Book Review-The Trauma of Everyday Life

Trauma is everywhere. It spares no one. The constant march of time propels it forward without end. It’s The Trauma of Everyday Life that Buddha spoke of when he used the word dukkha. It’s the suffering that we all face. Mark Epstein in The Trauma of Everyday Life succeeds in helping to explain some fundamentals of our mental worlds as they intersect in Western and Buddhist philosophies.


A man was being followed. Every street he turned onto, this figure followed. He ran, and the figure ran, too – as fast as he did. Every step, the figure followed. As he slowed, so did the figure. It was half an hour before the man realized that he was running from his shadow. That’s the experience that we have in life when we seek to avoid suffering. Wherever we go, suffering and trauma is there. We cannot escape it, because it’s an inescapable part of our lives.

Buddha called it dukkha, which is most typically translated as “suffering,” but the literal meaning is closer to “hard to face.” In Jewish and Christian traditions, it’s described that we live in a fallen world. The brokenness, pain, and suffering we experience are – according to the tradition – a result of the original sin. They’re a part of our existence now.

In Buddhist writings, there is a story of a woman carrying her dead baby and looking for a physician to bring the baby back to life. The Buddha told her to bring back mustard seeds from a family that had never known death. Of course, she couldn’t find any family who hadn’t experienced death. In the process, she realized that she wasn’t alone in her suffering and finally let go of her baby.

Suffering is a universal and unfortunate part of our lives, but we can’t run from it; we must accept it as a truth rather than try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

It’s Not Your Fault

Suffering or tragedy is not your fault. It’s not “ye of little faith” that causes the suffering. You didn’t do anything wrong. Even with Buddha’s belief in karma, he believed that perhaps only one in eight bad things that happen to a person is related to their bad karma. That is even the most consequential view. The good or bad you did that was reflected back to you didn’t necessarily lead – in his opinion – to suffering. Suffering is, as was the first noble truth, simply a part of life.

When you accept that suffering – or “trauma,” the word Mark Epstein uses – is a fundamental part of our world, you can let go of the shame and guilt that you’re receiving suffering as the consequences for your living. You can address only the suffering and not the feelings that the suffering brings up.

The Path Through Suffering

Many people believe that the way to happiness and joy is to avoid suffering. This is like the idea that mental health is the absence of mental illness. (See Flourish.) Both are fallacies. Joy isn’t the absence of pain and suffering. Joy is something else.

In fact, the path to joy isn’t in the opposite direction of suffering – it’s through it. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and The Dalai Lama speak of the path to joy – and to how their joy led them both through struggles. If we stop short of joy at inner peace, we find that it too takes a path through suffering – not around it.

We can’t avoid suffering, we can’t run in fear that we may be hurt. Instead, we walk through it, not minimizing the suffering but acknowledging it as impermanent – only temporary. When we choose to run away from the possibility of suffering, we cheat ourselves out of a whole life and spend our time running from our own shadow, pretending that we can get away from suffering.

A View of Suffering

The pain we feel from something that goes wrong, misses our expectations, or harms us is only the first thing. What is more challenging – and longer lasting – is the harm that we cause ourselves by the perspective we take to the suffering.

Consider a beautiful vase in a store that you see crash to the ground. Though it is bad, you’re likely to not feel much. When the same vase is in your home and it’s a prized possession, because you bought it on your last vacation with your mother before she died, it will likely bring more suffering. The vase itself is the same. The meaning that we assign to it – and the perspective on the loss – is different. It’s that difference that causes the pain.

Another point of view is the old story about two Buddhist monks who had taken a vow to never touch a woman. Seeing a woman struggling and in need of assistance across a river, one carries her to the other side. He continues for the rest of the day with his companion, who finally explodes, “How could you carry that woman? You took a vow.” The first monk responds, “I only carried her across the river; you’ve carried her all day.” In one perspective, the monk was responding to the greater need for compassion than the limitation of his vow, and, in the second, the broken vow was unforgivable.

The first monk presumably suffered with the conflict between his vow to not touch a woman and his commitment to cultivating his compassion. This conflict was suffering – but briefly held as he moved on. The other monk presumably felt the same conflict but carried the suffering as his companion carried the woman.

Suffering is less about the objective pain or discomfort that we feel and more about how we view that pain – as having meaning or being pointless. (For more, see The Hope Circuit.) The way that we process the pain is substantially more important than the pain itself. (See Flourish for the difference between post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth.)

Basic Buddhist Meditation

There are many kinds of meditative practices and perspectives on those practices. However, the most basic meditative practices in Buddhism are about watching your breath or body. The idea is not that you’re trying to change anything. Instead, you simply watch your thoughts and gently guide them back to your breath.

Not only is there no condemnation if your mind wanders, there is an expectation that it will wander. Even the most practiced meditators find that their mind wanders from time to time, and they simply lead it back gently and firmly, like you would a child.

Embedded in this practice is a paradox. People often come to meditation to change their life, to make pains disappear, or to feel less anxiety. The meditation itself isn’t trying to change anything. People change through these practices while they’re not trying to change anything.


One of the things about our breath is that it is constantly changing. Each breath is slightly different from the last, like snowflakes gently drifting down into our consciousness before melting away. All of life is like these snowflakes, which are here for the moment and then gone or changed the next. Our perspective that things are permanent is an illusion.

Scientists typically prefer to picture time as being laid out along a line and that we are simply moving along that line. Everything that will happen has – in essence – already happened. While this challenges our belief in our free will, it helps us visualize impermanence. We don’t expect that our home will exist in the same way that it does forever – or that we’ll even own it. Instead, we can recognize that everything that we feel is permanent really isn’t.


We like to believe that the world is much more cause-and-effect than it really is. We like to forget that there are probabilities in everything. We believe that we’re going to drive to the store safely – even though there is a small chance of an accident. These absolute-isms that things are going to be OK are what allow us to function. (See Change or Die for more on this.) Trauma can take these absolute-isms from us and force us to deal with our world in a more realistic way.

For me, losing my brother to an airplane accident was probably my singularly worst moment. In addition to losing a brother and a friend, I had to confront that even the best pilot and mechanic could have a set of things happen that he couldn’t compensate for. I had to come face to face with knowing that, no matter how good a pilot he was, it wasn’t enough.


The mistaken impression of most is that Buddha transcended emotion. He eradicated it from his life and from the things that burdened his spirit. However, in truth, it’s more accurate to say that he learned how to come to terms with his emotions. He didn’t fear that they would overtake him and run amuck. Nor did he berate himself for negative (or afflictive) thoughts. He learned to simply allow his emotions to pass by as he saw them.

So many people want relief from the pressures of their emotions. The result is they turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, and other maladaptive coping strategies to allow them to numb themselves from their unpleasant emotions. This approach is different than the approach of learning to work with your emotions.

The Problem of Attachment

Buddha was surrounded by those who thought that the path to enlightenment was found through denying oneself and through inducing more suffering. However, as Buddha articulated, life is suffering. There is then no reason to try to add to it. There is enough suffering. Conversely, there were those who believed that there was no reason to suffer, that they should live life to its fullest and be materialistic in their desires. This too, he thought was wrong. Thus, he developed a middle way, which acknowledges life for what it is and still seeks to make it better.

In the middle way, Buddha realized that there is nothing wrong with pleasure. The problems that most people ascribed to pleasure were really problems with attachment to the outcomes, objects, and people that are necessarily impermanent.

Integrated Self Image

Epstein speaks of Buddha’s dreams and how he learned how to accept himself fully. He didn’t trouble himself with second-guessing. He accepted his bad parts – and his good parts – as one integrated person. He isn’t the result of one decision, one thought, or one action. He’s one collective whole. This is a concept that I’ve written about before in my reviews of Rising Strong, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Clearly, it’s a recurring concept and important to me personally. I believe that developing an integrated self-image is key to surviving The Trauma of Everyday Life. What do you think?

Now Available: Developing Office 365 Personas White Paper

When it’s your job to talk to the people in your organization, it can seem intimidating. Even if all you’re doing is sending an email or creating a poster, it can feel like you’re center-stage in a full house. How can you say the right things to get people to pay attention while avoiding saying the wrong things when you do get it? You don’t want to be ignored, but knowing how to say what you need to say can be hard.

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Book Review-Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder

Sometimes a story of burnout is actually a story of resilience from burnout. Though Arianna Huffington describes her literal collapse and resulting injuries as a mixture of burnout and exhaustion, from the outside, it seems like just exhaustion, not burnout. That’s the opening context for the transformation that led Huffington to write Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. The first two metrics are money (wealth) and power. They’re the temple guards of our society and have been with us for what seems like eternity.

What’s Wrong with Wealth and Power

Before getting to Huffington’s new metric, it’s important to acknowledge why it’s even needed in the first place. After all, wealth and power have faithfully served our society for years. The problem is the one that was popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his research in Thinking, Fast and Slow. One problem is that is there never enough wealth and power; the more you have of it, the less it makes you happier. A ten thousand dollar a year raise when you’re making twenty thousand is a big deal. When you’re making two million, ten thousand dollars doesn’t seem like much.

More than that, the pursuit of these two leads us away from caring about others. You’ve heard the saying, “It’s lonely at the top.” That’s not just because there aren’t many people vying for the top spot. In the process of climbing to the peak of wealth and power, you’ve had to let go of friends and colleagues who just can’t make it. To pursue the gods of wealth and power, you have to let go of relationships and people.

Status Report

If we were to build a balanced scorecard or dashboard for humanity, we might not like the numbers. Our quality of life is on the decline. 40 percent of American workers leave vacation days unused. We deprive ourselves of sleep to the detriment of our emotional intelligence, self-regard, assertiveness, sense of independence, empathy towards others, and more. Individuals rate themselves as more stressed out than ever before – a 10 to 30 percent increase from 1983 to 2009. It’s estimated that 60 to 90 percent of doctor visits are a result of stress-related conditions. Depression in children has increased fivefold from 1930 to 2010.

The list of statistics about how we’re killing ourselves through our fixation on our society and the trappings of our world goes on and on. Not just in Thrive but in other sources as well. Our gross domestic product may be going up, but our quality of life doesn’t seem to be. Something is getting in the way of our well-being.

Burnout as a Cause

I came to Thrive because of work Terri and I are doing to extinguish burnout. In a room of professionals, we ask, “How many of you feel like you’re in some degree of burnout right now?” Some hands shoot up, indicating the severity of their condition, and others slink sheepishly up next to the person’s head, expressing the shame they feel. In the end, somewhere around 20% of the room has raised their hand. When we ask the second question, “How many of you have ever been in some degree of burnout?” nearly every hand is raised. Burnout has become accepted as a thing that happens to you when you work.

Burnout occurs when you feel as if you’re no longer effective. The result is cynicism and exhaustion. However, exhaustion, like in Huffington’s case, isn’t always caused by burnout. Sometimes exhaustion is literally that your body can’t continue. Similarly, while burnout has been statistically linked to later depression, there are many causes of depression other than burnout.

So, while burnout is likely a factor in the decline of our wellbeing, it’s likely not the only cause.

Huffington’s Incident

It’s only fair that I share my disagreement about whether burnout was the cause of Huffington’s incident. She describes it as a mixture of exhaustion and burnout, where I’d say it was only exhaustion that drove the collapse. Burnout tends to cause you to feel exhausted before your body actually collapses. Burnout is like the thinking that the human body can’t run a four-minute mile, with the belief in place that no one could. Once the belief is removed, suddenly many people begin to run a four-minute mile. Burnout causes you to stop trying from exhaustion, not collapse.

Certainly, I’m on shaky ground to disagree with someone about their experience. However, I’d say that burnout was the specter that Huffington was avoiding. Burnout is feared and avoided – and, at least before this incident, quite successfully. In no way am I trying to minimize the result either the pain from the collapse or the benefit to the world of the renewed perspective on what’s important. I only am careful to develop and maintain clarity around what burnout is so that others can find their way out of it.

Burnout’s Cost

It’s tragic to go to school to be a doctor only to become one and realize that it’s not what you thought it was. A decade or two of a life is lost in the pursuit of a rainbow that seems to move every time you get close to it. If you view burnout as the gap between what you expect and what you believe you’re actually doing, it’s easy to see how physicians get burnt out. Most physicians become physicians to make a difference in the world, to help people be healthier. However, they spend too much time with paperwork. They encounter patients who won’t follow the instructions that will make them healthier.

The day-after-day appointments are monotonous. Physicians don’t see positive results, because the patients don’t come back to tell their doctor, “Thanks, I’m all better now.” The only feedback that physicians get is negative, when the patient says, “That didn’t help.” The systemic message being sent to physicians is that they’re not saving the world, and they’re not even making a difference.

The gap between their expectations of themselves – or maybe their aspirations – and reality are a hard load to bear, and too many are crushed under its weight. The result is hundreds of thousands of dollars in schooling and effort are thrown in the trash bin, as the physicians find another career that doesn’t involve their soul getting crushed every day. Society loses good physicians, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to get out of debt.


One of the largest gaps in our behaviors that lead to burnout is simple. It’s the absolute insistence on taking time for self-care. This isn’t just time for oneself to watch a TV show – though it can be. It’s about finding time for the activities that both physically and mentally prepare you to be stronger. Physically, it can be managing diet, proper hydration, or enough sleep. In fact, proper sleep can improve professional athletic performance – so it follows it should help the rest of us, too. Mentally, it can be meditation, yoga, or simply peacefully wandering through the woods. In our overcommitted world, we all too often refuse to protect our time and insist that the time we need for us is not a nice-to-have but a necessity.

This often comes from our awareness that we can survive without a little bit of self-care for a while. We know our own needs and our own capacities better than other people, so we can evaluate and say that we are capable of the sacrifice – however, we don’t know if someone else might be more capable, or if the value someone will get from our sacrifice will be worth it. The trap is that we often forget that we’re agreeing to make a short-term sacrifice, and we continue to sacrifice self-care for too long. Sometimes, the most positive thing we can do is take care of ourselves.

Positive Thinking

Positive thinking can help insulate us from the momentary hiccups in our lives. Barbara Fredrickson aptly focuses on this in her book Positivity, which describes not only the benefits of positive thinking but the ratio of positive to negative thoughts in terms of our wellbeing. These must be honest positive thoughts, not Pollyanna thoughts that aren’t the truth. However, when you can honestly say that you’re having three positive thoughts for every one negative thought, good things seem to follow in your life.

For most folks, it’s hard to consider the number of positive thoughts we’re having compared to the negative ones. It’s not something that’s easy to measure – unless you have someone willing to interrupt you randomly and ask you whether you’re thinking positively or negatively. Many professionals struggle to understand their feelings. Most of us grew up in homes where feelings weren’t talked about much or weren’t safe. We were told that we should bring our emotions to work. However, more and more we’re seeing that we need to remain integrated with both our thinking and our feeling

Having an Emotional Relationship with Ourselves

My favorite mental model of all time is the Rider-Elephant-Path model (see Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more). Fundamentally, it’s the same as Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking from Thinking, Fast and Slow. The model has our rationality as the rider sitting on top of a large emotional elephant – who is the real one in charge. This is powerful in its own right; however, there’s a subtlety about the relationship between our rationality and our emotions that is easy to miss. We don’t often think much about the relationship between our rational brain and our emotions.

When our rationality trusts “our gut,” there’s a respect for our emotions; similarly, when our emotions can be calmed easily by self-talk, our emotions respect our rationality. Another way to think of this is that our emotional parts trust the relationship with the rational parts and are willing to remain “comfortably uncomfortable.”

The more that we can create this trust, the more we move towards the opportunity to thrive in a whole and fulfilling way.

Leisure and Working Classes

Something’s upside down. The so called “leisure class,” those who have more money and resources, are working longer hours and taking less time for leisure than the so called “working class.” In the pursuit of money, power, and just stuff, the leisure class is literally killing themselves by working so hard. They’re filled with stress and turmoil that the working class doesn’t have.

The heart of this inversion is the lack of need by the “working class” to prove their power or status, and, as a result, they don’t stress over it. Certainly, there is a portion of this group of people who are living hand-to-mouth who have other stresses, but, by and large, the “working class” isn’t working as much, and they’re not staying in such constant stress.

Managing Stress

Stress is a useful biological technique that us humans have coopted for purposes it wasn’t designed for. Instead of the momentary stress of a lion in the plains of Africa, we have the constant looming of our businesses failing, failing to pay our mortgage, and that impending fight with our family. It would be difficult to overstate the potential negative impacts of stress in our lives. I’ve written a three-part summary of Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers that covers the physical impacts, the psychological and neurological impacts, and the causes and cures. The shortest version is that it’s very bad. (Profound, eh?)

The trick to stress, however, isn’t the stress itself but how we manage the stressors. That is, how we manage our response. By choosing our response to the stressors that do have to happen to us so that they’re less impactful and by working on strategies to minimize the number of stressors in our lives, we can dramatically reduce the amount of felt stress that we have.

Because stress is our adaptation of an evolutionary trick that we’ve coopted, we can change the way that we view it – and eliminate (or reduce) the negative long-term impacts.

Learning Compassion

At the heart of learning to thrive is our ability to cultivate compassion for our fellow man. Compassion isn’t an emotion nor a fixed quantity. We have it in our capacity to enhance our compassion for others. It’s in this ability to enhance our compassion for others that we make it possible for us to truly thrive beyond the traditional measures of wealth and status. Don’t you want to learn how to Thrive?

Book Review-The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

There aren’t many members in the moral leaders club. For that reason alone, when two moral leaders – The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – gather to share deep discussions of morality and, in this case, joy, it’s worth investigating. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World both chronicles the meeting and walks through the agreements and disagreements of these two great leaders.

What is Joy?

I’ve written about my journey to find happiness with many reviews (Stumbling on Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, Flourish, etc.). I’ve considered the difference between hedonistic happiness and value-based happiness in my reading and reviews of The Time Paradox and The Happiness Hypothesis. Joy is something different.

The Archbishop says, “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” The Dalai Lama echoes this in the inverse by saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Joy, then, is a conscious choice to respond to our circumstances in a positive and fulfilling way. We cannot change our circumstances, but we can change how we respond.

Everyone Has Pain

The Archbishop comments, “I’m really actually very humbled listening to His Holiness, because I’ve frequently mentioned to people the fact of his serenity and his calm and joyfulness. We would probably have said ‘in spite of’ the adversity, but it seems like he’s saying ‘because of’ the adversity that this has evolved for him.” The Dalai Lama has certainly known pain. It isn’t in spite of the pain that he’s become the great man he is today but rather because of it. It’s because of the way that he’s been able to work through his pain and choose his response that he is revered – even by other leaders – for his serenity, calm, and joyfulness.

The research says that if you “help” hatching sea turtles to get to the ocean, you’ll disrupt their sense of bearing and ultimately kill them. If you “help” a chick to escape the egg shell, you’ll condemn it to death. Even our stem cells need biological stress to cause them to become the specific cells we need. Pain, stress, hardship, challenge, or whatever you call it is the power that drives us to be better.

The challenge, as we learned in The Hope Circuit, is to find meaning in the pain. Without meaning to our pain, we see no sense to it nor control, and we develop the state of learned helplessness – or, rather, we fail to develop a sense of control that enables us to persevere. So, it’s not in spite of hardship that we develop joy but through it.


Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master, wrote, “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?” It is key for joy to not be sucked in by destructive emotions like dejection. Shantideva is saying that, on both sides of the coin, dejection is not useful. If nothing can be done, then your dejection will do nothing but further zap your energy. If something can be done, then why wallow in a dejected state – why not just go do it?

Ultimately, the feeling of dejection arises when you don’t believe that you can do anything about your situation – that you have no control. This may be the literal truth, but being dejected does nothing to change that fact. In fact, it reduces your capacity to do other things. By accepting that you can’t do anything and moving on, you’re better off.

Destructive Emotions

Dejection is only one form of destructive emotion. Other destructive emotions like envy literally block a person’s ability to feel love, empathy, and compassion, and, as a result, they prevent joy. Destructive Emotions is the subject of a book by Daniel Goleman and The Dalai Lama. It came from a set of meetings between spiritual leaders and scientists. The conversation centered on the Buddhist belief that emotions can be either afflictive or non-afflictive. In other words, they can be either destructive or not.

The problem with destructive emotions is that they block the path to joy. Anger that is maintained for too long becomes afflictive (destructive) and keeps someone from reaching joy. The path to joy, in this case, is through forgiveness or letting go of the anger. Consider a man who was imprisoned for 30 years, who was asked how he could forgive those who jailed him. His response was, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”

Despite the encouragement to release destructive emotions, both the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop acknowledge that destructive emotions come to everyone, and there should be no shame in them occurring. They should simply be set aside.

Emotional Control

One of the areas that the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama disagree is the degree to which people have control of their emotions. The Archbishop feels like people have little influence on their emotions, and the Dalai Lama feels that we have more. How Emotions Are Made argues that emotions are entirely constructed in our mind – and therefore we should be able to control our emotions. While I think that this goes too far, to say that we have significant influence on our emotions isn’t an understatement.

Paul Ekman has been working with the Dalai Lama since Daniel Goleman introduced him back at the conference that led to the Destructive Emotions book. In fact, Ekman and the Dalai Lama have authored a book titled Emotional Awareness. Ekman is known for his work in developing the facial action coding system (FACS) or, more colloquially, in his ability to train people to detect lies. (See Telling Lies for more.) Ekman believes that, in addition to the ability to shape your emotions, there’s a gap between feeling the emotion and responding, and that this gap can be cultivated. However, he cautions that this isn’t easy, because evolution designed emotions and their responses to happen quickly.

Shifting Perceptions

Jinpa (who is the Dalai Lama’s primary English interpreter) mentions that it’s much easier to change perceptions than it is to change your emotions. I find this to be very true. To change perception simply requires examining the perception and others’ perceptions. However, telling someone that they shouldn’t be angry denies and invalidates them. (See Motivational Interviewing for more)

Once perceptions are changed, it’s possible to get folks to re-evaluate their emotions in the context of new information. Sometimes they are so moved that they will adjust their emotion to match the facts – but often not without internal difficulty. I often encounter people saying that they know that they shouldn’t be angry, frustrated, sad, etc., but they still are. The feelings, however, tend to fade with time.

Multiple Brain Circuits

What we may be experiencing is the same sort of tug of war that we saw in The Hope Circuit, where the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is able to dampen the response of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). It takes time (and training) for one part of the brain to attenuate the function of another. The more we research the brain, the more we realize that there are separate, sometimes redundant, pathways. Richard Davidson, for instance, discovered there are four separate brain “circuits” involved in joy. There are one each for maintaining positive states, recovering from negative states, generating focus and anti-mind-wandering, and generosity. It’s amazing that we have four separate circuits that are converged on the ability to help us find joy.

The fact that nature designed so much into the possibility of joy gives us hope that we can each find our own joy – irrespective of our circumstances.

Cultivating Joy

In the end, it’s possible to cultivate joy by cultivating our compassion and focusing our thoughts towards more compassionate directions. Further, we can cultivate joy by forming and maintaining intimate relationships with other humans. The more connected we become to others in a meaningful way, the more joy we find.

Breaking Traditions

There are traditions in each religion. For Christians – particularly Catholics – it’s traditional to only offer the Eucharist to other Christians. It’s the symbolic body of Jesus and his blood. The thinking goes that you would want to only offer this special rite to those who would honor it. For the Dalai Lama, he made a vow not to dance. Both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama broke their tradition (or vow) during the course of their meeting. The Archbishop by offering the Dalai Lama the Eucharist and the Dalai Lama by indulging in a bit of a dance to follow the Archbishop’s irrepressible boogie.

To some this may seem like a major transgression; to me, it seems like an awareness that the customs, conventions, and vows are designed to direct us towards the goal of our religion – which both men would describe as love. In context, love most likely equates to the Greek word agape, and thus is essentially the same as compassion. I was impressed, when I read Heroic Leadership, to find that the Jesuits focused on the essentials of their beliefs and bent those traditions that inhibited their ability to become a part of other communities. I see these leaders’ acts as attempts to close the gaps between differing religious views and to unify us all in our acceptance of everyone.

We open ourselves up to joy when we realize that we’re all a part of one large community of humans, and we desire to be in relationships with others. The Book of Joy is written with space for all our names. We just need to seek to be in community with all of our brothers and sisters across the planet Earth.

Choosing the Size of Your Microsoft Team

If someone would ask you how big you wanted your team to be, your default answer might be that you want it to be big. After all, the larger the team, the more you can get done. However, the default answer may not be the right answer. There are a set of factors that work against large groups getting anything done. So, when you’re planning your teams for Microsoft Teams, how large should they be? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question. Instead, the answer comes at the balance of having to move between teams and being able to focus on the work that you’re responsible for helping with.

To make our examples concrete, we’ll consider how many teams to create for individual departments, though the same logic can be applied to any large-scale group of people.

Groups of Groups

Before getting to the framework, it’s important to illuminate the fact that, in every organization, there are groups of groups. For instance, in information technology, there are typically operations or infrastructure groups and development or applications groups. Depending on the size of the organization, there may be groups inside of applications for the various applications that the organization utilizes. The infrastructure/operations group may be split between server and desktop operations or perhaps based on Windows versus Unix. A simple hierarchy for Information Technology might look like:

Information technology isn’t unique in that it consists of groups inside of groups. Every organization is like this. Consider this hypothetical finance department:

The question becomes this: what level of the organization should be a team? Before answering that question, we must recognize the problems that partitioning seeks to solve.

Partitioning Problems

As with the default answer about how big the team should be, one option is to put everyone in one big team. The benefit is, of course, that there’s only one place to go. However, there are challenges. For instance, it’s hard to coordinate across multiple people to organize information. You either end up with a set of folders that is inconsistent, no folders at all, or multiple folders for the same thing. Finding what you need becomes almost impossible.

It’s also difficult to manage communications when there are so many people in one place. Consider a crowded conference room with hundreds of people each carrying on their own conversations. If you’re not in a conversation specifically, it’s going to be difficult to listen to the other conversations going on around you, because there’s so much noise. Team conversations have the same challenge. When there are too many people, the conversations become too much to keep up with – or even pretend to keep up with.

Microsoft Teams channels help to mitigate this by partitioning conversations into separate, smaller spaces. This is akin to breaking up the one large conference room into multiple smaller conference rooms. This is a solid strategy for dealing with the noise but is difficult to execute in the moment. Once a large group has gathered, getting them to move into separate rooms is hard.

In general, we partition things into separate spaces to make them more manageable. In organizations, we partition folks into groups of people that can be managed. We put up shelves in closets to help us organize the things we put there. Within the partition, it makes finding and managing items easier – but with the added challenge of figuring out which partition we put things in.

Where Did I Put It?

Most of us have had the experience of walking around our house trying to find something that we put down. The problem is often that there’s no one set place for whatever we’re trying to find. Because of all the possible places that we could put it, we’re not clear which one we happened to choose. We still have the same findability/discoverability problem, but this time, instead of inside a space, it’s between the spaces that we might have chosen.

We have the same problem when we create too many smaller teams and channels. The number of options becomes more overwhelming as the number of options inside the space makes finding your way around inside the space more manageable.

Striking the Balance

With challenges and benefits on creating one large space and putting everyone in it, and the converse idea of creating a team for every one or two people, the trick is to strike the balance between too few and too many groups. A starting point for this balance is working from the perspective of how many people can effectively be in a team.

Stable Social Relationships

The research done by Robin Dunbar seems to indicate that humans are capable of roughly 100 to 250 stable social relationships. A number around 150 people shows up in many different naturally-occurring groups across history. This leads to the conclusion that groups should be no larger than about 150 people.

On the other hand, there’s research on optimal team size, the effect of team size on innovation, and the change in conversation as the number of participants change that suggests that, below about five people, conversations don’t demonstrate the kinds of characteristics that are ideal. Several of the research models cluster around the idea that, with about eight to twelve people, conversations start to break down and become less effective.

This leads to some general guidance that fewer than 12 people should be one group, and more than 150 should be multiple groups, as shown in this diagram:

Multiple Teams

If we apply these guidelines to the organizational charts provided above, the Information Technology department might have teams of:

  • Information Technology
  • Infrastructure Operations
  • Server
  • Desktop
  • Applications
  • Windows
  • Unix

An employee doing Unix application support would be a member of Information Technology, Applications, and Unix, indicating their part of each of these groups. In practice, the department may find that there’s not much communication at the Information Technology level or at the level of Infrastructure Operations and Applications. As a result, it may be advisable to remove the Infrastructure Operations and Applications teams and use the Information Technology team with Infrastructure Operations and Applications channels. That decision would be made based on the degree to which there’s important information to be discussed in each of the teams and how much noise or unwanted information will be there.

The Signal and the Noise

In any given day, we’re bombarded with useless information, from SPAM email that we have no interest in to advertisements for injury attorneys looking for clients. This useless information is called “noise.” It’s the stuff we don’t want. The things that we do want to reach our consciousness is the “signal.” The signal includes the important information that we can learn from or act on. However, the signal is too frequently obscured in the noise. As we’re deciding where to partition groups of people into separate teams and channels, we’re trying to make it easier to get rid of the noise without making it harder to hear the signal.

In email discussion groups, you will find that some groups have only a handful of messages per month and others have hundreds of messages every day. With a few messages, it’s easy to review every message to see if it’s important. If only one message per month is relevant and valuable, the signal to noise ratio is pretty good. In discussion threads with hundreds of messages, it will take many messages being relevant to keep the same signal to noise ratio.

Creating channels in teams allows for conversations to happen inside the team but without everyone in the team needing to be a direct part of those conversations. These side conversations are good, because they lower the amount of noise that everyone else needs to cope with.

Sometimes larger teams can create channels to subdivide the conversations in ways that make them relevant and interesting.

Part of Many

In the above scenario, it becomes necessary for a single person to become a part of multiple teams just to maintain the right connections inside of the Information Technology department. Two or three teams for your department isn’t bad at all – however, as the department size increases, it becomes necessary to have more levels of division and therefore more teams that each person is a member of.

More importantly, as teams are created for non-departmental needs like cross-departmental projects, committees, centers of excellence, and interest groups, the number of teams that one person may be a member of multiplies. This creates a challenge to decide where the right place is to connect with colleagues and to keep up on the relevant conversations. This may lead to fatigue and, ultimately, the response that the only conversations that are relevant are the ones in which you’re directly mentioned. These are highlighted in the activity function of teams across all the teams you’re a part of, so it becomes possible to focus your attention only on those things where people are waiting on answers from you when it’s necessary.

Choice anxiety increases the more choices that a human is given. The stress of making a choice between seven teams may be manageable, but the stress of deciding between seventy teams may not be. The result is frequently that nothing happens because of the anxiety of choosing where to post the comment or file the document.

Pattern Matching

Making decisions one at a time for each department will only get you so far. Another approach is to consider what most teams are going to look like. If most departments are going to exist in a single team, then even a larger department may stay in one team – at least initially for consistency. This pattern matching makes it easier for users to rationalize the way that they’re expected to behave.

Therefore, when an answer doesn’t readily present itself for a single department or group, it’s sometimes helpful to consider other peer groups to see if one of those groups is easy to assess the right answer – and then copy that answer and apply it to other departments or groups.


There’s a lot of room between 12 and 150 people for decision-making about whether to have one or multiple groups; however, in practice, numbers close to either edge tend to be relatively obvious. If you’ve got 120 people that behave as one cohesive group, then one team may make sense. In most cases, groups of that size operate differently.

Leveraging these factors, you can identify the cases where you clearly need more than one team and where you clearly only need one team. In those cases where there is still no clear answer, either one or multiple groups will be – relatively speaking – equally fine.

The User Engagement Video Series Starts Now!

Have you ever been frustrated with users that aren’t reading your emails? They’re complaining about the fact that they never know what is going on – and they’re not going to the intranet to find out. When working to help organizations fix their communications problems, we frequently recommend a strategy of engaging videos. More “edutainment” than education, they’re about the problem and the possible. 

That’s all fine, but, if you’re like most folks, the voice in your head is saying, “Ok, but what does that mean, really?” If you’ve spent years communicating information with formal and semi-formal communications channels, the idea of engagement isn’t easy or intuitive. That’s why we created a set of videos designed to engage users. They’re super short, less than 2 minutes. They talk about one core frustration that people have and how the problem is solved with the intranet. 

They’re designed to be used when you’re transitioning to SharePoint or Office 365 from another platform – and when you’re trying to get folks to use the existing intranet hosted on SharePoint or Office 365. They’re not videos that you put in a library for education, they’re videos that you send out to get people’s attention. 

The first one is a play off the old Where’s Waldo? series of books. Check it out: 

We’re making these available via YouTube, but if you subscribe, we’ll send you a link every two weeks via video service. This way, users don’t get YouTube ads while playing the promo. Just click here to sign up today. 

If you’re so inclined, you can support our efforts by buying a one-time license, and you’ll be able to get the videos without any bumpers or branding for you to use internally – including using them as a part of videos that you’re making. You’ll get all the videos, including both the completed videos that are not yet public as well as any we release in the future. Click here to support us – and your users. 

Book Review-The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It

It’s rare that I choose to take a contrary view to what an author (or set of authors) says in their book. However, I did when I started digging into The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. It’s not that I don’t think that organizations have a role to play in helping their employees avoid burnout – or recover from it if they get there. That’s not the issue. I believe that employers are responsible to their employees for good working conditions, and getting the most from employees means helping them be their best in life.

The issue is whether I choose to place blame or not. Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter put crosshairs on the organization to blame them for employee burnout. The problem is that this is no fairer than placing the blame on the employee. In truth, there’s no blame to be had. It’s circumstances that cause people to burn out – whether they’re employees or entrepreneurs or volunteers. People burn out. We need to stop that no matter what the cause.

Dim View

My first highlight from the book is, “The workplace today is a cold, hostile, demanding environment, both economically and psychologically. People are emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted.” I see this as a dim view. It presumes that every organization is an inhuman place that squeezes the soul out of their employees. While I’m sure that there are organizations like this, there are equally as many that have a caring relationship with their employees.

Maslach and Leiter continue by listing the CEOs who they believe have excessive compensation packages and how things aren’t fair for employees. I’ll agree that many executives are overpaid. I’ll agree that it’s sad that, by 1994, the ratio between the CEO and the average “industrial wage” had jumped to 187:1. However, at the same time, I recognize the bias in the statements. As Richard Florida uncovers in The Rise of the Creative Class, the creative class is different than the working class or the service class. While Florida has primarily petitioned for the rise of wages for the service class – who are receiving the lowest wages – so, too, does the working class receive less compensation than the creative class. To compare CEOs – in the creative class – with those in the working class is capturing more than just the bias between leadership and the workers. It’s capturing a differential based on skills.

So, again, there are things that corporations can – and should – do to help employees recover from burnout and avoid it in the first place, but the perspective of Maslach and Leiter seems pejorative.

Burnout Misalignment

Maslach and Leiter write, “Burnout is always more likely when there is a major mismatch between the nature of the job and the nature of the person who does the job.” While this true, it misses the essential point. Burnout happens when people don’t believe that they’re effective at accomplishing their personal goals. As a result, when the organization’s goals aren’t aligned with one’s personal goals, or the role a person is in and their skills and natural tendencies are mismatched, there will be misalignment. This misalignment will diminish the capacity for a person to meet their personal goals.

So, at one level, there is truth that there’s an increase in burnout when the goals of the organization aren’t matched with the individual’s goals. However, at a completely different level, this is about how burnout surfaces in the ability of the individual to meet their goals.

The great opportunity that exists for organizations is in the capacity to allow employees to bend their personal goals towards those of the organization and for the organization to likewise bend towards the will of the employees. We see this in the recent tendency for organizations to have corporate responsibility statements and the trend towards B Corporations. (See Red Goldfish for more.) When employees are able to bend their personal goals towards the unified goals of the organization, the alignment will help to create a sense of community.


Developing a community is a messy process. Bringing together people with different values and perspectives is necessarily messy. However, the resulting solutions and raw performance can be amazing. (See The Difference for more on how diversity of thought can be powerful.) Whenever you bring people together, there will be conflict. Maslach and Leiter write, “what is most destructive to a sense of community is chronic and unresolved conflict.” However, John and Julie Gottman would argue that unresolved conflict is a part of every intimate relationship. It’s not the presence of unresolved conflict that is the measure of a bad relationship but rather how it’s managed. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

Furthermore, I teach that conflict comes from only one of two sources. The first source is a difference in perspective. I see things one way, and you see it a different way. With good practices for dialogue, we can eventually discover what these perspectives are and, frequently, align them. (See Dialogue and Motivational Interviewing for good tips on how to discover and resolve perspective differences.)

The second source of conflict is value misalignment. Steven Reiss speaks of his 16 motivators (in other words, values) in The Normal Personality and Who Am I?. Johnathan Haidt discusses different foundations for morality (values) in The Righteous Mind. When you get the macro and micro values aligned between the organization and the person – and particularly from one person to another – much of the conflict evaporates.

Understanding of both perspective and values precedes the development of a firm community. However, while Maslach and Leiter see a sense of community as the ultimate goal to be aspired to, the writings of Richard Hackman, in Collaborative Intelligence, state that communities (or, in his terminology, “teams”) need to be permeable to accept new members. When the community becomes too insular and defined, it can reject attempts for new people to enter it. In today’s organizations, where turnover is an expected result, we must consider how we form our teams and our community.

Communities occur at all levels of the organization. Often, leadership is threatened or at least confused by allegiances to the community instead of to the broader organization. Communities are about developing mutual trust, and trust is contextual. Some trust is expressed in the local community of the immediate team and other – different – trust is expressed at the organizational level. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more on the dynamics of trust.)

Ultimately, we don’t want community; we want productive teams that can collaborate (work together) towards the goals of the organization.

Mutual Respect

Two of our basic human needs are to be accepted and respected. Acceptance is a prerequisite to working on diverse teams but is generally well understood. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) Respect is, however, often confused with agreement. It is possible to respect someone else’s perspective, values, and, ultimately, position even if you don’t agree with it. Respect starts with acceptance of the other person and their right to hold a different a position, but it builds upon it. Respect is built with the understanding of the other person’s position – even without agreement. (See The Titleless Leader for more on respect.)

Respect develops as people have the self-awareness to accept others, the conversational (dialogue) skills to truly understand the others’ positions, and the trust that the others will accept and understand you.

Basic Survival Mode

One of the quotes in the book from a high school teacher ends with, “So I’m just in a basic survival mode now.” This is a form of burnout. There’s no yearning, no reaching, and no trying. In short-term situations, this can be useful and necessary. When you’re in “survival mode,” you clamp down on the demands that are being made of you so that you can have time to recover. The problem is that sometimes people get stuck in basic survival mode without the opportunity to get out of it.

Survival mode clamps down on the demands that are being made so completely that it’s often impossible to start the self-care that allows you to recover, because self-care is in itself a demand. When employees are in this position, the best thing that the organization can do is to develop and implement techniques for temporarily supporting an employee – to give them a little slack that they can use to make investments in self-care. This could be systemic support like offering discounts on health care if they commit to a health regimen. It’s important that any support that doesn’t have secondary benefits be defined as temporary, so that the employee learns to stand on their own and doesn’t lean on the support as a crutch.

Sustainable Pace

A valid concern for burnout in today’s world is the reality that we are often working at a pace that is not sustainable. Every business struggles with short- and long-term priorities. It’s dividing in a way to try to ensure that day-to-day operations continue while finding ways to make strategic investments that pay off and allow for greater expansion, more revenue, and greater sustainability. However, in most organizations, this looks like trying to divide four by two and get four.

What we’ve learned from agile software development practices – and life – is that there is such a thing as a sustainable pace. We can push past the sustainable pace for a while, but to do so draws upon our reserves that eventually must be replenished. Organizations are at risk of increasing burnout when they’re unable to recognize the sustainable pace of their employees and only push them past it infrequently and in times of real need.


The feeling that things aren’t fair – because they don’t meet your values of meritocracy or some other measure – are another friction point that makes it harder – but not impossible – for employees to avoid burnout. Fairness is fairly relative, being based on someone’s values and cultural expectations. For instance, in union shops, promotions are expected (and sometimes contracted) to be made based on tenure rather than merit. In some Eastern cultures, nepotism is the rule. If you approach an organization with the expectation of one system and find another, you’re likely to believe this isn’t fair. If organizations say one thing and do another, you’re likely to feel frustration, which will rob you of your power to get things done.

For my own sense of fairness, Maslach and Leiter have a wealth of great content in The Truth About Burnout. I just believe that sometimes they were so into the details that they missed the point. In a few places, I feel like their pejorative perspective on companies doesn’t reflect the symbiotic relationship that employees and companies are developing today. However, don’t take my word for it: read The Truth About Burnout for yourself and see what you think.

Book Review-Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value

Designers think differently. Instead of what is minimally sufficient to get the job done, they think about how to make the experience one that the consumer will enjoy. Minimally sufficient is the right answer in some cases; but in the market place, it’s becoming more important to consider how the consumer will experience the product. That’s what Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value is all about. It’s about how to make the experience the right experience.

The book is a collection of works from 34 authors in 10 different countries. It reads more like a collection of articles than one story with a beginning, middle, and end. However, throughout the book is this underlying theme of how to make the experience better for the consumer.

Think Differently

Design thinking is about thinking about problems differently. However, articulating exactly what that means isn’t always easy. Characteristics like considering the overall experience help but leave much to be desired, as there’s no single path to understanding what the customer experience will look like.

Our cultures tend to permeate our thinking with hidden structures about how we think about problems. In The Ethnographic Interview, many techniques and approaches are laid out to try and tease out these underlying thinking patterns. Ultimately, ethnographic approaches are useful to designers as they seek to understand the consumers lifestyles and values. To a greater degree than traditional product marketing, design thinking relies on a deep understanding.

What is Brand?

For many, Brand is a Four Letter Word. Brand is a shortcut – bestowed on you by the marketplace – that takes what the market buys or interacts with you for and encapsulates it into a name. Starbucks may be about coffee, but it’s also about the promise of good customer service. A brand is about fulfilling that promise consistently, day after day.

In the context of design, brand is important, because it shapes the focus for a design. If your brand is one that caters to contractors, you’ll focus your design around their needs. If, instead, your brand conveys that you help regular folks get their home improvement projects done, your design will focus around them.

Wicked Problems

Design is often used to confront wicked problems (see Dialogue Mapping and The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices for more on what wicked problems are). The irony of this is that design thinking itself is caught up in the most frequently cited wicked problem of leaders – balancing short-term and long-term demands. Design thinking takes longer than traditional approaches to product design. It requires a large, up-front investment that may – or may not – pay dividends in the future.

The fundamental struggle between short-term cashflow needs and the desire to make investments for the future confronts corporations and individuals both. Design thinking is a decision to make the long-term investment.


Innovation is a hot topic now. Organizations believe that they need to be innovative to survive in a world where there are so few barriers to startup. Innovation, Design Thinking suggests, is built upon the back of design. This, I believe, is a slight overstatement. Tom Kelley in The Art of Innovation speaks about IDEO’s human-centered design and how they use it to spark innovation. (Human-centered design is design thinking.) However, innovation is the implementation and adoption of an idea. (See Diffusion of Innovations
Unleashing Innovation
). Further, as Jeff Dyer asserts in The Innovator’s DNA, it takes more than just listening to and understanding the customer’s needs. It takes the ability to build associations and connect new ideas.

So, while I believe that design thinking is a necessary component for fueling innovation, it’s not sufficient to create innovation in the absence of the ability to connect different ideas together.

Systems Thinking

At the heart of making connections is the ability to think in systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems thinking.) This is because thinking in systems is fundamentally focused on the relationships – or connections – between the various components of the system. Thinking in systems relies upon the ability to identify the component pieces – just like everyone else – but goes beyond to simulate the interactions of those pieces in larger systems. (See Sources of Power for more on mental simulations.)

Talk to the Elephant

When modeling the way that people make decisions, it’s widely believed that we make rational decisions based on facts. However, what scientists are finding is that we tend to make emotional decisions and then rationalize them. F.G. “Buck” Rogers, one of IBM’s most notable sales people, famously said, “Customers buy on emotion and then justify with logic.”

In the language of Jonathan Haidt, your emotional elephant is in control. His elephant-rider-path model invites us to recognize the power that our emotions have and how little our rational minds really do. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more.) Design thinking steps beyond the rational requirements and looks for the emotional pull that will continue to tug on us long after the practical need has been addressed.

Triple Bottom Line

Historically, organizations were only concerned with the bottom line. The money that the corporation made was all that mattered. However, consumers and conditions are changing that perspective. More and more organizations are being measured not just by what money they make for their owners but also for their impact to social and environmental factors. Red Goldfish explains in greater detail the kinds of concerns that consumers have and structures like B Corporations, which are designed to provide a framework for organizations that promote the needs of the planet – not just profit.


It’s not surprising that creativity is a key component of design thinking. After all Tom and David Kelley (of IDEO) wrote Creative Confidence to encourage everyone to be creative. You can’t very well connect disconnected ideas together if you can’t be creative. Luckily, everyone has the capacity to be creative. However, sometimes that creativity is buried under years of belief that we’re not capable of it.

The need for creativity in the design process means that there’s no single formula, checklist or standard operating procedure for creativity.

Reducing Complexity

In the end, design thinking seeks to reduce the complexity in our world. Design should be about eliminating the unnecessary barriers, burdens, and hassles. (See Demand for more on hassles.) We’ve got way too much information coming at us for us to attend to every detail. We’ve got to be able to focus on only a small part of reality. (See The Information Diet.) That means we need design thinking to reduce our focus to only those things that are relevant and necessary. Perhaps if we can all practice Design Thinking, we can make the world a better place.

Book Review-The Ethnographic Interview

I’m about as far away from an ethnographer as you can get. I live in the heart of the United States and in the same home for over 20 years. And yet, I use ethnographic interviewing in one form or another every single week. How can it be that I’m not embedding myself into new and strange cultures, and yet I value skills that resemble those needed by an ethnographer so deeply? The answer lies in the techniques and thinking that The Ethnographic Interview teaches and in my work world.

I came to The Ethnographic Interview by way of Peter Morville’s work, Intertwingled. He recommended it as a way to understand information architectures – and corporate cultures – more completely. I agree. All too often, the issues we have in understanding one another are about how our cultures differ, and no one has bothered to understand the unwritten meanings behind the words we use.

Requirements Gathering

Before I share some of James Spradley’s insights into ethnography, it’s important for me to cement the connection between what people do today and what ethnography is, so that it’s criticality can be fully understood. In IT, business analysts – by role or by title – seek to understand the foreign world of the business. They learn about logistics, manufacturing, marketing, accounting, and more in an effort to translate the needs of these groups for the developers and systems designers that will create IT systems to support them.

Even the experienced business analyst who knows the company and the department well must do their best to remove all of their assumptions and start fresh in understanding what the group is doing and what they need. While it’s technically impossible to remove all assumptions, because they are so good at hiding, the ethnographer’s task is to eliminate as many as possible and to test those that remain.

I wrote a course for Pluralsight some years ago, titled “Gathering Good Requirements for Developers,” where I teach a set of techniques designed to expose assumptions, test them, and make things feel more real and understandable on both sides.

The requirements gathering process, whether a part of agile design or traditional waterfall methodologies, is absolutely essential to being able to deliver what the business needs. The process of requirements gathering is ultimately a process of eliciting and understanding what the foreign culture is saying – even if that foreign culture is inside of your organization.

What is Ethnography?

An anthropologist is expected to be off in a foreign land eating strange food and spending most of their time wondering what people are saying and what the heck they’re doing so far from those they love. Ethnography is their principle work, which is the systematic study of the culture they’ve embedded themselves in. Put differently, the goal of ethnography is (according to Bronislaw Malinowski) “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”

Simply stated, it’s learning from people. However, there are several nuances. First, ethnographers invite natives to teach them. They don’t assume that they know or can learn the culture without help. Second, there are components of the culture that aren’t ever directly expressed. For instance, in the United States, the phrase “How are you?” is typically a greeting. The typical response is “I’m doing well, and you?” It doesn’t convey a real interest in the other person – until and unless it’s followed with, “I mean, really, how are you?”

Dig Deeper

If there’s one thing I’ve found that is a problem with requirements gathering, information architecture, or just working with other people, it is that we don’t truly understand. We believe we understand. We might be using the same words, but we just aren’t 100% in alignment. That’s where training in ethnography is really helpful.

Ethnographers observe behavior but inquire about the meaning. They understand objects but seek to discover the meanings that the culture assigns to these objects. They record emotions but go beyond to discover the meaning of fear, anxiety, anger, and other feelings.

In short, they dig deeper. They verify their understanding to ensure that what they believe they understand is actually right. Consider for a moment death. It’s the punctuation mark at the end of life – every life. Yet, different cultures view death differently. Some cultures keep death hidden – as is the Western point of view – while others embrace or celebrate it. Some cultures believe in reincarnation and others in an afterlife. It’s the same event, but it’s culturally very, very different.

Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power that we all make models in our head, and it’s these models that drive our thinking. He also shares how painful it can be to get these models to surface. The models are tacit knowledge that cannot be expressed in explicit language. In fact, Lost Knowledge differentiates between tacit knowledge and what’s called “deep tacit knowledge,” which are mental models and cultural artifacts of thinking that are so ingrained the person literally can’t see them.

The person the ethnographer is talking to, the informant, needs promped to access the information they don’t know they know. A good ethnographer can tease out tacit knowledge from even the worst informants – but finding the right informants certainly makes it easier.

Indispensable Informants

If you follow agile development practices, you may notice that agile depends on a product owner who is intimately familiar with the business process that the software is being developed for. Lean Six Sigma speaks of getting to the gemba (Japanese for “the real place”) to really know what’s happening instead of just guessing. Sometimes this is also used to speak of the people who really know what’s going on. They do the real work.

The same concept applies to ethnographic research. You need someone who is encultured, really a part of what you’re studying. While the manager who once did the job that you’re looking to understand might be helpful, you’ll ideally get to the person who actually is still doing the work. The manager will – at some level, at least – have decided that they’re no longer a part of that group, and, because of that, they’ll lose some of their tacit knowledge about how things are done – and it will be changing underneath their knowledge anyway.

Obviously, your informant needs to not just be involved with the process currently, but they also need to have enough time. If you can’t get their time to allow them to teach you, you won’t learn much. Another key is that the person not be too analytical. As we’ll discuss shortly, it’s important that the informant be able to remain in their role of an encultured participant using their natural language rather than be performing translation for the ethnographer – as they’ll tend to do if they’re too analytical.

You can’t use even the best interviewing techniques in the world to extract information that no longer exists.


The heart of ethnography isn’t writing the report. The heart of ethnography is the interviewing and discovery process. It’s more than just asking questions. It’s about how to develop a relationship and rapport that is helpful. The Heart and Soul of Change speaks of therapeutic alliance and how that is one of the best predictors of therapeutic success.

Tools like those described in Motivational Interviewing can be leveraged to help build rapport. Obviously, motivational interviewing is designed to motivate the other person. However, the process starts with engaging, including good tips to avoid judgement and other harmful statements that may make a productive relationship impossible.

For his part, Spradley in The Ethnographic Interview identifies the need for respect or rapport and provides a set of questions and a set of interviewing approaches that can lead to success.

Types of Questions

At a high level, ethnographic questions fall into three broad categories – descriptive, structural, and contrast questions. These questions allow the ethnographer to dip their toes into the water of understanding, structure their understanding, and understand terms with precision.

Descriptive Questions

Descriptive questions are by far the most voluminous questions that will be asked. They form the foundation of understanding what is in the informant’s world and how they use the objects in their world. Descriptive questions fall into the following categories:

  • Grand Tour Questions – These questions ask for a tour around the topic
    • Typical Grand Tour Questions – Asking for a typical situation in their environment
    • Specific Grand Tour Questions – Asking for a specific time and what happened
    • Guided Grand Tour Questions – Asking to see the specific things happening in an area of the informant’s environment
    • Task-Related Grand Tour Questions – Asking the informant to explain a specific task that they do and how they do it
  • Mini-Tour Questions – Mini-tour questions are the same structure as grand questions but focused on a smaller area of the informant’s experience.
    • Typical Mini-Tour Questions
    • Specific Mini-Tour Questions
    • Guided Mini-Tour Questions
    • Task-Related Mini-Tour Questions
  • Example Questions – Asking for a specific example of something that the informant has answered in general
  • Experience Questions – Asking for experiences that the informant might have found interesting, relevant, or noteworthy
  • Native-Language Questions – Asking how the informant would interact with someone else from the culture – in the language that they use
    • Direct Language Questions – Asking what language they use to refer to something in their environment
    • Hypothetical-Interaction Questions – Asking questions about hypothetical situations that the ethnographer creates
    • Typical-Sentence Questions – Asking what kind of sentences that would be used with a phrase

Descriptive questions allow ethnographers to amass a large amount of information, but that information is unstructured and unconnected. While it’s necessary to spend some time in this space, after a while, it will become necessary to seek to understand how the informant organizes this information.

Structural Questions

As important as building a vocabulary is, understanding the relationships between various terms is more illuminating to the structural processes that the informant uses to organize their world. We use symbols to represent things, and these symbols can be categories that contain other symbols. This is a traditional hierarchical taxonomy like one might find when doing an information architecture (see Organising Knowledge, How to Make Sense of Any Mess, and The Accidental Taxonomist).

In truth, there are many different kinds of ways that symbols can be grouped into categories, and understanding this structure is what makes the understanding of a culture rich. Spradley proposes that there are a set of common semantic relationships that seem to occur over and over again:

1. Strict inclusion X is a kind of Y
2. Spatial X is a place in Y, X is a part of Y
3. Cause-effect X is a result of Y, X is a cause of Y
4. Rationale X is a reason for doing Y
5. Location for action X is a place for doing Y
6. Function X is used for Y
7. Means-end X is a way to do Y
8. Sequence X is a step (stage) in Y
9. Attribution X is an attribute (characteristic) of Y

Spradley proposes five kinds of structural questions designed to expose the semantic relationships of terms:

  1. Verification Questions – Asking for verification of a domain – or relationship between a set of terms
    1. Domain Verification Questions – Asking whether there are different kinds of a term that the informant has shared
    2. Included Term Verification Questions – Asking whether a term is in a relationship with another term
    3. Semantic Relationship Verification Questions – Asking whether there is a kind of term that relates other terms or if two terms would fit together in a sentence or relationship
    4. Native-Language Verification Questions – Asking whether the words spoken from the informant to the ethnographer are the words that would be used when speaking to a colleague
  2. Cover Term Questions – Asking if there are different types of a particular term
  3. Included Term Questions – Asking if a term or set of terms belong to another term
  4. Substitution Frame Questions – Asking if there are any alternative terms that could be used in the sentence that an informant has spoken
  5. Card Sorting Structural Questions – Asking informants to organize terms written on cards into categories and by relatedness. This is similar to an information architecture card sorting exercise. (See my post and video about Card Sorting for more.)

Descriptive questions will be interspersed with structural questions to prevent monotony and to allow the ethnographer to fill in gaps in their knowledge. Though structural questions help provide a framework to how terms relate, the relationship strength between terms isn’t always transparent. That’s why contrast questions are used to refine the understanding of what the strength of the relationship is between terms.

Contrast Questions

Sometimes you can’t see differences in the abstract. For instance, our brains automatically adapt to changing light and convert something that may look blueish or pinkish to white, because we know something (like paper) should be white, even when the current lighting makes it look abnormally blue or pink. So, too, can the hidden differences between terms be obscured until you put them right next to each other. That’s what contrast questions do. They put different terms side-by-side, so they can be easily compared.

The kinds of contrast questions are:

  1. Contrast Verification Questions – Asking to confirm or disconfirm a difference in terms
  2. Directed Contrast Questions – Asking about a known characteristic of a term and how other terms might contrast on that characteristic
  3. Dyadic Contrast Questions – Asking the informant to identify the differences between two terms
  4. Triadic Contrast Questions – Asking the informant to identify which one of three terms is least like the other two
  5. Contrast Set Sorting Questions – Asking the informant to contrast an entire set of terms at the same time
  6. Twenty Questions Game – The ethnographer selects a term from a set and the informant asks a set of yes/no questions of the ethnographer until they discover the term. This highlights the hidden ways that informants distinguish terms. (This is similar to techniques like Innovation Games, where the games are designed to reveal hidden meanings.)
  7. Rating Questions – Asking questions about the relative values placed on different terms – along dimensions like easiest/most difficult and least/most interesting, least/most desirable, etc.

The sheer number of types of questions can seem overwhelming at first. However, many of these forms flow automatically if you develop a genuine interest in the informant and their culture. Still, sometimes it’s hard to try to learn a new language and think about what’s the next question that you need to ask to keep the conversation moving.

Multiple Languages

In the case of an anthropologist who is working with a brand new culture, it could be that they’re learning a whole new language – literally. However, in most cases, it’s not that the language is completely different and new to the ethnographer. In most cases, it’s the use of the terms that are different. Just experiencing the difference between UK English and American English can leave someone a bit confused. A rubber in England is an eraser in the US, and a cigarette in the US is a fag in the UK. While both are English, the meaning and expectations of the word are quite different.

We often forget how we speak differently in a profession. A lexicon – special language – develops around industries that aren’t a part of the general consciousness. It’s the ethnographer’s job to discover not only that lexicon but also what the words mean to the rest of us.

Who Should Translate, and When?

When there are multiple languages, there is always the need to translate from one language to another. However, who does that translation – and when is the translation done? Informants, in their desire to be helpful, are likely to try to translate the information of their culture into terms that the ethnographer will understand. While the intent is helpful, the result is that the ethnographer doesn’t get to understand that aspect of the culture.

So, while translation is necessary, it’s best to continue to discourage the informant from being the one who is doing the translation. The ethnographer can leave their notes in native language and then translate later. This also allows them to validate information with structural and contrast questions. Sometimes, it’s this review that reveals some underlying themes of the culture.


In most cultures, there’s a set of recurring themes that appear. It isn’t explicit or stated, but there are those sacred cows that everyone worships that shapes the way the organization thinks. An entrepreneurial company has agility or velocity at the heart of the way that they organize their thoughts. A brand-focused company may be inherently focused on status or image. While these values aren’t typically articulated, they’re assumed, and they shape the way that the organization thinks – about everything.

By having the opportunity to review and rework translations, these themes begin to emerge. The semantic relationships appear over and over again until it becomes apparent that they’re not specific ways of organizing a topic but are instead a way of organizing everything.


One of the challenges that I often see in requirements is that the business analyst doesn’t always spend the time drilling into the details and verifying understanding in a way that results in requirements that fully express the needs of the business and how they do work. The ethnographic process – including the variety of questions – is one way to combat this challenge. It’s possible to leverage the ethnographic process to more deeply understand what is happening and how the systems are expected to help.

While I may be far from the fields of a foreign land, speaking to people whose language I don’t speak, I often move from industry to industry and company to company, learning their languages and the way that they think about the world. The Ethnographic Interview is, therefore, a useful tool for helping me get a better understanding and better requirements.