious routine only to bemoan our lack of relationships, apathy towards exercise, and poor nutritional habits.

Just as writers suggest “write in the morning, edit in the afternoon, and read in the evening,” we should reconsider our routines (orthodoxies) and move heavy cognitive loads earlier in the day and invite less conscious activities into the end of our day. What better time than now, working from home to reimaging your orthodoxies?


In my experience leading sales teams, there was always conflict around logging contacts and activities in the Salesforce CRM database. Why? Leaders wanted visibility into their salespeople’s actions, yet watching salespeople creates resentment.

Is lack of compliance a usability issue? Asking “why?” uncovers the user-centered belief that a salesperson’s list of contacts is their value, and the use of Salesforce is ceding this information to their employer. Then the orthodoxy is keeping an Excel spreadsheet of contacts, and if terminated, the salesperson can email the list to their personal email and start fresh at a new company.

The solution is not doubling-down on the orthodoxy of a centralized database but accepting that fear is the salesperson’s primary motivation and reframing their value as relationships, not phone numbers in a CRM.

Social Impact

Although B Corps have gained notoriety, “nonprofit” remains the catch-all term for an organization pursuing social impact. With this title comes the orthodoxies of lower salaries for employees, smaller budgets for initiatives, and generally playing “second chair” to for-profit entities. “Why?”

One orthodoxy is that more substantial financial rewards (salary, bonuses, and stock options) drew talent to for-profit organizations. However, today’s talent understands their impact must extend beyond maximizing individual profit to protecting the environment, fighting for racial justice, and improving healthcare access.

As leaders of for-profit organizations, it is time to challenge our orthodoxies. How might we incorporate the mission-driven ethos of nonprofit organizations, while extending living wages to these social justice leaders, to create a more accessible, equal, and inclusive society? With these values at our core, I am confident that profits will follow. Let’s take that risk.

Final Thoughts

At the end of our Ethnography discussion, we want to emphasize the empathy practiced during Discovery is the foundation of the design thinking process. Upending our reliance on “common knowledge,” Discovery involves intentionally slowing down to gather new information. The tactics include empathically observing and immersively engaging with customers, front-line employees, and leadership. Without uncovering our users’ needs, precious financial and human resources are wasted on solving the wrong problem. Whatever the outcome of your Discovery work, it will reorient your focus towards addressing your users’ needs.

Let’s Talk

If you lead a team, a division, or an entire organization facing corporate or societal challenges that require a breakthrough solution, we look forward to sharing our thoughts with you. Contact us.