At Optimistic Anthropology, we recognize that every challenge, culture, and context is unique.  As a result we don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions, and instead aim to learn from the wisdom of on-the-ground practitioners, remix methodologies, build on our clients’ existing gifts, understand culture, and apply tested approaches to new contexts. (Learn more about our approach and read how we used some of these methodologies to develop our firm's name.) While there are many methodologies that can be employed to do the work of complex social change, these are the ones that inspire us and which we draw upon most frequently.


Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive Leadership has had a big influence on us. Developed by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, this body of work advocates that leadership is a practice, not a position. It helps individuals build their practice to address complex challenges by building their skills at diagnosing problems, interrupting the status quo, shaping new mindsets and cultures, and innovating to produce different results. A good resource: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World [Book].

Photo: Graffiti, Berlin, Germany


Anthropological Interviewing

Anthropological interviewing is an approach used to understand a culture and how it developed. We apply it to organizations, collaborations, places, and systems through a three-phase process. The first phase focuses on identifying who should be interviewed, and developing a set of non-directive, open questions to ask them. In phase two we conduct the interviews and adjust the questions and interviewee list as new insight gets surfaced. During the third phase we aggregate and analyze the information shared, and highlight key insights, common themes, and new knowledge. Check out our blog post: The Power of Good Questions.

Photo: Constituent Gallery, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, UK


Community Engagement

Community engagement is the process by which residents are engaged to work and learn together on behalf of their communities to create and realize a vision for the future. To learn more about this topic, read our blog post: 5 Questions to Ask and Answer When Practicing Community Engagement.

Photo: Painting near Union Market, Washington, DC


Cross-Sector Leadership & Collaboration

Cross-sector leadership is the work of building and supporting cross-sector collaborations, alliances of individuals working within and across sectors that together have a role in solving a problem and achieving a shared goal. This work grew out of our founder, Alison Gold’s own work as an on-the-ground practitioner, technical assistance provider, and researcher. Check out our blog post: 4 Questions to Ask and Answer When Engaging in Cross-Sector Collaboration.

Photo: Atrium, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany


Design Thinking

Design thinking is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to understand the problems with which people and society struggle. It helps discover unmet needs and anticipates and matches people’s needs with what is feasible. We like it because it focuses on two things we really value – building empathy and spurring creativity. A useful resource: Stanford’s D. School created A Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking [90 Minute Online Experience].

Photo: Museum Broadhorst, Munich, Germany


Difficult Conversations

Disagreement is not a bad thing – it happens all the time, and more often than not no one cares. But, there are other times where we care a lot. And it’s necessary to be able to navigate those times if you want to be able to make change. Developed through research at the Project on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, we value the Difficult Conversations methodology because it provides insight and practical tools for how to discuss what matters most. The best resource: Difficult Conversations [Book].

Photo: Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, Summreville, GA


Diversity, Equity, and inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a lens to 1) recognize the wide array of characteristics, experiences and values that make people different from one another; 2) ensure fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while eliminating barriers that have prevented the full participation of some; and 3) build organizations, collaborations, communities, processes, and systems in which any individual or group is and feels welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. We are advocates for it and work with trusted collaborators who are experts when appropriate. Key definitions and the cases for doing this work: Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter.

Photo: Jellybeans, The Presidio, San Francisco, CA


Emergent Strategy

Emergent strategy is the practice of shaping the conditions through which a group can engage in relatively simple interactions and generate many possibilities (even contradictory ones) AND then explore and try out and adapt these possibilities into actions in support of moving toward shared goal or goals. To learn more about this practice, check out our blog post, What the Heck is Emergent Strategy?

Photo: Taago by El Anatsui, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA


Emergent Learning

Emergent Learning occurs when people embed learning processes into the work they already do, and continuously use the learning they glean to achieve their goals. We have found emergent learning incredibly useful in our own work, particularly the identification of a central learning question, and the discipline of tracking the ideas and hypotheses that emerge through meetings, events, research, and other resources. To learn more about this, check out our blog post, What the Heck is Emergent Learning?

Photo: Building, Asheville, NC


Facilitative Leadership

The Facilitative Leadership model is built on the belief that today’s challenges and opportunities require us to think about leadership more broadly. Beyond just coping with change, we must design and manage processes that empower people and creating the conditions in which they can work together to achieve a common goal. We’ve found it to be a particularly powerful toolkit for process and meeting design, as well as strengthening facilitation skills. A useful and ever evolving resource on facilitative leadership is the Interaction Institute for Social Change Blog.

Photo: Judisches Museum Berlin, Berlin, Germany


Lean StartUp & Lean Impact

The Lean Startup is a methodology popularized by technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist Eric Ries and entrepreneur and academic Steve Blank. Blank describes the methodology as an approach that “favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional big design up front development.” At its core is the build-measure-learn cycle where the goal is to figure out the right thing to build, and learning is the essential unit of progress toward that goal. Useful resources: The Lean Startup [Book] or Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything [Article].

Photo: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, UK



Mindfulness is the state of being active and open to the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, and are awakened to experiences. If that sounds a bit woo-woo to you, it did to us at first, too. But, there’s neuroscience that backs it up, and we have seen the power of using simple and short mindfulness techniques to help individuals and groups “get present” in ways that help them be open and productive. Check out the Search Inside Yourself Institute’s The Merits of Mindfulness at Work (Backed by Science) [Blog Post].

Photo: Mokoros on the Okavango Delta, Botswana


Place-Based Experiences

There is great value in understanding the history, culture, unique assets, and pressing challenges of the places where organizations and collaborations are located and working. From tailored urban walking tours, to programs at relevant local historic sites, from hikes through nature to visits to local art installations, we love to build place-based experiences which get people out of their day-to-day routines, expand their understanding of the world, communities, and their histories, and inspire a sense of possibility. Read: The Power of Immersive Experiences on the OA Blog.

Photo: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, AL


Systems Thinking

A system is a set of connected entities, mindsets, behaviors, practices, and/or policies, which form a whole. This includes everything from a human body to a business to an ecosystem. Systems thinking is a practice to understand the big picture, by diagnosing how the system’s structure generates its results, where there are leverage points – places where small changes can produce outsized changes in those results, and how to identify those leverage points through experimentations. A favorite resource is Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System [Article].

Photo: Polygonum 2.0 by Tom Dekyvere, Scottsdale, AZ


Theory of Change

Theory of change is “a comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved.” Read our blog post: Applying a Tried and True Methodology to a New Context.

Photo: Trout Fishing in America #5 by Mike McConnell, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, Baltimore, MD

Interested in discussing THESE METHODOLOGIES and how they might ADVANCE YOUR Social Problem-solving work?  Say Hello!