Meanings, Models and Men in Black

imagesDriving to JFK airport today, I looked at the remainders of the 1964 World Fair and thought, as I almost always do, how successfully they were used in Men in Black, the comic book and the movies.

In the World’s Fair, they are observation towers.  In the film and books, they become alien spacecraft.

To use my parochial language, this makes them “culturematics” and that’s because they repurpose culture and change the meanings of one thing (towers) into another (spacecraft).

Men in Black is filled with repurposing of this kind.  My other favorite: turning bad, incredible newspapers into a one of the few sources of information the MiB take seriously.

Ok, a third.  A creature arrives from outer space and demands a weapon from an earthling farmer.  This scene turns the warning “you may have my weapon when you pry it out of my cold, dead hand” into a negotiating position that the alien takes literally and accepts.  “That arrangement is satisfactory.”

You get the little jolt when something in your head changes meaning in this way.  Good metaphors always have that effect.  I get a little vertigo.  ”Wait, those meanings that belong there don’t really belong there!?!  Oh, ok, they do. Very well.  Carry on.”   (I am not saying all metaphors are culturematics.  Because most metaphors are not experimental.)

The answer to the mystery of this meaning relocation may lie in the book I took to read on the plane: The Power of Impossible Thinking.  I am not crazy about the title (a little too Norman Vincent Peale for me) but I love the contents.  It’s by Jerry Wind and Colin Crook, both at the Wharton School.  I know Jerry a little and like him a lot which makes especially irksome the fact that I missed this book when it came out in 2006 and found it only literally a couple of weeks ago.

Power of Impossible Thinking argues that there is no real world, an assertion sure to warm an anthropologist’s heart.  What there are the models in our heads that help form what we see in the world.  So there is no economic action, no managerial initiative, no strategy, no insight, no decision, that is unshaped by the models, or as I would prefer, the meanings in our heads.

When an artist like Lowell Cunningham or a film maker like Barry Sonnenfeld reaches into your heads and reworks that World’s Fair observation towers, they have changed the meaning (or the model) in our heads.  And this is one of the reasons we write comix and go to movies, for the frisson of meaning (model) relocation, prefigurement, reconfigurement….whatever you call it.  We like that.

This makes especially puzzling the fact that when we are all “large and in charge” and working for an organization of some kind, we don’t like to hear about meanings or models.  We look at a book like Chief Culture Officer or The Power of Impossible Thinking and go, “no, really, is this quite necessary?  I don’t think so.”

So I admire that Jerry and Crook took this on.  It is a very tough sell.  Meanings and models are a little like the dark energy of enterprise world.  Yes, it’s out there but frankly managers  don’t know exactly what it is, how to think about it, or what to do about it.  And talking about it just makes  heads hurt.  This makes getting meaning or models into decision making and managerial discourse is ever so difficult!

Worse than that, I think people in their enterprise modality think of themselves having a “swift self.”  (This was an idea that came out of research I did for a book called Transformations.  More detail there.)  People in enterprise mode see themselves as being aerodynamic, the better, the quicker to assimilate data, make decisions, and act.  They love this swift self.  It’s a thrilling way to be.  But they often find that it eventually hollows them out, estranging them from family, friends, and other aspects of the self.   Still, it’s great fun while the party lasts.  In this swift self modality, the individual is  formidably capable, forging a smarter, clearer path to market share, say, or the creation of potable water in the Third World.

My favorite example of the swift self is Khalil Younes, a young man I got to know when consulting in Atlanta.  He was equal parts French, Lebanese and Harvard Business School and in his elegant, formidable way simply stared at problems til they dissolved into solution(s).

Here’s the problem.  In the swift self modality, people see themselves as a creature who cuts through the ideas and confusions that stand between themselves and satisfactory outcomes.  What Jerry and I call meanings and models, they think of things they are supposed to cut right through.  In their world, meanings and models are  the things that get in the way.  As a swift self, Khalil is reason.  He is Occam.

When Jerry and I ask Khalil to look at the meanings and models that mediate between the understandings and the world, it may well sound as if we are insisting on the impairment of this swiftness.

I think it’s likely for the swift self to reply with something like “Look, I have managed to be capable without entertaining the meanings or models you claim are active here, what are the chances this knowledge will make a difference?  On balance, I’m guessing it is more likely to interfere, taking more than it gives.”

This is not a bad argument until we get to the meat of the argument that Jerry and I are making and that is that the world is getting faster, more confusing and less scrutable.  And in circumstances like these, it makes sense to look hard at the meanings and models we use as instruments of apprehension…because when we don’t do this, we often can’t see the opportunities or the dangers now at hand.

Anyhow, I have just started the book and I will report back when I know more.   At a minimum, I think those who are Chief Culture Officers (or fellow travelers) might look to The Power of Impossible Thinking as another and perhaps a better way of communicating cultural understanding into the organization.  ”Mental models” does sound a little less obscure than “meanings” and even this would be an improvement.  This might make a good Google Plus hang out at some point.  Anyhow, more to come.  I want to get this posted before I run out of internet service on board.

(Filed from 32,000 feet somewhere on the way to Austin.)

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