I’ve spent the summer writing and I’m impressed with how diverse writing is as an experience.
Sometimes, it’s like being the captain of ship. You are in charge. You have navigational information. You have logged a plan and you are sticking to it.
Sometimes, writing is like being a passenger on the upper berths. Someone else is making the decisions but the passage is pleasant, arrival is assured.
Sometimes, writing is like being a passenger on the lower berths. Much less pleasant, but, hey, eventually Lady Liberty will come shining into view and we’ll be off this f***ing ship.
Sometimes writing is clinging to a piece of wreckage in high waves. You are cold, frightened and disoriented. Arrival is out of the question. Perishing at sea is not.
Sometimes, writing is like standing on a god forsaken island, scrutinizing an empty horizon. No one is coming. You are good and lost. Your only companion is Wilson, a painted volleyball, and it turns out he has no ideas. Well, a few. But frankly, he doesn’t get the whole anthropology thing.
It turns out that the number one cause of shipwreck is a creature called, in my case, the Kraken (pictured).
Grant McCracken sticks to is knitting. He writes all day, every day, as hard as he can. The Kraken likes to go stand in front of an open fridge. That 5 watt bulb is his idea of illumination.
McCracken files a navigational plan and sticks to it. The Kraken likes to go inking off in all directions. I swear to got he has the attention span of a house plant, and now that he has access to YouTube, well…, hey, have you seen this kitten video.
McCracken is trying his hardest to build a couple of useful ideas. The Kraken prefers to wreck havoc on marine traffic. He’s never met an idea he didn’t want to pull into a watery grave.
I am please to report that on this day of our Lord, August 19, 2013, I have made 22,968 words of progress. But I am also obliged to tell you that the Kraken lies in wait.
Roughly a week has passed since my experiment in San Francisco and some thoughts are in order.
For those who are new to the enterprise: On July 16, I installed myself in SF and invited people to send me instructions via Twitter. I promised to do pretty much anything people asked me to do.
It was a disaster. And not in an interesting way. But in a “how could he get this so wrong” way.
My plan was to be truly automated, to do in real time whatever I was instructed to do. If someone said, “turn right” that was what I wanted to do, assuming that it did not put me in the path of an oncoming trolley. If someone said, “burst into tears and wait for someone to come to your aid” I intended to do that too. (More on motives and objectives in a moment.)
I failed at the automated thing. The fact of the matter is I’m a nervous nelly. So I cheated. I took assignments sent me by email with me into the day. And then I asked my assistant Maria to decide which of the tweets received we would act on. (Maria Elmqvist is just graduating from the Academy of Art University. I had written to Cameron Maddux there to see if he knew of a student who could help out. Maria volunteered). This too destroyed the randomizing quality of the undertaking. (Again, more on the point in a moment.)
In the press of the moment, old habits prevailed. I have done a lot of ethnographic interviews in the street. And before I knew it, I was interviewing people. This created some interesting moments as when it become clear that a would-be respondent had just told me indirectly ‘to fuck you and leave me alone.’ Then the media found us, and that lead us to Jonathan Bloom, a really interesting guy who works for ABC7 in San Francisco. We started chatting and it turns out that Bloom is helping reinvent the world of TV journalism and I wanted to find out more about that. Then he started driving us from place to place. And by this time, my head was spinning and I was thinking, “So why did I decide to do this, again?”
So why did I decide to do this?
First, Automatic anthropologist was a culturematic and every culturematic is a hack of culture. It creates an event designed to engage, provoke, reveal culture.
In this case, turning yourself over to the direction of other people might be expected to raise questions about agency and autonomy.FN1 Specifically, “Who’s in charge?” And “How can someone surrender control of the self to other parties?”
The Automated anthropologist was designed in haste. Suddenly, I had a free day in SF and I thought, “now what?” I am just finishing a project for the Ford Foundation in which the question of individualism surfaces almost constantly. So I was thinking about autonomy and what it is to be a free standing individual.
As Americans we are deeply devoted to the idea that we are in charge. We make choices. We craft lives. We are self inventing. The idea of voluntarily giving up this agency and autonomy strikes us as odd. (And to the media, it turns out, irresistible.) Outside of S&M dungeons and other romantic encounters, giving up control is actually unamerican. We define ourselves by the idea that we are self defining.
The fact of the matter is we are only partly choosing, in charge and self inventing. We are deeply constrained and defined by social rules, cultural meanings, political forces and economic realities. I don’t make too much of this. I am not one of those social scientists who think that because we are sometimes determined by forces outside ourselves, we are wholly defined by them. Choice makes an extraordinary role in American life. But there are moments, ghoulish, quite scary moments, when we glimpse the limits of our autonomy and I wonder if the automated anthropologist could become one of these.
More simply, I think some people heard about the automatic anthropologist and thought, “Great. A monkey on a string!” It was as if they had wandered by and discovered that someone had left the door to selfhood wide open, with the keys still in the ignition! And they had an “evil genius” moment.
“Ah ha! My agency will inhabit his agency. I will make him do things that embarrass him. I will force him to hold himself up to ridicule. Finally, my chance to play the puppet master!” Americans are deeply opportunistic (I mean this in the technical sense) and this looked like one hell of an opportunity.
A higher objective of the undertaking was magic. Culturematics at their best have a way of “reenchanting the world,” to use Max Weber’s phrase. In place of the rational, the routine and the routinized, they are designed as a way to make something wonderful happen. This is what I’d been hoping for.
Perhaps the most compelling objective of the exercise was novelty, creativity, innovation, to pile up the words we use so often these days. One of the paths to innovation is randomness. And we see a passion for this these days in our passion for improv and experiment. And the Automated Anthropologist looked like a way to use randomness to march me out of the world I knew into a world I didn’t. We are self defining. We are captives of our own little gravitational fields.
These fields are the proverbial “boxes” we are always claiming to be trying to get out of, but it’s hard. Many of our choices have hardened into habits. It is very hard to escape ourselves and I thought that automation and the real time feel of advice from others might walk me straight out of the world I construct for myself into something new. (We talk grandly and often about empathy, but this is, in my opinion, merely a matter of letting difference into consciousness on a day pass with an armed guard. The chance of assumption-rocking transformation is remote.)
The learning, then, is clear. If you are going to do an event like this, you have to be scrupulous and disciplined. You have to stick to the plan. And you have to follow it wherever it takes you. No cheating. And that means you can’t do any of your own documentation. Leave that to someone else. Your job is to be completely automated…by others…all the time.
The learning may also be “don’t sent a nervous nelly on a mission like this.” Or maybe that’s just a note of personal criticism.
A note of thanks.
Sometime in the 1990s, while living in the Danforth neighborhood in Toronto, on Saturday mornings, I would wander up the record store near the Danforth subway station and fell into conversation with Dave Dyment there who introduced me to the art of the Fluxus movement and Yves Klein (see Leap, pictured). I would not have undertaken the Automated Anthropologist without this instruction.
FN1. Cliche alert. I blanche a little when I write this. How many exhibit catalogues have told us that the artist is “dealing with the whole question of agency.” (Plug “whole question of agency” into Google to see what I mean.) This has become a kind of boilerplate, the thing curators says about art without saying anything more about the topic, thus betraying reflexive behavior at the moment they wish to be critical. With some powerful exceptions of course.
For the Storify summary of the event, have a look here.
For the book from which the project stems, have a look here.
This week I took part in a #TChat on employee engagement and specifically onboarding. (Thanks to Marla Gottschalk for including me.) I found myself arguing that onboarding should introduce new hires to the deep culture of the organization, the one that is buried in assumptions and largely hidden from view. Meghan M. Biro, a founder of TChat, invited me to “break it down.” Here goes.
The corporate culture is a complicated culture. It gets reshaped every time a new leader storms the C-suite. (Marissa Mayer is transforming Yahoo now.) It is changed by a succession the managerial models (“reengineering!”) and buzzwords (“tipping point!”). McKinsey and various other consultants introduce new ideas. Mergers and acquisitions bring in new ways of seeing and doing. The average corporate culture is a crowded house, an accumulation of ideas and practices.
And it would be one thing if these ideas and practices were explicit and obvious and sat like a simple “subroutine” in the corporate code, there to be plucked cleanly out when we wanted to change things. But of course, these ideas live cheek by jowl in an unexamined mass. I can’t remember ever hearing someone say, “Oh, ok, now that we’re moving to this idea, let’s root out the old one.”
No, we muddle through, assuming, apparently, that old ideas will expire on their own, or leave in disgrace. But of course they persevere. Every so often someone will break one out during a committee meeting and we all silently think, “Welcome, old friend.” More often, they serve as an assumption we resort to “when things get complicated.” The trouble is, they have a way of making things still more complicated. After all, the ideas that works for one person or group often contradicts and wrong-foots the rest of us. You’re thinking one thing. I’m thinking another. Key projects end up as “ships passing.”
Good luck onboarding a new hire. A handbook may capture the most recent, the most explicit, and the most formal of the ideas and values that govern the culture, but that teeming mass of additional ideas it tends to leave out. It will take weeks, sometimes months for the new hire to glimpse all the ideas at work in the corporate culture and the rules that govern when and by whom they’re used. Time wasted. Value squandered. And sometimes a lost hire.
Who is responsible for this complicated culture? We have a COO for operations, a CMO for marketing, a CFO for finance. Why not a CCO, a Chief Culture Officer, for culture? As the party who grasps the welter of ideas that inform and animate the corporation, the CCO becomes a critical agent, an intervening angel. She can step in and say to two warring departments and say, “actually, you’re both right. You, department X, are using ideas that came to use from a talk Tom Peters gave here in 2005. And you, department Y, appear to be holding to the managerial mandate we got two years later when McKinsey came in. Here’s the Rosetta stone, the translation table, that sorts this out. Ok, begin again.”
Crisis management aside, the CCO can be there at the moment of creation, inventing the culture of the corporation, auditioning new ideas, integrating them with older ideas, helping clarify the mission, values and purpose of the organization. The CCO now fashions these not only as a grand statement for the annual report but as a work-a-day understanding that helps the organization day all the time.
In effect, this CCO would act as an organizing intelligence, a problem solver, a diplomatic officer, someone who can intervene when a team struggles to define its problem and its solutions. Corporations have always been complicated, but now as they learn to speak to complexity with complexity, things can get very murky very fast. A CCO, acting as an angelic intervention, would be extremely useful. “Ah, yes,” people say after a visit from the CCO, “that’s what we’re for, that’s who we are. Let’s start again.”
This is a grand calling, but I don’t think it exhausts the responsibility of the CCO. I think the corporation should ask the Chief Culture Officer to monitor and master the culture outside the corporation. And by “culture” here I mean, the cultural meanings and social rules that make up American life. When we know these meanings and rules, we negotiate daily life without a hitch. If we don’t know, life turns into a series of mysteries and frustrations. (Try ordering a cup of coffee in the Middle East and see what it’s like not to know the meanings and the rules.)
I recently gave a speech for a large, very serious federal bureaucracy. They wanted me to talk about culture in particular and Culturematics in particular, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Waiting back stage, preparing to go on, I turned to my handler and said, “What am I doing here? Why do they care about culture?” The reply was illuminating. “They keep losing their new employees. They work hard to find the right hires. But the kids come in and after a couple of weeks, they ask your question, ‘What I am doing here’ and leave.”
There will be several ways the CCO can address the issue of employee engagement but one is to use culture to craft a new connection with the hire. We can ask employees to serve as part of the intelligence net with which the corporation (or bureaucracy) keeps track of changes in the world “out there.” And now we have engaged them in something they care about. We have tapped their magnificent knowledge of popular culture. We can listen to them as they listen to one another and the world. They are now our eyes and ears. With this gesture, we honor the whole of the employee, and not the narrow part they bring to work each morning.
It is one of the peculiarities of capitalism that it has asked people to leave their other selves at the door. Someone may have a haircut that shouts “I have a life outside this place,” but we don’t want to know. Traditionally, the response has been, “We don’t know what you do on your own time and we don’t want to know. Just do your job. Everything extraneous to “job performance” is precisely that, extraneous. At best a distraction. A worst, a sign of disloyalty!” When that guy from fulfillment wanders into the cafeteria, someone asks with a small note of horror, “What do you suppose Karl does in his spare time?”
As it turns out, on the weekend Karl becomes a formidable competitor in the gaming world, when he is not working on his Anime collection. Now, there was a time when it truly didn’t matter what Karl did with his free time, but these days, the corporation wants to keep an eye on the entire waterfront of contemporary culture, especially the world of gaming. If the corporation has anything to do with entertainment, marketing or innovation, a working knowledge is essential.
Karl has a working knowledge. And he would be thrilled to be asked. He would be honored to do a brown bag lunch with other members of the organization, swapping stories, comparing notes, mapping out what they know about our culture. The organization is filled with Karls. And between them, they can map a lot of American culture. For some reason, we now ignore our Karls. I was talking to Tom Guarriello about this the other day, and he just shook his head. “When was the last time the corporation left this much value sitting on the table?”
What the corporation needs is someone who fully grasps the corporate culture inside the corporation, someone who can make this knowledge more supple, more available, more strategic and more tactical than it is now. And it needs someone who knows about culture “out there in the world.” What the corporation needs is a Chief Culture Officer.
Or so it seems to me. I welcome thoughts and comments from the HR community. I can only really to speak to “culture outside” and I welcome the chance to work with people who know about “culture inside” the corporation.
Please leave a comment below, or feel free to send me a note at email@example.com.
Baribeau, Paul. 2012. 5 ways to become the Chief Culture Officer. Workplace Tribes. August 23. Click here.
Biro, Meghan M. 2012. Time for a new leader in the C-Suite. Forbes. Aug. 13. Click here.
Biro, Meghan M. 2012. Workplace culture leaders humanize the onboarding process. Forbes. August 22. Click here.
Collins, David. 2000. Management Fads and Buzzwords: Critical-Practical Perspectives. Routledge.
Lambert, Avi. 2012. Chief Culture Officer. Squidoo. Click here.
McCracken, Grant. 2011. Chief Culture Officer. Basic Books. Click here.
McCracken, Grant. 2012. Culturematic. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Special thanks to Meghan M. Biro and Avi Lambert who encouraged me to participate in the #TChat and for the conversation that followed. Thanks to Tim Sullivan and Tom Guarriello for several discussions on the theme.
The image is an “umbraculo” in Barcelona. I like a wall that lets the inside out and outside in.
Please have a look at my recent Harvard Business Review post.
It looks at the evolution of the brand creature. This image is Sparah, the brand creature created by Virgin Mobile. There is something brewing here.
Please see my recent and wildly implausible Harvard Business Review post.
It’s about how the City of Boston could use a service called Thank Bank to create a more humane city.
Here’s my TEDxHarlem presentation. I talk about the state of cultural innovation, how its changing and how Culturematics are one way to do this innovation now.