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I live in Rowayton, Connecticut. It’s a tiny town, around 4,500 people, that sits on Long Island Sound roughly 50 miles up from New York City. Rowayton is famous for… well, it’s not famous really. It’s a sleepy little place that has managed, by applying itself as little as possible, to remain almost entirely obscure.
Under the circumstances, this took some doing. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Connecticut was a veritable Silicon Valley, filled with hard-charging inventors throwing off a profusion of new ideas and practices. Just up the coast, for instance, in a town called New Haven, Eli Whitney created the cotton gin and gun works. Connecticut inventors were learning how to make machine tools. All those things once painstakingly assembled by hand (guns, watches, bicycles, and, yes, even machines) could now be mass manufactured. The earth trembled with industrial activity.
How Rowayton managed to sleep through this fury of invention … well, we can’t be sure. Certainly, there were local sources of income. Rowayton was briefly called the oyster capital of the world. Every day, its oysters went down to New York City where they were sold to factory and office workers as the fast food of their day. The other source of income, latterly, was a fairground that featured a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, concession stands, beauty contents, and big bands. This made us vulgar and noisy, and the object of much sniffing from Darien across the way. We didn’t care. We might be vulgar, but we had oysters and, um, a roller coaster!
And then one day, something happened. The Remington Rand Corporation came to town. It installed itself in an old estate in the middle of town. Remington Rand was active in the machine tool tradition: sewing machines, firearms and typewriters. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was trying to figure out how to make something called the “business computer.” (A machine that could do for information what the machine tool did for manufacture, that was worth trying for.)
The computer work was so top-secret they put it in a building called “the barn,” a sweet little building, all stone and faux Tudor timbers (pictured). Actually, the barn looks like a preindustrial cottage, and the last place you’d expect to help produce the business computer. So much for appearances. The Barn created the Remington Rand 409. After hundreds of years of well-deserved obscurity, Rowayton had a claim to fame.
Photos from the Barn tell the story. Engineers, dressed in white shirts, wearing sensible glasses. One is wearing that early badge of geek chic, the pocket protector. And there is more than one short-sleeved shirt, that miracle of "Drip-dry" and "Wash and wear!" No one actually has tape on his glasses, but one feels that’s only a matter of time.
This is what innovation looked like after World War II, deeply practical, happily inelegant. Guys in sensible shirts. People trying stuff until they got it right. The invention process was a deeply engaging, sometimes vexing thing. The beams of the second floor proved insufficient for the weight of the new computer, so they shored them up. Vacuum tubes ran hot and had to be replaced every three hours. There were problems large and small, and the guys at Remington Rand kept at it. By mid century they were done. Lo and behold, the father of the UNIVAC line of computers and great, great, great, great grandfather of the laptop on which I write.
This is innovation as we used to do it. The recipe was simple: put inventive souls in an isolated place, give them resources, and leave them alone. We called it “R&D,” Research and Development. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fashionable. It wasn’t sensible in certain ways. (Why was everyone white, male and middle aged?) But it was relentlessly curious. And practical. When ‘A’ didn’t work, someone said, “what about ‘B’?” And if that didn’t work, people were happy to run down the alphabet until they found something that did. “What if” was the order of the day.
There is something about this R&D tradition that feels at risk. That combination of hard thinking and brute pragmatism is now in peril. But this is just for starters. For ingenuity and reckless experiment funded a larger spirit of innovation. This was the “can do” world. A place of relentless ingenuity. And now it fails cowed, diminished, uncertain, less and less prepared to “try stuff and see what happens.” Westerners in general and Americans in particulars have retreated into pessimism. They have taken to their ideological corners. They have withdrawn from their furious engagement with the world. But of course we have grounds for discouragement. But I would have thought that the baby we do not wish to put out with the bathwater is our ability to solve problems. If we lose that once reckless, generous, exuberant spirit of invention that we truly are done for. It's time for ingenuity to stage a comeback.
Click on this image for an excerpt of remarks by Grant McCracken in a session called "Listening and Empathy: Making Companies More Human" at Futures of Entertainment 2012, MIT, Cambridge, November 9, 2012.
Thanks to Sam Ford for organizing and moderating this event and to fellow participants who are, cruelly and unreasonably, excluded from this edit: Lara Lee, Carol Sanford, and Emily Yellin. For the full video, please go to http://bit.ly/WTy3dE.
In any square mile of ocean, there are some 46,000 pieces of plastic, a great and growing testament to people on ship and shore so spectacularly stupid or irresponsible that they would rather just chuck something into the ocean than make the small effort the recycling now takes. Every year, this "ocean plastic" kills one million sea birds and 100,000 sharks, turtles, dolphins, and whales. Every year, ocean plastic rises a little higher in the food chain. It's destination: our dinner plates.
Finally, the planet decided to do something about it, patiently sweeping garbage together into the creation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), an accumulation of crap rotating endlessly out there in the North Pacific.
And there it sits, a floating garbage dump visible even from outer space. Maybe this is an ocean's idea of accusation. One piece of litter on the high seas doesn't amount to much, but put it all together and you've got one really big ecological "j'accuse."
For the rest of this post, please visit the Harvard Business Review Blog by clicking here.
I am planning ethnographic interviews for the new year and I'm putting together an equipment list.
An ethnographic interview is a delicate thing. You are trying to build trust with a perfect stranger, sometimes in their own home or workplace.
The trick is to keep distractions to a minimum. (Because from distractions, suspicions, detachment and alienation often come.)
Two principles follow from this.
1. If you can help it, you don't want an extra person in the room, fiddling with equipment, gazing around, and otherwise distracting your respondent. In a perfect world, you would operate everything yourself, setting it up and letting in run. (There is lots to be said for having someone worry about the tech while you worry about the interview, so the jury is for me still out on this question.)
2. You want as much video/audio fire power as possible in the smallest form factor possible. You don't want the camera, mics or lights to get in the way.
This camera pictured here is the JVC GY HM 150U. It has good picture and good sound. It has time code that consumer cameras doesn't. It records in .mov so which means files can be sent directly to Final Cut Pro. It has the capacity to record great chunks of testimony. It is reasonably inexpensive (~$2100.00) and it is surprisingly small. (This picture makes it look larger than it is.)
We are an image-crazy culture so some people think their work is done when they buy a good(ish) camera. But sound is absolutely key.
And that means buying a good microphone. The Sennheiser EW ENG G2 gets good reviews on Amazon. It's around $700.00.
Good lighting is also important and I am just not sure what the best/smallest kit is here. Dec. 18 addition: just came across the Westcott Icelight and while not cheap, this looks little and light. Here it is on Amazon.
Your comments please!
I asked Rob Kozinets for his advice on this matter a couple of years ago, and I believe the Sennheiser microphone system was his suggestion. So thanks to Rob for his advice. All other suggestions are my own and I wouldn't act on any of them without a "second opinion."
Here's a post I published on the Harvard Business Review Blog recently.
I argue that Millennials are now forced to live secret lives in the corporation.
Thanks for Karlo Cordova for the excellent (and illustrative!) photo.
Here's a post I recently published on Wired.
I argue that Reality TV might not be as bad as we think. Notice how ferociously the comments resist this idea. Talk about provoking the orthodox(y)!
Here's a post I recently published on PSFK.
I argue Mr. Williams' recent public service message suggests a failure to grasp the significance of new media.
We have a crisis on our hands. There is so much culture, and so much new culture, that navigating culture is extremely difficult.
Some months ago, Entertainment Weekly came up with a great idea. They created a kind of equivalency table that says, if you like X, you may well like Y.
Here's an example.
We could go further. How about maps of culture that lead us from the center we like to the many peripheries we might like?
Here's a visual generated by a Mac app called Daisy Disk designed to read your hard drive. I use it here to map not a drive but a culture.
Imagine this as a map of cultural possibilities. The center that nows reads 220.3 GB would be Lady Gaga. And the extenuating circles and colors could take us away from Lady Gaga to music that has LGish properties. Each color would take you in a different musical direction. Here periphery would take you further from the Lady Gaga original. And each discrete space would represent a distinct act, band, album, artist by relative popularity.
Culture becomes navigable! Now we can use what we know to know more.
Can these three women rehab Hollywood?
Please have a look at my latest post at the Harvard Business Review.
Here's my Harvard Business Review Blog essay on the way Oreo is celebrating it's 100th birthday.
The first two paragraphs:
Oreo recently stepped out with a new look. Several new looks, actually. The cookie is pictured sometimes in the shape of Elvis, sometimes with a tread mark in redcrème in recognition of the Mars Rover landing, and sometimes in colors chosen to acknowledge Bastille day.
This is an excellent way to celebrate Oreo's 100 birthday, but it would be wrong to dismiss it as advertising's equivalent to party balloons. There is a method, perhaps even a genius, to this good humor.
Read more BY CLICKING 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 argues that the corporation can no longer expect the same organize to win and survive. It argue that the corporation must build a second corporation around itself.