How to win by studying culture

Scott_berkun_by_nathanael_b A couple of weeks ago, I did an interview with Scott Berkun and the results are up at the Harvard Bublishing.

Scott  is the best-selling author of The Myths of Innovation and Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired Magazine and on National Public Radio. He is a recurring expert on the 2008 CNBC TV Series, The Business of Innovation.

Here’s the interview:

How to Win by Studying Culture: An Interview with Grant McCracken



Bloggers run into trouble when they forget writing can be more than monologue. To help balance my own echo chamber, I’m seeking out the smart and the savvy for interviews (aka, dialogues). First up is author and anthropologist, Grant McCracken. I’m a fan of his blog, where he writes fun missives that blend pop culture, storytelling, business theory and anthropology (start with Aftermath or Voice Over. His is a voice I wish I’d discovered long ago.

1. What do you think executives and middle managers in business should know about anthropology? If you could add any required course to MBA programs, what would it be?

Anthropologists specialize in the study of culture, and culture matters in marketing because it supplies the infrastructure for thought and feeling in America. How consumers see the product, the service, or the pitch, these are largely shaped by the culture in their heads. The marketer who understands this culture has an advantage. The marketer who understands culture very well has an extraordinary advantage.

This reminds me of a course I gave at Coca-Cola some years ago for a group of summer interns. One of the students was a Harvard Business School student. He was an arrogant kid and he started the course in a deeply skeptical frame of mind. He wasn’t buying what I was selling. But as the course went on, he seemed to come round and see the value of studying culture.

I didn’t realize how much he had converted until we held a little graduation dinner for the class. He ended up sitting beside a high ranking marketer at Coke, and for reasons of his own, the marketer decide to ask the HBS student a patronizing, "so what did you do in school today" kind of question.

The HBS kid looked at him coolly and said, "If you understood this method, you would own your market." "OK, then," I thought to myself, "the kid’s on board." The good news is this kid now holds one of the big jobs in marketing today. And, yes, I take full credit. (I am of course kidding about the credit. This kid was (and is) massively talented and unstoppable.)

If I could add an MBA course, I would call it "Anthropology and Ethnography In Business," and it would lay bare the culture that shapes how consumers think and feel and how culture determines what they want. It would teach students how to do "ethnography" which is the method anthropologists use to study culture, and in our case to extract the parts of the culture that matter so that these can be built into product development, innovation, promotion, advertising, direct marketing, digital marketing, new media, and the rest of the marketing package.

2. Corporate PR departments often talk about their "company culture". What can leaders do to create a positive or creative culture in their organizations? Or is it something that only evolves from the personalities of the people hired into the organization?

There are two cultures at issue here: the one the consumer occupies and the one the corporation builds for itself. And, yes, anthropology is keenly interested in corporate culture. One of the ways to think about this problem is to think about the difference between the cultures of Google and Apple. The first is messy, multiple, bottom up, and incredibly innovative. The second is orderly, focused on Steve Jobs, top down, and incredibly innovative.The point being that there are lots of ways of making a corporation work.

And what I think everyone is now trying to have it both ways. We want to be maximally messy and multiple to be really responsive and harvest lots of good ideas AND we want to be elegant and perfectly defined as things work their way to market so that what goes to market is everything the consumer wants in exactly the form and function the consumer wants without a single extra thing.

As usual, we are asking the corporation to be X and not-X, but the magic of the corporation (and the thing that makes the corporation the best problem-solving machine we have at our disposal) is that it can be all things to all people. Anthropology can help here because it understands that the intelligence of this complicated creature exists not just in the formal procedures and divisions of labor of the organization, but in also in the less official ideas and practices that make up the corporation. Once again, anthropology is about culture, but in this case the culture is the particular ideas and practices of a particular organization. Anthropology can help senior managers re-engineer their organizations.

3. There is currently a backlash, which I confess I’m fond of fueling, against the use of the word innovation. These days the word is often used to signify creativity, even if no creativity is actually supported in the organization by the people using the word. Have you seen this phenomenon, perhaps with words other than innovation?

Yes, we do have a tendency to over-correct in the corporate world. It was exactly right to see that the world was becoming more dynamic and unpredictable from almost every point of view. Technology was changing at light speed. Consumers were diversifying. Channels were in an uproar. The promotional world was being rearranged. Markets were churning. It was like someone had put us on "spin cycle." We were right to say, "OK, darn, this means we need to be ready with a new order of creativity and preparedness."

But of course this can’t be the only thing a corporation does. Some of the gurus make things worse by saying stuff like "everything you know is wrong." This helps them sell books and get consulting gigs. But really, it creates a kind of problem-solving hydroplaning that is bad for business. Put this another way, when it comes to gurus we may be a little too responsive. The trick is to take what we know with us as we enter the new world. It’s complicated engineering. We have to decide what stays and what goes. It is easy sometimes just to start again. But then we get the backlash you are talking about.

This is one way anthropology can serve the corporation. Hire someone to go in and document all the assumptions at work in the corporations, the official ones and the unofficial "this is just the way we do things" assumptions. And then see which of these needs to change now that there is a new idea in town like "innovation." The point is not to dismantle ideas unless they stand in the way of what the new idea is. We don’t want to forget what it is we know, the knowledge we have build up of our markets and our industries over many years of expensive trial and error.

Want more interviews instead of monologues? Or know an interesting voice you’d love to see in this space? Leave a comment.

Again, you can see Scott’s blog here

Thanks to Nathanial B for the photo.  See the phone in its original Flickr context here

2 thoughts on “How to win by studying culture”

  1. Hi Grant

    If you ever get around to doing the t-shirts then I think “when it comes to gurus we may be a little too responsive” would make a great one!

    On a (kinda) more serious note… I’m not sure if this is an intelligent response to your last answer of not, but the speed that ideas now spread, and the virility of them, seems to suggest that it is often smart to apply a bit of wait-and-see and a lot of careful analysis and consideration before “forgetting everything you know”. Reading about marketing in the past few years has been a bit like top-of-the-pops. Will “swarms” knock “herds” off the top spot this week? Will “ripples” hit the tipping point and go viral? Stay tuned to find out.

    I think your observation that companies are often “messy” is a smart one, and while individuals have “common sense”, companies inherently don’t. What they have is systems and structures and cultures, which kind of stand in place as “proxy intelligence”. If those corporate neurons get messed up, get stuck-in-their-ways or otherwise go out of synch with the world, then I think that could really threaten the appropriateness of any “innovation”. In the spin-cycle that danger must be amplified, and Anthropology seems able to play a very valuable role in assessing and nurturing corporate-mental-health, so to speak.

    =) Marc

  2. “Want more interviews instead of monologues? Or know an interesting voice you’d love to see in this space? Leave a comment.”

    I value your monologues but would like a few interviews sprinkled in now and then.

    Since you’re asking for requests; I’d love to see what comes from an interview with Peter Block.

    Keep creating,

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