Your Client Relationship Is an Ethnographic Field

Share Share Share Share Share

Use ethnographic concepts and techniques for more successful relationships with stakeholders, clients, and teams.

by JOHN CURRAN, JC Associates

John Curran teaches the EPIC Course Leveraging Organizational Culture for Impact—details here! —ed.

artwork by andres musta, faces drawn on name tags

Some years ago a renowned UK-based charity invited me to help them understand why their legacy donations had flat lined for two years. The conventional wisdom had been that charitable donations had decreased as a result of the financial crisis in 2008. But when a statistical analysis showed that donations to other, similar sized charities were in fact increasing, they realized the problem was not just macroeconomics. The charity wanted new insights to explain their stagnation.

Organizations generally hire ethnographers to help them understand the world “out there,” and that was the brief my contract client produced. But delivering insights is not the same as creating value. I quickly discovered that for insights to matter, the scope of my project—from kick-off to signoff—would have to include the client’s organizational culture as well.

The charity wanted a strategic plan to create new products that would increase their legacy donations, and they started with a good set of questions: How do donors think about legacy, will writing, and the organization’s brand image? What broader societal trends affect these perceptions? I took on the project and designed a research approach that incorporated ethnographic interviews and a cultural analysis of the industry with a specific focus on legacy giving.

The client invited ten key internal stakeholders to the kick-off meeting. This was an encouraging sign: more people meant more knowledge would be shared, which in turn would help me frame the research. Or so I thought. Strikingly, the meeting was dominated by two people – the project lead and the charity’s head of charitable donations. I observed that the contract client tried to bring others into the discussion, but they either were nervous about sharing their views or, when they did share, were routinely interrupted by the head of legacy. Their body language also communicated something to me – arms were folded, heads focused on their note pads, or smiles that felt subservient to everything the head of legacy would say.

Later over coffee, my associate and I shared our thoughts and we both identified the cultural dynamics that played out in the kick-off meeting. I worried that if these dynamics were not addressed, we would see them throughout the journey of the project and the insights and strategic development we delivered would have little impact.

So the next day, after delivering a short summary of the kick-off meeting to the project lead, I suggested conducting one-on-one interviews with the stakeholders in the meeting. It would be valuable, I said, for me to understand how they perceived the organization’s main challenges, the barriers to overcoming those challenges, and their customers. I could then compare these client views with those of their customers, and perhaps use this discrepancy as leverage later on. She agreed.

The interviews were much more revealing than the kick-off meeting. Most of the people I talked with identified team culture as a key barrier – they described it as ‘top-down’ and ‘stifling’. They saw the project as essential to challenge current thinking and develop innovative solutions. The head of charitable donations, though, had a starkly different view. He was formal and respectful, but he made it clear to me that he doubted the project would provide anything that he did not already know. Fundamentally, he felt that it was a waste of charity money and that the problem could be solved internally.

As my work progressed, the contract client told me in confidence that she was frustrated with the head of legacy and with the passive nature of the team. I had one more chance to make this work and help my client move forward.

I planned to run a half-day co-creation workshop for a larger audience and I asked my contract client to invite her CEO and CMO to attend. I provided a short video of some of the research insights to share with them, and urged her to stress the importance of the project and that their presence would be invaluable. They agreed.

The co-creation session was extremely energetic. The first thing the CEO said was, “Why have we not done this before”? In break-out sessions I strategically grouped certain stakeholders together who would naturally challenge each other. The head of legacy worked with the CMO and a more junior member of staff. I observed the CMO and junior member of staff bouncing ideas off each other, populating the templates we had designed with new ideas. At first, the head of charitable donations looked uncomfortable; he could not control the environment and the normal performance and rituals. But over the course of the session he became more involved and engaged. At one time I heard the CMO say to him, “We need to use this material”.

I learned that the working relationship a consultant or agency has with clients on projects is in its own right an ethnographic field, full of micro-social interactions. I realised that I had to constantly read, navigate, understand and facilitate the cultural dynamics of my client in order for the project outcomes have an impact.

Over the years I have brought a wealth of theories from anthropology, sociology and psychology to bear on client relationships, and developed a range of successful practices based on them. They are grounded in three foundational ethnographic approaches:


A holistic approach encompasses the many different factors that shape a culture. Too often organizational culture is defined based on a specific moment or interaction. This is what anthropologists call a ‘snap-shot’ approach—it is too narrow. For example, in the story above I described what I observed in meetings and the way individuals and teams performed in-the-moment. But I did a lot more than that: I studied my client’s history, values, leadership structures, policies, spatial design and more so I could understand the fuller cultural context of those micro-interactions. All these factors shape how people behave and think; how rituals of resistance and power may shape aspects of team dynamics. This is, of course, central to all good ethnography. A holistic approach enables you to go deeper into understanding how your client’s culture is shaped and how they interact with you on a project. It will help you identify where potential challenges could lie throughout the project journey and how you might manage and facilitate them.


If holism helps you understand your client’s culture, liminality is a framework for working with or disrupting these dynamics, as I did with the co-creation workshop. The insights or strategic recommendations that your project delivers should challenge your client in a constructive way that enables them to see new opportunities. However, any challenge comes with change; change frequently induces discomfort; and discomfort sparks resistance. When you create a liminal space, you physically and mentally take your client away from their normal routine and intentionally construct a space that is more open to possibilities. Take the example of an end-of-project workshop, when you share your brilliant insights and want your client to begin to develop solutions or strategies based on them. By framing a workshop as a liminal space you can use it as a vehicle for change, with performances and rituals that constructively challenge and disrupt your clients’ perceptions in order to help them transition.


You are also an actor in the ethnographic field of the client/agency relationship, so it is important to be rigorously reflexive about your own position. Reflexivity helps you identify cultural or psychological barriers you are introducing, and to develop strategies throughout the project journey to help you overcome them.


Seeing the client/agency relationship as an ethnographic field will help you frame the real business challenges your client has. It will guide your project design and the way you deliver value for your client.

The next 12 months was very productive for the charity. Charitable donations begin to increase. An opening we advertised for a new head of charitable donations. The previous head had been at the charity for many years; he felt it was time for a new challenge.


Image: untitled photograph by andres musta via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

On rituals of resistance and power: Gutmann, M (1993) Rituals of Resistance: A Critique of the Theory of Everyday Forms of Resistance, In Latin American Perspectives 20(2):74–92.

On liminality: Howard-Grenville, J (2011) Liminality as Cultural Process for Cultural Change. In Organization Science 22(2):522–539.

On reflexivity: Levi, H (2010) "Reflexivity in Anthropology", Science Encyclopedia,

John Curran specializes in making organizations highly productive and people-centric in order to achieve growth. He combines his expertise in anthropology, executive coaching, facilitation and service design to work with CEOs, senior leaders and their teams to develop dynamic and collaborative organizational cultures that connect their values with those of their customers. John holds a PhD in Social Anthropology and has formal training in executive coaching (EMCC EQA), facilitation, organizational consultancy, qualitative market research, and group psychoanalysis. He is a guest lecturer at Cass Business School in marketing, a Visiting Scholar at the Royal College of Art in design anthropology, a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and a TEDx speaker.


The Org Chart as Political Map-Making, Jasmine Chia & Samuel Hagen

Sensemaking in Organizations, Laura McNamara

Ethnography to the Rescue of Change Management, Melanie Redman & Tanushree Bhat

Leave a Reply