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By the Way: Anthropology applied to business


Doylestown native and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

But that thoughtful caveat applies to business executives and managers as well.

And it’s basically at the root of what Andi Simon, a corporate anthropologist, said when she talked to business leaders at the March Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce’s Global Executive Briefing. The luncheon program took place at The Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm in Holicong.

Dr. Simon’s message: CEOs need to change how they look at their business when they are seeking solutions, particularly when facing change.

“Corporate CEOs are seeing, feeling and thinking about their business all the time but they are not stepping back to look at the business and see it with fresh eyes,” she said.

Simon, who applies anthropological principles to business strategy, cited what happened with Wawa.

In 2007, she said, Wawa was just a gas station with a café where people could stop in and buy coffee and food. “It looked pretty much like every other gas station,” she said, until someone questioned the business strategy and asked, “What will make us different?” The answer was to provide really good fast food, quality food. The effect of that “aha” moment? “$10 billion,” she said.

The speaker’s own company. Simon Associates Management Consultants, applies the anthropologist’s theories, methods and tools – the same tools Mead used to analyze native societies – to help companies adapt to change. She is also a practitioner in Blue Ocean Strategy, a marketing training program, has worked with a wide range of clients and has conducted more than 400 workshops and keynote addresses.

In her new book, “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights,” Simon presents seven case studies illustrating what can happen when CEOs look beyond the business to the customer, and become change agents.

The trick is, she said, “to make the competition irrelevant.” She suggested, “Find out who is the non-user. Look at the unmet needs and ask, ‘How can I add value?’” She said, “Managers need to talk to the customer and find out where the gaps are. If they ask for something different, don’t tell them, ‘We don’t do that.’”

She said that should be the ‘aha” moment, when you think, ‘That’s what we have to be doing.’”

Simon said, “Hear the story of opportunities. Who’s going to be your customer tomorrow? Are you hearing the gaps? Listen.”

Simon added, “And listen to your staff, too. Eighty percent of new ideas come from your staff. Tap into that.”

Before opening her consulting business in 2002, Simon held executive management positions in financial services and health care companies during times of rapid change.

She was professor of anthropology and American studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. As a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis, she taught entrepreneurship and she and her husband and partner, Andrew L. Simon, have launched the Simon Initiative in Entrepreneurship there.