Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Retooling Our Skill Set for Resilience: Ethnography in Project Risk Analysis and Quality Assurance


In the months since the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting everyone’s lives, people and organizations worldwide have adapted quickly for the sake of survival. This is a matter of long-term intellectual interest for ethnographers – but also, sometimes urgently, of short-term solvency.

Some jobs, we now notice, really are essential for the ongoing functioning of a civilized society. Others…well, recently Bloomberg News published an Opinion article entitled “Coronavirus: Anybody Need a Management Consultant? Thought Not.” The industries we serve are in the midst of a whiplash pivot: A sports stadium becomes a field hospital. A restaurant becomes a general store. Physical workplaces are entirely redesigned. And so we might ask ourselves, Are there ways in which ethnographers can contribute to these efforts, repurposing our practices and expertise, especially as organizations plan for fundamental, lasting changes in their operations?

During the thirty-plus years that ethnographic praxis has been shaping business decisions, the research questions and the organizational motives for engagement have evolved. In 2013 an EPIC paper by Ken Anderson et al. described a key shift in focus, from research on products, services, and strategies as discrete entities, to complex technological, market, and cultural models as dynamic systems. The change to “Ethnographic Praxis 2.0” demanded we learn some new methods and forge alliances with some new stakeholders. We have adapted and broadened the dimensions of our work, and today it seems we may be poised for a comparable breakthrough.

One potential opportunity for ethnographers to expand our value lies in the domain of project risk analysis and quality assurance (PRA/QA). Consumer, market, and user researchers, interaction designers for products and services, as well as consultants who advise leaders on matters of business operations and strategy might find this a relatively easy extension, with a familiar balance between our humanistic values and our career realities.

Project risk analysis and quality assurance share objectives and processes with all of these fields, and they are applicable to business ventures ranging from fledgling start-ups to global Fortune 100 companies. On behalf of an organization, practitioners explore and document people’s hopes, fears, behaviors, beliefs, and social worlds, and then analyze the data to develop insights. We communicate the insights in appropriate formats to different audiences of decision-makers. We maintain a historical repository of information that can be used for evolutionary and comparative studies over time. Our portfolio of methods for risk identification and quality definition contains many tools and techniques well known to EPIC members. To some extent we are trained to be alert for stakeholders’ biases – and here lies the potential for ethnography. As the eminent anthropologist Mary Douglas demonstrated through her fieldwork and analysis (1982), culture determines the uncertainties a community perceives, the actions its members choose to take in response, and the point at which people feel safe and satisfied.

Yet there are a few important contrasts in orientation and application to be aware of before casually rebranding oneself, and these are due to the influence of the project environment.

The Project Management Context

One common misconception is that the PRA/QA field is dominated by quants who apply complex mathematical models to figure out how much insurance a company should buy, how much cash it should keep in the bank, how much currency fluctuations will affect its revenue, etc. This description does fit the work of “risk analysis” as defined by many academic degree and professional certificate programs. Yet “project risk analysis” – along with its symbiotic partner practice of project quality assurance – comprises an altogether different theoretical framework. Though it does often employ quantitative research methods, it focuses on human beings and their cultural habitus.

Risk and quality are two of the ten conceptual pillars supporting the discipline of Project Management. Just as a professional accountant earns a CPA credential by learning and practicing Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, a professional project manager earns a PMP credential by learning and practicing the Project Management Body of Knowledge. PMP-certified project managers are trained to communicate using standard terminology – a tribal dialect of jargon. According to PMBOK, a “project” is a temporary, unique endeavor to achieve a specific organizational goal. The goal describes the product or service “deliverable” that will be created and the quantifiable change that will provide a “benefit” for the organization. Projects always entail some sort of change for the people who work on them, who contribute resources to them, or who are affected by their outcome – their “stakeholders”. A “risk” is an uncertain event in the future that could have a positive or negative effect on the project goal. A positive risk is an “opportunity” and a negative risk is a “threat”. In either case, it is necessary for the stakeholders to define a “trigger” that provides solid evidence that the uncertainty has become a reality. When the trigger occurs, the organization takes action according to a pre-established plan. The actions available are determined by the stakeholders’ consensus about the standards of “quality” that measure the degree to which the deliverable’s characteristics fulfill the requirements.

A project’s risk management plan documents proactive measures to decrease the likelihood of a negative trigger condition occurring, and reactive measures to limit the damage if it does occur. Conversely, a positive trigger condition is proactively pursued and reactively harvested. The quality management plan documents the stakeholders’ prioritized requirements. For each requirement, it describes the objective standards the deliverable must meet and provides instructions on how each standard will be validated, verified, and monitored. Quality assurance metrics are directly aligned with design and performance specifications. They establish a range of acceptable results and alert the organization when the variance exceeds those thresholds.

Why We Can Be Good at This

The work of PRA/QA would not suit every ethnographer, but for some it is an alternative worth exploring. I can vouch for this because I made the change myself a while ago. After earning a graduate degree in anthropology in 1982, I applied my ethnographic knowledge to help global financial services companies implement the digital transformation of their industry. For the first two decades my work essentially consisted of proselytizing concepts and implementing techniques inspired by the Work Practice and Technology group at Xerox PARC. After the Y2K crisis, the projects I became involved in had a reach that was broader and deeper across the organization, further into the marketplace, and more intensively under the scrutiny of many governments’ regulatory agencies. I learned some new methodologies and vocabulary words. Yet in my role as a manager responsible for project risk analysis and quality assurance, the principles and processes I drew on during my engagements with employers and clients retained their ethnographic core.

Jobs that focus explicitly and exclusively on PRA/QA exist, but they are rare. For several years I held this position in a department of Technology and Information Risk at a well-known financial services firm. Organizations where there is a permanent, official Risk Management or Quality Management department, or even a Trust and Safety function, are sometimes open-minded about hiring ethnographers. However, it is more common for the role to be assigned to a member of a project team with a different primary role. PMP-certified project managers study risk and quality as part of their training and can be expected to have a reasonable sense of what the work entails and how to account for it in the project’s schedule, budget, and resource plans (including Agile sprints and iterations). Other project managers may need to be educated by their assignees.

Over the years I have observed that ethnographers possess certain aptitudes that are valuable for PRA/QA activities:

  • Outreach to marginalized and low-status individuals and groups whose impact on the success of the initiative is often underestimated.
  • A sensitivity to “social silences” around taboo topics.
  • A focus on communities and networks.
  • Patience with “deep hanging-out” (among executives sometimes called Management By Walking Around) acquired through participant-observation fieldwork.
  • For anthropologists trained in the four-field tradition, research methods with inclusion of people’s vocabulary and cognitive taxonomies (linguistics), their bodies’ adaptations to their environment (physical anthro), and the material artifacts they have used in the past (archeology).

Ethnography helps project managers confront unconscious biases, dismember groupthink, legitimize dissent, uncover hidden assumptions, articulate the tacit rules of conformity that “go without saying,” and hunt down the elephants in the room everyone pretends are not really there. It can remove cognitive obstacles in the way of achieving the project goal.

How We Can Be Good at This

In reading this overview, experienced professionals may have noticed some elements that differ from their customary work – and a few that sound familiar depending on the types of questions they investigate and the agendas of their sponsors.

PRA/QA develops elaborate “what-if” scenarios with cascading sequences of possible events. It asks stakeholders to envision multiple imaginary futures and to consider various types of agency under a range of circumstances. For example: What if you needed X and it wasn’t available? What if the accepted rules for Y suddenly changed? What if the interest/support/revenue you expect from Z substantially decreased or increased? PRA/QA is expected to provoke critical inquiry into the impact of future scenarios on the organization itself as a whole and on the organization’s external points of contact. It engages secondary and tertiary indirect stakeholders, broadening the scope to include processes, systems, and compliance activities. Analysis of a scenario not only describes what might happen, but also demands commitments from individuals and organizations about the actions they would take in response. In addition, PRA/QA establishes objective, quantifiable triggers and standards that are monitored and measured. Obtaining consensus among stakeholders about the methods and metrics devised for evaluation is part of the job.

How these practices could align with ethnographers’ present activities would be based on the level of the organizational hierarchy where the ethnographer is situated.

At the team level, in the domain of research and design for specific products or services, they would augment the routine tasks and techniques of requirements definition. Popular tools such as The Tarot Cards of Tech, Envisioning Cards, or Six Thinking Hats have already proved useful for scenario planning; PRA/QA also employs them as a starting point, and adds others such as fishbone diagrams, swim lane flow charts, and decision trees.

Moving up the org chart to middle management where longer-term decisions are made about innovation, brand identity, marketing, and IT systems involving multiple teams and functions, PRA/QA builds upon the team-level foundational knowledge and acquires new responsibilities for inter-group communication, jargon translation, and political diplomacy. The “truth-teller” role these activities create has been insightfully described by Josh Kaplan, who documented the ways in which characteristics of small, insular tribal villages exist within very large organizations. Kaplan analyzed the reasons why sometimes bad decisions are made and unviable products and services are launched even though most stakeholders realize failure is inevitable. He concluded that in this environment a groupthink bandwagon bias overwhelms rational analysis and people are afraid they will be shunned and stigmatized if (metaphorically, as in the folktale) they point out the emperor is naked.

I can bear witness to the truth of Kaplan’s ethnographic observations, and I would add another motive: loyalty based on organizational kinship. Just as workers have “office wives/husbands,” they have office family members whom they trust and protect. For example, I once worked in a department where five years earlier the most senior executive’s teenage daughter had been very seriously injured in a car crash. The senior executive had spent months in a state of distress and distraction, and had unofficially turned over the management of the department to his subordinate. The junior executive took the helm and steered the vessel competently. Eventually the young woman recovered and the senior executive resumed his duties – and from that point onward the junior executive was largely exempt from criticism or accountability and had free rein to undertake a number of pet projects that lacked business justification. A more common example of organizational kinship is the manager who has hired, trained, and mentored members of his/her staff and thereafter tries to shield them, their work, and their real families from the hostile sabotage of rivals on other teams or the counterproductive job-eliminating proposals of misguided external management consultants.

To reduce the project failure rate, PRA/QA at the middle management level demands rigorous qualitative and quantitative research, well-documented evidence, and effective data visualization. As can be seen from the foregoing examples, it is useful if practitioners also have expertise in phenomena such as magical thinking, social stigma, and fictive kinship.

After proving its value to an organization’s team leaders and middle managers, PRA/QA may occasionally be invited to take a seat at the conference table of senior executives who are facing a complex decision about business operations or strategy. One trigger for such an invitation is a scenario in which said executives have hired a big-name management consulting firm to provide them with blueprints and road maps to achieve an important business goal, yet after the consultants departed and collected their fees the implementation plans have stalled or failed for mysterious reasons. Another trigger is an emergency when events are unfolding so quickly that routine, approved procedures must be set aside in favor of unprecedented, improvised, best-judgment reactions.

Under these circumstances the PRA/QA role becomes a hybrid of investigative reporter and organizational ombudsman. The mission is to bridge the cultural gaps between the hands-on workers, the administrative bureaucrats, and the elite decision-makers. Ethnographers who have done field research in countries with a history of colonial occupation or among marginalized communities with little access to essential resources would be well-prepared for the challenges this work entails.

For example, on September 11, 2001 I was Director of Quality Assurance for the Systems Development Group at a global financial services firm. Our headquarters was across the street from the World Trade Center. Like hundreds of Lower Manhattan businesses, following the terrorist attack we relocated to our disaster recovery site across the Hudson River in Jersey City. Within a few weeks, while the wreckage of the Twin Towers was still spewing acrid smoke, pressure began building from federal and state government officials and from Wall Street industry leaders for workers to return to their office buildings. Our senior management arranged to clean out the toxic ash and upgrade the HVAC system, and then they declared the headquarters physically safe and healthy enough. However, a survey of our employees revealed that more than 50% of the staff intended to quit rather than return to their offices…ever.  An incident of workplace violence among the normally quiet and well-behaved software engineers was the trigger for my team to be invited to help figure out what to do. We suggested that senior management should consider issues of mental as well as physical safety and health: the three Ms of motivation, mood, and morale. We conducted more in-depth research, asking respondents for their own ideas about what would make them comfortable. Some of the answers seemed quirky or frivolous, but senior management decided to take them seriously and implemented many of them. Moreover, the fact that the research was being done at all seemed to have a positive effect on the staff’s attitudes. In the end more than 90% of our employees moved back into the headquarters building. Today, as debate rages over the criteria for reopening offices and schools amid the pandemic, I am reminded of my former employer’s initial failure to consider human factors beyond physical safety and health. Ethnography for PRA/QA could give senior decision-makers better insights into the requirements for a productive and harmonious new workplace culture.

At every level of the organization, PRA/QA implements two essential rituals: the project team’s risk analysis meeting and quality control meeting. Both meetings occur regularly during the project lifecycle, and both focus on document templates presenting a prioritized register of items for tracking. The importance of conducting the ritual as an expression of faith in certain values and as an embodiment of team identity needs no explanation to ethnographers. In practice, the uncertainties on the Risk Register may never occur, or they may turn out not to matter much. The risks we plan for may not be the ones which take us by surprise. Yet the process of planning, monitoring, and responding creates an awareness and an agility among the project team so that when the Unknown Unknowns erupt out of nowhere everyone knows the choreography and is better prepared to take appropriate actions. Likewise, the standards established on the Quality Control Register may not always be attainable for many reasons. The process of planning, monitoring, and responding enables the project team to distinguish between normal and abnormal variations and rationally deal with causes rather than emotionally blame individuals. The PRA/QA rituals strengthen the socio-technical systems.

Finally, a discussion of how ethnographers could apply existing knowledge and skills to PRA/QA activities would be incomplete without mentioning two areas where significant investments in learning and adjustments of perspective might be called for.

The first relates to the psychological context of the work: proactive persuasion and enticement versus reactive anxiety and protection. In my experience, current ethnographic praxis for business is typically optimistic, aligned with and/or sponsored by an organization’s Sales, Marketing, or R&D functions. PRA/QA is essentially pessimistic. It is supported by and/or partnered with Compliance, Security, Operations, or Human Resources. Ethnography for PRA/QA should facilitate engagement with stakeholders from those areas of the organization, much as the 2013 EPIC paper on “Ethnographic Praxis 2.0” advocated that ethnography teams should expand to include participation from business analysts, big data analysts, and data visualization specialists.

The second is the observer/participant role ratio. Effective PRA/QA certainly depends upon comprehensive, detailed, and de-biased observation. Nonetheless, practitioners must be willing and able to step out from the spectator zone onto the combat field to ensure that organizational politics are addressed, tasks are completed, and stakeholders are held accountable for their commitments.

Evolutionary Currents and Business Impacts

Ten years ago, if I had been asked to draw a Venn diagram showing the intersection of ethnographic praxis and project risk analysis and quality assurance, the area shared by the circles would have been quite small. The organizations occupying that common space were mostly large technology companies and consultancies specializing in long-range strategic planning or organizational development (e.g., Intel, Google, Microsoft, ReD Associates, Stripe Partners, LTG, Battelle). Yet in recent years the area of intersection has been growing.

Human-computer interaction initially meant trained operators using complex controls for machinery. The concept broadened with the development of personal computers, office automation software, and gaming consoles, then again with the introduction of portable individual devices, then again with the invention of the internet. Now our species is embedded in a near-ubiquitous system of digital apps, networks, platforms, sensors, robots, huge databases, virtual and augmented reality, IoT connections, AI algorithms… With each expansion of scope, the number of stakeholders necessary for successful operations increases (Forlizzi 2018). So do the elements of uncertainty and the perspectives on the standards to be met.

According to Paul Dourish, the field of HCI needs to recognize that today much more is at stake than the design of interfaces or the crafting of experiences. He suggests that researchers and designers should recall the foundational principles of the discipline and focus more holistically on the goals and values of entire projects. In a recent EPIC Talk, John Payne advocated a new approach to “Post-Human Centered Design,” one which recognizes the larger scale and greater complexity of digital technoscapes, incorporating methods from Systems Thinking and Futures Studies. Pushed along by such currents of thought, considerations of risk and quality therefore tacitly but inevitably find their way onto the agendas of researchers and designers.

Support for PRA/QA practices from middle and senior managers had been growing steadily even before the pandemic struck. Their value in improving business decisions for operations and strategy was documented as collectively-authored stakeholder “premortems” in 2007 by the psychologist Gary Klein, then publicized in 2014 during a famous speech by Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, and subsequently championed by leading consulting firms such as McKinsey and Company.  At the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, no major decision is undertaken without a committee meeting of senior executives whose explicit agenda is to criticize the idea and imagine why things could go wrong (Gottfried 2019). Blackstone’s founder and CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, provided details in his memoir (2019) about a catastrophic investment he approved in 1989 that led him to establish rigorous risk and quality management practices. Schwarzman’s book was published last fall; since the author is a multibillionaire, a respected philanthropist, and an advisor to both President Donald Trump and President Jinping Xi his advice has reverberated across many industries.

Perhaps ethnographers’ pivot to PRA/QA would not require very much effort because the evolutionary momentum is already underway toward an “Ethnographic Praxis 3.0.”

Beyond adding marketable skills to one’s personal portfolio, ethnographers with PRA/QA knowledge could be of real service nowadays. For the time being, many businesses are not so focused on offering new products and services that surprise and delight their customers and users. It’s all about survival (of profits, of workers in reconfigured spaces, of supply chains) through adaptation to massive forces of change. “Resilience” is the prayer – meaning the ability to behave constructively amid an onslaught of uncertain events and to uphold essential standards. Anyone who can help manage risk and quality will be a welcome addition to a project team.


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Featured Image: “4_unmanned” by foam via flickr:


Ethnographic Inspection Identifying Project Risks, Akihiko Obata et al.

Models in Motion: Ethnography Moves from Complicatedness to Complex Systems, ken anderson et al.

When ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes’: Performance, Complicity and Constraints on Communication in Corporate Attempts at Innovation, Josh Kaplan



Patricia Ensworth, Harborlight Management Services LLC & New York University

Patricia Ensworth is President of Harborlight Management Services LLC, a consultancy specializing in project management, business analysis, risk management, and quality assurance. After earning an MA in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, she has applied her academic knowledge by leading projects to explore the effects of innovative digital technologies on humans for various employers and clients ranging from global financial services firms to non-profit arts organizations to educational institutions. She is the author of The Accidental Project Manager: Surviving the Transition from Techie to Manager (Wiley 2001), and numerous articles in both technical and general interest publications.  She is a faculty member at New York University and the American Management Association, teaching project management seminars and workshops for graduate-level business school programs, public courses and private client engagements.