Yesterday I was in Chicago. In the afternoon, thanks to an invitation from Mike Ronkoske, I did a presentation for a group of planners and clients at Energy BBDO. The theme was anthropology and ethnography.
I was attempting to describe how an anthropologist notices, and how he gets from noticing to insight.
One of my talking points was a weird thing I noticed on the Connecticut train. Guys were reading papers and magazines, and snapping each page as they went. In and of itself, this sort of thing is annoying and banal in equal measure, the sort of thing we notice only to dismiss.
But in this case, I found myself wondering, why snapping? Almost nothing is actually nothing. The surface of social life is littered with tiny but telling details. The anthropologist’s job is to notice and notice and notice. So I noticed snapping.
And at this point in my presentation I actually got a little tearful, I have to tell you, and, as I don’t have to tell you, there is no crying in anthropology, so I kinda had to get a grip. But I found myself telling these young planners about the time I sat beside Marshall Sahlins, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, as he read one of my papers. Professor Sahlins was traveling at speed through my paper, not because it was well written but because not even bad writing could slow him down. Suddenly, he stopped absolutely dead in his tracks and said, "hm, I wonder why that is."
I was watching a very smart man acknowledge the limits of understanding. You could almost hear him thinking, "why can’t I think this?" This is the secret of noticing. Spotting things that defy expectation, things that don’t "compute." The temptation for the rest of us is to "fake the results" and assimilate the anomalous to existing categories. Good noticers are fearless noticers.
Once we notice, anthropological or plannerly things can happen. It is not too late for us decide that what looks like something is really nothing, in Sahlins’ case merely an artifact of a student’s rhetorical incompetence. But we can also decide that the puzzle is genuine. Now noticing leads to the possibility of insight and this will engage the redeployment of old ideas or, more remarkably, the creation of new ideas. Potentially, every puzzle is stowaway with mutiny in its heart.
The anthropological, the Sahlinsian lesson: Notice everything and pay attention to things that puzzle. Pay attention to things that demand your attention and then refuse your understanding. Pay attention to the failure of attention. Yikes, it felt like I was passing a baton. I am sure the planners in question just thought, "what I am noticing at the moment is that this guy has stopped talking and appears to be a little misty eyed. Weird!" But for me lots of Chicago, Warnerian continuities were suddenly visible to the naked eye.
Anyhow, I was talking not just about Sahlins but also about guys (money managers, most of them?) sitting around me on the train, snapping their way through their magazines. After the perceptual comes, we hope, the conceptual noticing: what are they snapping? They don’t have to snap. This is patterned, in some sense deliberate, behavior. Let this ordinary detail of everyday life test your powers of comprehension
And the thing that came lumbering into mind was a documentary I had seen years ago about autistic children. Some of them were shown hitting themselves in the head, or hitting their heads against walls.. In the language of the documentary, these kids are "stimming." To be honest, I can’t remember what the documentary said was the cause of stimming, but I have come to think of stimming as a way of making and keeping boundaries.
For those guys on the train, snapping might be a way of marking "this page done." It might be a way of setting a pace. People seemed to be snapping at regular intervals. Money managers, if that’s who they were, are driven people.
It’s even possible that by snapping the pages of the magazine seem to be asking us to observe how expeditiously the dispatch the task of…turning a page. These guys are judged by results. And the issue of performance may be so pressing that they feel obliged to show with what skill and speed they assimilated the contents of the magazine.
But I think at its most rudimentary stimming is a call for feedback. Banging a drum proves the existence of the drum and the drummer. The sound of the drum comes precisely when the hand makes contact with the drum. Efficacy. The sound of the drum resonates in the room and the skill. Reminder. For someone who is not entirely certain of where they are in the world, and where they stop and the world starts, stimming is a very useful device. I drum. I exist.
Does any of this apply to money managers? Who knows! Probably not. Never mind. Now, we have something with which to think. A odd, little idea that we can keep posted on the inside of our heads. Might be useful. Might not. The important thing is that we noticed and noticing lead to…something. As Lear said, nothing comes of nothing, so even this, a small noticing, and a hazy, implausible explanation, are good.
This is the job of the anthropologist. To notice and notice and notice some more. And propose, wrestle, reckon and conjure with the results. Eventually, one of these roads will get us back to Rome. One of our efforts to notice and noodle over snapping on the train will give us something we can use.
And so it did in this case. There were, people from Wrigley’s in the audience, and this helped surface the interesting possibility that we might think about gum chewing as a kind of stimming. It’s ok if this is wrong, just so long as it opens up new ways to think about gum. Almost certainly, we will abandon the metaphor eventually. The question is whether engaging with it leaves us with a genuine insight.
Anyhow, that evening a gave a speech during the marketer’s dinner at the Promotion Marketing Meetings. (Thank you Rob Fields of PMA, for the opportunity.) And there I was addressing the issue of how it is a corporation can live in a tumult of change created by the three storms now upon us: technological change, sudden shifts in taste and preference, and the fact that all good corporations are now in the innovation game. I was arguing that we are now fully apprised of the fact that we most live with a new order of dynamism, but it is not clear to me that we have even started to build the system that allow us to contend with this world.
I suggested that we think about the creation of a "big board" with which to identify trends early, and track them as they come to market, and I reviewed 4 blind side hits that proved vastly expensive for the corporation in question. This is pretty much from Flock and Flow. But I also offered some latter day thinking, and I began with an acknowledgment that big boards are expensive to create and sustain, and that in the meantime we need culture camps and culture coaching. And here I was of course hinting with no subtlety that these CMOs should hire me to create culture camps and to serve as their culture coaches. And then it occurred to me that the CMO would just as well to build an enduring connection with an account planner, someone who notices things and thinks for them.
It’s a nice pairing. As I understand it, planners have been very much agency side. Culture coaching and camping, this gives them access to the C suite and especially the senior marketers, and more important, the C suite to them. The corporation needs more fearless noticers and noticing. Especially now that it must learn to live with real dynamism.