Business as the new rocket science.

DSC00042 A friend asked me to come talk to his organization.  But first he wanted to know what I would say. 

Here's what I told him.

Bartholomew (not his real name)

I'd love to come work with you.

As an anthropologist, here are a couple of things I am looking at.  (Not a comprehensive list).

1) the new diversity of outlook, interest, taste and enthusiasm

We were once a monolithic society, relatively speaking.  Now we are badly-herded cats.  The question for senior management: what does this do to your business model? 

How can the corporation be many things to many people?  How do we change our media, our messaging, our meaning making…now that we are no longer broadcasting with a bull horn.

A couple of days ago, I did a piece on the "culturematic" as a way to make culture.  And it has since occurred to me that this might be what we now do instead of big, fat, mass marketing campaigns.  In the place of Unique Selling Propositions, fired often and loudly at a mass market as if from a cannon, we are now inclined to create engagements in the form of experience, applications, and stories that are little, funny, charming and often a little odd.  This is what we appear to like, not big fat messages but cultural materials that are quirky, anti-authoritative, adventuresome, participative.  (We saw this anti-modernist sensibility come up in the 1990s as one of the ways a generation defined itself.  Now it seems to be going wide.) 

This new sensibility, this new grammar, looks like a great way to work with, to speak to, diverse markets.  We like it for its own sake, but it is also adaptive.  It works when the old grammars fail.

2) the new flight from function to value

I've been working with companies that are climbing up a value hierarchy, from the creation of products that solve a problem or perform a function to bundles of value that supply a deeper, richer order of problem solving.  These companies, located in diverse industries, are climbing a value hierarchy, from the simple and the functional to the more complex and less literal.

Some of this is driven by the arrival of new commodity competitors who can imitate the lower order function without being able to grasp or deliver the higher order stuff.  Climbing to the upper reaches of the value hierarchy is a way to protect markets and keep customers. 

And some of this is driven by a new approach from the likes of P&G.  In his book Gamechangers, Lafley asks us to dolly back from a narrow view of the consumer to a portrait that is richer and more nuanced.  The corporation is still supplying utility but it does so less to help the consumer accomplish "brighter whites" and more to help her address questions like "how do I make this household work." 

What we are seeing here is a fundamentally new answer to Theodore Levitt's classic marketing question: "what business is our you in."  The corporation is less about USPs and more about life solutions. 

3) the new inscrutability of change

No sooner do we get a fix on what people care about than they change what they care about.  Our culture and our markets are in constant churn.  New developments sweep through us like storms off the North Sea.  To manage in a world as dynamic as this, we need to improve our meteorology.  We need a "big board" that identifies what changes are coming, how quickly we can expect them to arrive, and what to do when they get here.  We also need a deeper understanding of American culture.  In sum, we have to start doing future gazing as a discretionary activity, and we have to stop doing it as an intuitive process.  Time to get serious, systematic and disciplined.  Otherwise, life in the corporation becomes a matter of struggling to recover from the latest "blind side hit." 

4) the breakdown of the old asymmetries

This asymmetries made some of us culture producers and some of us culture consumers.  We are all producers now.  The question is how the [organization] aids, enables and variously participates in this ferocious new culture.  Part of the answer here is knowing it with a depth and subtlety that enables it to supplement, shape and direct the "raw feed" of the web world.  Some people are using the word "curator" here.  Personally, I think this is (if we are true to the metaphor) too passive a model.  We need something much more "engaging." 

Taken together, these four issues show us a corporation that is entertaining into an era where it must perform a higher-order of problem solving simply to dispatch the usual business of business.  No, it's not rocket science.  It's more complicated than that.  (See Roger Martin's The Opposable Mind as the go-to text on the new complexity in business.)

Hope this helps.

Thanks, Grant

Post Script

I will be in Memphis this weekend at the AIGA Make-Think Meetings.  Please drop by and say hello if you happen to be there.

Then it's on the San Francisco and next Thursday at noon about 10 of us will be meeting at a bakery downtown.  Send me an email if you are around and feel like joining us. 

6 thoughts on “Business as the new rocket science.”

  1. I get a kick out of how many times the word “new” appears in this entry. Most of these senitments could have been expressed in the 1920’s without raising an eyebrow.

    When exactly were we a “monolithic society”? Was it two generations ago, when my neighborhood was populated by five distinct ethnic groups, each with its own subculture and native-language speakers? Or was it a few generations before that when European and Asian immigrants went West and interacted with Native Americans?

    What American generation has NOT felt that they were undergoing great changes? While we’re at it were these cultural “asymmetries” present when our great-grandparents made their own music at home or in church? (Or doesn’t that count as being a “culture producer” since it didn’t happen on the Internet?)

    You’re talking a lot about “new,” but I can’t help but think of how often we’ve repeated these same patterns.

  2. The function-to-meaning thing may not be moving up a hierarchy at all (I suspect residual Maslovian fallacies here). It may be more of a spiral or a cycle.

    Think back to the auto market of the 1960s and 1970s. US firms dominated the cultural meaning space with their brands and makes and models. Toyota and Datsun and Honda were meaning-lite interlopers selling cheapness and later reliability and later fun. They absorbed cultural meaning–being for smarter more cosmopolitan types–only AFTER they had established their functional bona fides as price/quality champions. Functionality created an aura of integrity and sprightliness that shifted the meaning and status hierarchy of the auto brands over time.

    Now Toyota is struggling with excessive growth in capacity (chasing market share for its own sake) and conformance quality problems but retains its brand meaning–for now. Hyundai is coming up on the inside rail with superior price/performance, leading some of the more car-conscious types to say that “Toyota is the new GM and Hyundai is the new Toyota.” Of course, it is by no means predestined that Toyota will react as dysfunctionally as GM did to its challenge–for one thing its new president Toyoda is aware that things are coming a bit unglued. The point is that superior meaning is hard to maintain without superior or equal price/performance.

    Note that P&G is busy coming up with cheapy versions of its flagship products to stave off competitors with the simpler value proposition of “almost as good and a lot lower price.” Even Lafley’s anthropological view cannot bypass the need to solve customers’ narrow problems (“whiter than white”) in an economically sensible way.

  3. Ben, well said, wrong, but well said.  I believe this is a new order of difficulty.  If we look at the rise of managerial class in the American corporation after ww II, this was testing but intellectually not much more complicated than installing a military bureaucracy (as written up by Chandler).  Yes, all americans have experienced extraordinary change, but its getting extra extra.  Thanks!  Best, Grant

  4. Steve, great comment, thanks, it may be that in most culturally mature markets there are no narrow problems left.  Even the utility space is a complicated proposition.  thats before it raises to the level of meaning.  Thoughts only.  Best, Grant

  5. +1 to Ben’s comment, and thanks for the subsequent reply, which reframes the original post.

    We’re becoming more monolithic rather than less. For example, innovations like parcel post, rural free delivery, and rural electrification brought the experience of living in rural America closer to that of living in a city. More recently, communications advances like the telephone, radio/television, and now the internet–not to mention the rise of the Dayton-Hudsons and Wal-Marts–have tended to increase, not fragment, homogenization of daily experience relative to previous class and geographic boundaries.

    One might say it is becoming easier to be aware of certain details of difference, because our tools are better, but does that translate into significantly increased fragmentation at the level of everyday life?

    The point is better read–and the post ultimately gets there–in the limited sphere of considering how a large business communicates with existing and potential customers, and that there are fewer means of reaching many people at once (otherwise, why are Super Bowl ads so expensive). The post would be helped by better defining the set of corporations that are its focus–plenty of corporations are small businesses that have been doing these kinds of things since their founding.

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