Serving Christ and Caesar: multiplicity and the postmodern corporation

Bravia_commercial_image_largeI know that this blog must look like a bumper car competition.  No sooner have I run into one topic than I go speeding off in search of another.  Continuity is not a strong suit here at This Blog Sits At…

So now for something completely different.  Today I want to dwell on the implications of the two most recent posts and comments thereon.

Yesterday, I wondered whether we should treat inconsistency as a new corporate objective.  The day before I was talking about how senior managers are now obliged to engage in the new art of "assumption jumping" to respond property to change.

Clearly these are related.  If inconsistency is a new objective of the corporation, it will take senior managers capable of new orders of "assumption jumping" to sustain the thing.

Now, I think we can say for certain that the corporation has a way of  winnowing out people who are endowed with sure fire assumption jumping abilities.  The corporation has been slow to hire women, minorities and creatures from the margin.  It’s as if the old logic of banking that said "if we wish to be the keeper of people’s money, we must appear to be as orthodox as possible" had someone crept into the rest of corporate life…even when money or lifetime security or great risks were not issue.  So you wouldn’t want someone showing up with a Mohawk or even more alarmingly, a Chelsea.  I mean what would this say about their "fitness for office"?

The trouble with this culling exercise is that it eliminated people who were obliged to "assumption jump" to have any sort of mainstream existence.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I do not suppose that only minorities and margins have an exclusive gift for or right to this sort of thing.  This is one of the most delirious and vexing notions of the post modern delirium.) 

But everyone has assumption jumping abilities and the corporation had a way of discouraging even those of the people it did hire.  I have worked with people who are experts, enthusiasts and participants in fields wildly distant from the corporate culture, and it can be ages before you ever have a chance to glimpse this membership in multiple worlds, or, more to the point, to see the operation of this alternate sensibility in day to day problem solving.  The corporation appears sometimes to be inclined to hire "standard issue" people and then to demand of them standard issue interests.  (In the 1950s, of course, we believed that this conformity and uniformity was epidemical in its proportions.)

This "flattening" effect begins early.  Every so often I would ask one of my Harvard Business School students to address a marketing problem with something other than their HBS hat on and they would look at me with shock and surprise, as if to say, "but I put all of that aside when I joined HBS.  I thought all that was off the table."  Business schools sometimes specialize in estranging their students from the experiences and memberships that can make them especially useful problem solvers in the corporate world.  (Oh, good one.)

Now before I set to thinking about this problem, I want to acknowledge the aptness of Steve Postrel’s comment on yesterday’s post.   His complaint is well taken.  Real inconsistency would be intolerable.  And I was engaging, as a guru must, in hyperbolic rhetoric.  As when people, especially in the 1990s, used to tell us that "everything you know is wrong."  (Which always moved me to want to scream, "what, even this!")  That’s how gurus move the furniture around, by saying things that are outrageous and a little unhinged.  I mean, who is going to pay me $60,000 to say things that make any real sense.  (No, I don’t make $60 k for a lecture, but gurus do.   "Gurus do."  Good, huh.   I hear a book title in the works.  Yes!  "Guru dos and don’ts. " Snappy!  Too bad it would only have a readership of 14 people.  I have a talent for obscure topics and small audiences.) 

So, no, I don’t really mean what I say. (Unless, of course, you are prepared to pay me $60k for the lecture in which I say it.  Let’s be honest, for $60k I’d say pretty much anything.)  But I think it is useful to move the conversation and the corporation off the present strategy that insists on a single proposition, image and "vision."  It helps us to think about the corporation as a complex adaptive system, with all the messiness and multiplicity that implies.

Back to the hiring issue.  How do we find people with the requisite skills in assumption jumping even as we find people who can be good stewarts of a single corporation.  This is, I think, the multiplicity in simplicity that Dr. Postrel is talking about.  I think the thing to do here is to resort to a Christ and Caesar strategy, to frankly both faces of the corporate employee.  As it stands, we ask everyone to perform according to a single, common set of rules and regs, the good corporate citizen more or less.  And this is very good, and a really wonderful accomplishment.  I am often thrilled to see how much commonality a diverse group can summon on this basis.  But I think it’s also time to dial up the other half of the equation, and encourage people also to be all the other people they are.   I mean, these are all precious resources for the corporation, as is the ability to jump between these worlds.

We might talk about this in terms of Bell’s expressive and instrumental individualism.  I believe Bell is not one of Steve’s favorite thinkers, but I think this distinction works well.  We can use it to satisfy Steve’s demand for a nuanced multiplicity and inconsistency.  The corporation may ask the employee to summon the instrumental individualism that now prevails in the world a day world, while asking him or her to continue repudiating or concealing the expressive individualism that does so much to form him or her in "civilian" life. 

We are going to have to move some furniture to make the corporation suitably responsive to the dynamic world in which it finds itself and the real intellectual talents and cultural capitals that the employees now obscure or conceal.  The old models of the corporation and the employee are wasteful and wrong.  They squander talents and resources the corporation cannot live without. 

3 thoughts on “Serving Christ and Caesar: multiplicity and the postmodern corporation

  1. Hilarie Ryals

    This blog summarizes something I’ve suspected for quite a while. Corporations are so fixated on the “right” way to do things and the newest management trend-of-the-month that they are completely unable to step outside the box and get a new viewpoint. In terms of hiring, companies have developed tunnel vision in which only candidates presenting a pre-approved set of internships, jobs, etc. will make the cut for interviews and subsequent selection. Those of us who are able to “assumption jump” are often not understood or even given a chance to show what we can do with our potential. As a current MBA-Marketing graduate student, I found a perfect example of this in class the other day. My professor was talking about corporate marketing strategy and how the CEO must set up the big picture and understand the larger environment in which the company is functioning. When I posed the thought that ALL marketing professionals in a company, even those who are lower-level, should also be paying attention to the big picture, my professor looked at me as if I’d grown another head. He then stated that that was the CEO’s job and went on to another topic. I should also mention that I have a double MBA emphasis – marketing and HR management. I’ve gotten some strange looks for that one too. I guess my assumption-jumping abilities will have to stay hidden.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Maybe costumes would help. You know, dressing up like the person we are playing when we make comments from positions of “jumped assumptions.” Like DeBono advised in Six Thinking Hats, one could announce, “I’m looking at this from the position of someone who thinks our product rots…” and then go ahead to explore that assumption. Was it Covey or Handy who suggested someone announce, “I speak for ‘wolf’…” when articulating unpopular, hidden points of view? I just finished a podcast with Niti Bhan in which we spoke about the neede to “bring your whole self to work” rather than leaving most of your life parked out in the lot with your Volvo.

    But all of that takes courage, and courage requires en-courage-ment starting at the earliest age and continuing throughout our lives. Encouragement isn’t a leadership competency I see nurtured very often.

  3. steve

    I’m a little bit worried about Hilarie’s professor if her account is accurate. Most good companies will kill for employees who can see the big picture and relate what they’re doing now to the overall strategy. In good companies those people get promoted. People like that are more often integrators than assumption-jumpers, though–they have a way of seeing how to make the various pieces fit together to accomplish a goal.

    On the broader issue of the post, it seems to me that there is a difference between individuals being cognitively flexible, tapping wildly varying sources of cultural insight, on the one hand, and failing to achieve closure as a collectivity, on the other. That need for collective closure (so that people’s actions add up to something productive instead of a mess), and the difficulty of getting closure in a big, complex organization is exactly why big companies often feel so sluggish and inertial–like “wading waist-deep through water” as one acquired entrepreneur put it.

    Successful integration is also, however, why “ordinary people can do extraordinary things” (to paraphrase Wal*Mart) and why a well-calibrated organization can vastly outstrip the capabilities of any individual or loosely-organized band (think UPS or Federal Express). The leverage gained by specialization and the division of labor when the parts can be properly integrated is an awesome thing.

    Organizations are both dumber than individuals and super-powered compared to individuals. When you get in one of those ridiculous failure loops with a company (e.g. circular phone referrals when you have a problem) the stupidity aspect is obvious. It’s less obvious (but just as real) when a company’s products lose cultural relevance while management blithely goes along doing more of what it tried to do the day before, ignoring the obvious signs of drift or refusing to deal with them. This latter stupidity is, I think, partly what Grant’s calls for diverse thinking are meant to address. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s also hard not to wonder if much of the stickiness in companies isn’t an inherent feature of the need for alignment.

    CEOs pushing change agendas in large companies frequently note that it takes a long time to get actual cultural and behavioral shifts throughout the organization. Some of this lag is put down to recalcitrant human nature, but I think a large part of it is that change threatens the integrity of processes that are essential to the firm’s current profit stream. Mess around with those processes the wrong way and things can go to hell FAST. Some of the inherent conservatism of corporate cultures (and the possible reflection of that conservatism in business schools) may be an evolutionary outcome–those firms that court too much internal inconsistency fail to survive for very long.

    I think the challenge for firms is to recognize that integration and consistency are means to an end, not ultimate ends in themselves, and should not be allowed to stifle the cultural and cognitive flexibility of individuals. There are two kinds of separation that permit the fluid thinking and assumption-jumping Grant calls for:

    First, there is the separation of conceptualization from execution. Even if only one integrated pattern is actually in operation at any one time, lots of “virtual” alternative concepts and patterns can and should be whizzing around and between the heads of management. Carrying around an ensemble of alternative strategies, brand identities, etc., constantly checking one’s cultural premises to see if one of those alternatives would be better than the current one, trying to see how your company looks from the perspective of non-buyers, etc. should make a firm more agile (and possibly anticipatory in cannibalizing itself rather than being prey for someone else).

    Second is parallelism. Lots of things can be done side by side without appreciable interaction, allowing seemingly contradictory creative insights to be put to use. A simple idea is to have separate brands, with wildly different cultural valences, to penetrate different market segments. My comment on the previous post noted a more tactical parallelism in GEICO’s advertising campaign. One could get more strategic by thinking about business units with totally different technologies or business models housed within the same organization. The burning question with all such setups is what justifies all of them being in the same firm at all? There has to be some common tie, some shared resource, or else parallelism describes a firm that should be broken up.

    One last point: Assumption-jumping and context shifting is a pretty rare individual ability. Most people frankly suck at transferring an idea from one domain to another in a creative way. Maybe teams of brainstormers can do better. But I bet there is no substitute for an organization cultivating and retaiining those individuals with this somewhat rare capacity. My guess is that most large firms are pretty bad at this, too.

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