As a business anthropologist, I (Nadine) spend a lot of time thinking about worldviews; not only my own, or those of the patients or consumers I speak to, but also those of my clients. This process, although commonplace in many social sciences, seems to have been left behind in the world of insights, strategy, and innovation. In our attempts to understand the consumer and the patient, we have forgotten one key ingredient: the power of reflecting on ourselves and our worldviews.
Worldviews are of course necessary — they help us parse apart complex realities. Yet, they are also often our greatest weakness, our biggest blindspot. This article is an invitation to sit with your own worldviews. Instead of once again looking to mine a consumer’s experience for data, what if we were to reflect on how our own thinking, assumptions, and beliefs have shaped how we imagine the world around us? Perhaps we would begin to see the opportunities that live beyond the world as we have imagined it.
Defining how patients “cope” with a diagnosis of a disease has been the focus of many pharmaceutical companies. Most often, this happens by distinguishing between patients who are accepting of their disease and those who are in denial of their disease. At play is the worldview that acceptance allows patients to take their disease seriously and take care of themselves in the most “proactive” ways. When people accept their disease, they are open to accessing a company’s education and support services. Patients in denial, however, risk not taking their medication properly or making use of services that are provided to them.
What happens if we were to forget denial and acceptance for a few moments?
Javier, a person living with chronic disease, taught me how to do this. When I asked him how he lived with his diagnosis, he told me that “not thinking too much about it” was the best way to “accept” his disease. Javier helped me understand that in a world in which health anxiety, the pervasive fear that the body is vulnerable to disease, is becoming the norm, living well with disease means not thinking about it too much. In other words, it means staying distracted and, at times, actively avoiding disease education materials that focus on life with disease.
Javier’s story helps us reimagine the very idea of what living with disease looks like: perhaps acceptance means not thinking about things too often. Or perhaps acceptance and denial quickly become meaningless concepts to focus on. While knowing this means reevaluating the very premise of our worldview, it also opens up new opportunities: What if, instead of assuming that Javier is in “denial” and needs to learn to “accept” his disease, we were able to help Javier access resources that reduces, rather than heightens, anxiety? What would a support program that helps Javier not focus too much on his disease look like?
Worldviews are constructs or frameworks we use to make sense of the world around us. Without them we would be lost. They help us parse apart complex realities. They also allow us to create a common language and communicate among each other.
However, worldviews are also tricky. Over time, people begin to forget that they are constructs (or a product of a specific historical moment), and start to see them as a truths. In other words, failing to revisit our own worldview risks creating debilitating blind spots, preventing us from seeing real people and real opportunities.
It is only when we start to define and question our own worldview that we can actually start to truly understand and innovate within someone else’s world. To come back to Javier, it is only when we let go of our constructs of acceptance, denial, and proactivity that we can truly start to understand his experience and build meaningful solutions to support him. This is what anthropologists (and social scientists more generally) term “reflexivity”, or the process of reflecting on one’s own position and assumptions to identify our blind spots.
True innovation happens when we harness the power of reflexivity to critically evaluate our own worldviews (instead of only trying to convince others that they should change theirs). Doing so isn’t always easy. It means taking the time to see things from a different vantage point. Yet when we do this, we have the potential to bridge the ever-increasing gap between the industry and the daily lives of the people it is meant to reach. We have the opportunity to build a shared world and conversation that feels profoundly meaningful for companies and consumers/patients alike.