Unsung heros in the corporation (more essential than we think)

Clue train cover David Weinberger tells the story of Jake McKee, the man who taught Lego how to have a conversation with its consumer. 

It turns out McKee supplied a crucial piece of Lego's cultural intelligence.

Now Jake is gone from the company, and Lego has become an excellent example of how to be a clueless, frightened laughingstock. A 14-year-old user used Legos to create a stop-motion homage to Spinal Tap, which Spinal Tap projected in concert and wanted to include in its DVD. Lego refused to give permission. As a company spokesperson said: “…when you get into a more commercial use, that’s when we have to look into the fact that we are a trademarked brand, and we really have to control the use of our brand, and our brand values.”

Weinberger asks, "How customer unfriendly can you get? You sell us something that enables us to create what we want, and now you say you get to control what we create?"  Indeed.

And it made me think how much the cultural sophistication of a corporation, in this case, its ability to create Cluetrain conversations, can depend on a single person.

In Chief Culture Officer, I use the example of Geoffrey Frost.  Frost joined a Motorola in 1999.  The company was in steep decline, losing billions each year.  Frost found a way to launch a new handset called the Razr.  Sales were projected for 2 million.  By the end of 2005, Motorola had sold 20 millions.  By the end of 2006, 50 million. Tragically, Frost died in 2005 and Motorola was thrown violently from the Cluetrain.  It seemed incapable or unwilling to find a successor for the Razr or for Frost, and by 2007 it was losing money again.  By 2008 it was wondering if it should sell it's cellphone business, and by the end of the year CEO Zander was out. 

It is wrong to paint figures like McKee and Frost as heroic figures, the only ones who get what is happening in the cultural world outside the corporation.  It is wrong to rely upon a "great man" theory of history. 

Isn't it?  Maybe not.  The corporation is so clueless, not just about conversation but about the full spectrum of opportunities and dangers that spring from culture, that sometimes it really does depend on a single individual.  The people come, they flourish, the corporation gets culture, the corporation flourishes.  They go, and it is as if the corporation is suddenly unplugged from culture.  The bridge is gone.  The descent is swift.

Let us sing the praises of unsung heroes.  They create extraordinary amounts of value.  They protect us from acts of trademark self destruction. 

References

Levine, Rick, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, and McKee Jake. 2009. The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition. Anniversary Edition. Basic Books.  Available from Amazon here.

McCracken, Grant. 2009.  Chief Culture Officer.  Basic Books.  To be published this December 1.  Available for preorder from Amazon.com here.

Weinberger, David.  2009.  Lego hops off the Cluetrain onto the tracks in front of it, wondering what that increasingly loud sound could be.  Joho the Blog.  August 13.  here.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Tim Sullivan for the head's up.

4 thoughts on “Unsung heros in the corporation (more essential than we think)”

  1. to grant:
    i agree with your ambivalence to according great man status to these stories. it does rub uncomfortably close to critiques that we might throw at, say, a peter arnell or others. that said, both the stories you say are pretty remarkable.

    to jonathan:
    you would choose well not to use the word relevant in your questioning if your goal (as i assume it is) is to highlight product performance benefits. i do not know the story, but at the very least, we can imagine frost a cheerleader for a definition of the word “relevant” that included the design that you celebrate? some other individual may not have been so comfortable in uncomfortable terrain as he, surely?

  2. Jonathan, thanks for the question, Frost was the guy who found the idea in a Chicago Motorola laboratory, brought together the best and the brighest at Motorola to work on it, then found a way to protect from the people at Motorola who like to engage in “death by committee,” and then shepherded it to market, with all its genius intact (augmented, actually). Pretty impressive. Thanks again. Best, Grant

  3. Gotcha. Since Motorola has failed to bring a similarly great product to market ever since, and couldn’t talk its way out of a paper bag (let alone manage a real conversation with its customers), I get your point 100%. Thanks for the detail, Grant.

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