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The Power of Thinking Like a Child

By Donna Maria Romeo, PhD, Founder and Principal, Romeo Anthropological Consulting (RAC), McKinney, TX, anthrodonnatx@gmail.com

As a child, I was filled with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. No detail was too small to notice, like dew drops caught in a backyard spider’s web that sparkled in the morning sun. Unfortunately, this childlike sense of wonder, curiosity, and ability to see the world through fresh eyes is often lost in adulthood.

Why are fresh eyes important? I believe they are a necessary first step for successful innovation and internal corporate change. Yet, staying fresh in our thinking is no easy feat, especially for those who work on the same business issues, product category, brand, or customer segment day in and day out.

To better assist clients in attaining fresh eyes, I’ve developed a proprietary research and training program. My program combines classroom instruction on core concepts, team exercises, and field observational activities to help clients rekindle their sense of discovery, get beyond their assumptions, and better understand their business and customers. Here are a few key concepts and exercises that I hope you’ll add to your toolkit so that you, too, can refresh your sense of excitement and discovery of the world around you.

The Influence of Culture

My client workshops always begin with an overview of the culture concept. As an applied cultural anthropologist specializing in business, I believe that culture plays a pivotal role in the way we perceive and make sense of the world around us. Like a set of colored glasses, culture is a lens through which we view the world. It affects our behaviors, beliefs, values, and worldview.

When we are children, our worldview is still a work in process and remains open to change. Once formed, our worldview becomes resistant to change, even when confronted with challenging new insights. Sometimes, if this new insight is not aligned with our worldview, we may simply reject it rather than change the way we see the world.

Like our worldview, our culture is inherently hard to see. It’s something powerful that we carry with us wherever we go, and it’s largely unconscious. And culture is something that we share with others. Culture exists wherever people can be found. All nations, societies, communities, religions, corporations, clubs, and social organizations have their own culture or subculture. Even families have their own unique cultures—with their own values, norms, communication standards, beliefs, and ways of behaving.

The thing about culture is that sometimes a sense of ethnocentrism emerges. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to judge other people, cultures, ethnicities, lifestyles, and social positions through the standards of one’s own. We are ethnocentric when we believe that our way is the right way, the best way, or the only way.

On the flip side is something that anthropologists refer to as “naïve realism.” It’s the belief that everyone is motivated and behaves, thinks, feels, and sees the world in similar ways. It’s easy for us to make these assumptions, especially when we consider the people who live, work, shop, and play within our shared social circles and environments (e.g. the people in my neighborhood, the people at my office, the people at my church). Yet, do we really know who these people are, and how they think and feel?

I’ve seen this assumption applied many times to the people who buy brands, products, and services—the customer. Is the customer really “just like me,” sharing the same vision, hopes, dreams, wants, needs, and perspectives on the world? In a word, no. What each of us holds as common knowledge and truth about the world may not be equally held by others.

Calling Out and Owning Your Assumptions

Here’s a quick exercise I’ve developed that helps call out and manage our assumptions prior to the start of any research or training project. Ask each team member to jot down their top-of-mind thoughts, feelings, and what they believe to be true about a given topic. Have them also include widely held organizational beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, explicit or implicit rules, and orthodoxies to the mix. To encourage open participation, individuals can write their thoughts anonymously on a small note pad, with one thought per note. Gather and place the notes in a small box for later reflection and analysis, which can be quite revealing. Upon review, ask the following: Which assumptions hold up under scrutiny? Which ones hinder understanding? What rules and orthodoxies need to change for the business to move forward?

Asking Obvious Questions

Anthropologists in a foreign culture or social world largely unknown to them must assume they know little, if anything, about this culture; they try to maintain an open mind and adopt a position of childlike curiosity. There is a constant need for active observation, active listening and active questioning. Trouble emerges when we stop asking the obvious questions and start assuming we already have all the answers.

Like anthropologists, young children don’t presume to hold prior knowledge about the world. Curious about the world, they’re not afraid to ask silly or stupid questions and don’t worry about not looking like an expert. Thinking like a child can encourage us to ask the obvious questions that need asking. It can help us avoid making assumptions and filling in the gaps with what we already think we know to be true.

Asking the obvious questions while maintaining a sense of childlike curiosity opens up the world to us—allowing us to see people, places, and things in a fresh light. One of the activities I developed for my cultural immersion workshops is purposely called, “Think Like a Child.”

For the exercise, class participants are paired up to interview each other on a mundane topic such as “dinner.” Participants are instructed to assume no prior knowledge on the subject and encouraged to maintain a stance of childlike curiosity.

What Is…Dinner?

To some, it may seem like a silly question and big waste of time to ask others, “What is dinner?” We all know what dinner is, so why bother asking the obvious?

Anyone who has traveled abroad understands that dinner may be perceived and experienced very differently in other countries than it is in the US. For example, in Spain, la cena is the last meal of the day and typically eaten between 9 p.m. and midnight. And in Italy, cenare is an important social activity to be savored and shared with close family over the course of several hours. In many parts of the US as well, the different social, cultural, and regional traditions associated with dinner make it difficult to assume that we all share the same meaning and experience.

So, in the “What is…dinner?” exercise, the goal is for participants to try to maintain a stance of childlike curiosity and presume no prior knowledge about the topic of dinner. Pair up, interview your partner, and then switch roles. Here are a few suggested probes to include:

  • What is “dinner?”
  • What other words can be used to describe this?
  • Are there certain rules associated with dinner?
  • Are there certain kinds of food that are eaten during dinner?
  • Are there certain implements used to eat dinner?
  • Is there a special place where you sit or stand to eat dinner?
  • Is dinner something eaten alone or is it shared with others?

Any time you have a chance to interact with another person, try to think like a child and maintain a sense of curiosity about the world. Remember to give yourself permission to ask those obvious questions that need asking without fear of looking silly. You might be surprised by just how much you may learn in the process.

Fresh Eyes Through Immersion

Immersive activities that incorporate observational and listening skills in field settings can also greatly assist the client in seeing the world through fresh eyes. Immersion is a great way to explore the world around us. Importantly, it can help us see the mundane in a new light, making visible the people, places, and things around us that are often overlooked and unobserved because they are so familiar and close to home. Anthropologists refer to this as “discovering the obvious.”

Immersion comes from the fieldwork practices of anthropologists and the hallmark research method of participant observation. That’s when anthropologists go out into the field to purposefully observe, listen, and interact with people within their natural settings—where they live, work, and play—to obtain firsthand knowledge.

Since 1999, I’ve been designing immersions for companies across industries, from big box retail to packaged goods. Through this approach, I’ve helped firms improve the customer experience, generate new product ideas, and develop a deeper understanding of the customer.

My approach to immersion is simple. In my workshops, I train the client to “stop, look, and listen” to the world around us—in an active and structured way. Clients are always amazed at the amount of rich information that results from the experience.

Although my approach might seem intuitive, most people need to be trained to truly tune in to their world. Most of us see without really seeing. For example, after months frequenting the same coffee shop, a friend was surprised to suddenly notice the handy purse hooks arranged under the counter. On a recent trip to my local bank, a place I’ve visited dozens of times, I just noticed that there’s a large height indicator located inside the front door; it’s been there for years, yet I always walked past it without ever seeing it.

Become an Expert Noticer

Being keenly aware and tuned in to the world around us can help us in myriad ways, both on the job and in our personal lives. With a little time and effort, everyone can improve their powers of observation.

Why not try your hand at a mini field immersion for yourself? Tap into your own inner explorer and follow a path of discovery. Get out of the office and into the field where the people are. Keep an open mind as you observe the world around you, and be receptive to all that you see, hear, and feel.

Take thirty minutes and go visit your local coffee shop. While there, try this simple “Stop, Look, and Listen” exercise. Remember to take a notebook with you to jot down your experiences.

  • As soon as you enter the coffee shop, find a place to stop and center yourself. Close your eyes and turn your powers of observation “on.”
  • Start tuning in to sounds, smells, and physical sensations. See the soft mood lighting. Hear the sounds of water being poured and coffee being brewed. Smell the fresh roasted coffee beans. Feel the clean, smooth surface of the table where you are sitting.
  • Open your eyes and start turning your attention to the people within this space, the place itself, activities, and things happening here. Take notes and draw images that capture your experiences.
  • Do you notice anything new or different here that you may have never noticed before? Does anything seem out of place? Is anything missing that should be here but is not? What works? What doesn’t? What are some of your personal thoughts and feelings?

By adopting a discovery mindset, giving yourself permission to see the world through fresh eyes, you can turn a familiar place, like your local coffee shop, into a fascinating locale filled with new people, places, and things to discover.

Summary

By giving ourselves permission to recapture a child’s sense of wonder, curiosity, and discovery, we can purposefully work to remove the barriers that impede our ability to see in a fresh light. When we reject the idea that there’s nothing new to see or learn from the well-trodden and mundane, we can uncover a universe of ideas to innovate our business. Thinking like a child can, and does, reveal the true nature of what we seek.

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