Be an Anthropologist to spot human ingenuity

I’m reading “The Ten Faces of Innovation” for my class on Maker Spaces. The book was written by Tom Kelley, the CEO of IDEO, a design firm that by definition is invested in being creative. Kelley begins by demonizing the Devil’s Advocate, which he claims “may be the biggest innovation killer in America today.” Critical thinking is good, but the DA is just too negative and squashes creativity.

Instead, Kelley identifies ten different “faces” (or roles) that people can employ to generate new ideas, solve problems, and otherwise innovate. Here I’d like to focus on just one, the Anthropologist, and the interesting view of the world that it encapsulates. (Possibly I find it interesting because it is so foreign to my usual modus operandi.)

Anthropologists gain inspiration by watching people. They observe them struggling with metro turnstiles or pushing that door instead of pulling it. In watching how people interact with the world, they learn not only what things are problematic but also what creative workarounds people already have devised. I figure an Anthropologist was behind the hands-free liftgate feature of my new car: he or she probably watched people approach their car with both arms full of stuff, then fumble or have to put things down to open the back. Now I can just swing my foot under the bumper and the liftgate opens automatically. Bingo!

An example of learning from workarounds might be the pave where they walk approach of planting the quad with grass, waiting a week while people walk the paths they want to walk, and only then pouring cement to create the sidewalks to match.

Kelley suggests an exercise to allow you to try out the Anthropologist face (or hat, or glasses, or whatnot):

“If you take a close look at your world, you’ll notice clever people playing the modern-day role of fix-it man. We’ve all seen the Post-it note with a helpful little instruction on top of the photocopier or the handwritten sign taped to the front of the reception desk.

To see how many exist in your world, try this exercise one day. Write down every fix you see at work, at home, or out on the town. Watch for things that have been duct-taped or bolted on. Look for add-on signs that explain what’s broken or how a machine really works.” (p. 29)

So, I did this.

My first observation was that post-its are rampant. The walls and the computer monitors in our Mars rover tactical operations room are filled with post-its. They include tips on how to disable the screen saver, how to “fix” the projected image when the refresh rate is wrong, who to call for certain problems, etc. In a meeting room, I found that the light switch was annotated with a sticker that says “Off: click down.” The light switch is a slider, which makes it seem like you can turn it off by sliding it all the way down. It’s dim enough at that point that it’s hard to tell whether it’s on or off. But instead you have to press hard enough to make it click before the light turns all the way off. I’m guessing that there was a lot of energy wasted before someone decided to just add the “click down” instruction. Solved!

In the break room, I found the following amusing sign taped to a cabinet above the sink:

“Please, only water-soluble liquids in sink.

Anything else will clog it.

Ok, so H2SO4 is water soluble,
but don’t put it down the drain either!”

Note that these are not just commands being inflicted on others. In most cases, they are work-arounds developed to address a design or use flaw. When the problem itself can’t or won’t be fixed, people step in to indicate how to deal with it. These are generous acts that may transpire between people that never meet face to face… but benefit regardless.

What fix-its have you seen today?