An anthropological report from inside the corporation

Img_0067 I spend a couple of days last week working with a large American corporation.  It was one of those reinvention exercises. 

Well, not so much an exercise as an urgent task.  The market has changed.  A new model is called for. 

Readers will know the drill.  Twenty people, 3 facilitators, a blank and anonymous room, lots of flip charts, stacks of stickies, everyone’s name in plexiglass, all of us seated in a square. 

In a hundred years historians and anthropologists are going to want to know what happened in these events.  There will be no records to speak off.  Flip charts or stickies do not make it into archives.  The ideas will survive but only in the ways the corporation changes it’s structure and practice.  (Good luck reverse engineering from here to the ideation session from which the changes came.)  Here then is an observation or two.

There are a couple of intellectual patterns that got my attention.

1.  furiously framing and reframing

The problem is that we can’t tell exactly what the problem is and we have still less idea what the solution is.  So much discourse is devoted to saying "Ok, let’s see the issue is x" or "what if it’s y," or "look, I think the problem is Z."  And once we fix on a rough notion of what the problem is, solutions begin to flourish still more generously.  The selection process is unofficial, automatic, emergent. The better solutions stick around.  In the blizzard of possibilities, these stick.  People remember them, return to them, refer to them.  But what is happening here is a really liquid kind of problem solving.  We are are framing and reframing and reframing yet again…until the wisdom of this little crowd becomes apparent. 

2.  tagging

Good solutions get tagged, and there is an art to tagging.  Vivid pictures and phrases get the job done.  Bad ideas will live a little longer if well tagged.  Good ideas have no hope of surviving to maturity and adoption unless (or until) they are well tagged.  Some people are really good at tagging.  Indeed, this is the job that some people end up performing in the group.

3.  pattern migration

There are wonderful moments when someone will say, "look, here’s something we know about this context.  I wonder if we could transfer this to another problem set."  I am sorry this must be so vague but I am obliged to honor my confidentiality agreement.  But this really is a revelational moment.  And it works almost exactly the way metaphor does.  We have migrated what we know about this domain to this domain. Friday, one of these came from a women who was not very much involved in the debate.  Bang, suddenly the conversation was hers.  The ratio of words spoken to ideas delivered in her case must have been something like 10 to 1.  Most of us were working on 1000 to 1. 

4.  scaling up, scaling down

There is lots of intellectual scaling up, scaling down.  At one moment, we were dealing with the biggest possible problem sets in the broadest possible ways.  The next, we have zeroed down to a very particular problem.  Sustaining control of the problem at all points on the scale is a special talent.  Some people are good at one end.  Others good at the others.  But a surprising number of people were good at all levels and good at moving up and down the scale.  I have to say some of these movements are breath taking.  Literally, you think "whoa!"  as you move. 

5.  messier models

I was interested to see a new impatience with the usual box and arrow models with which people identify units and relationships between them.  We saw people insisting on messier models in order to honor some of the messiness in the world in the model.  The bigger point to make here is that as the world gets messier, more multiple, more various and changeable, discourse about change is beginning to take on these structural properties.  In a word, we are adapting. 

6. acknowledging fear

For the first time, I saw people building models of process that acknowledge the emotional difficulties inherent in the change making process.  Everyone always feels the pain of entertaining new ideas and having to give up old verities, but this used to be a very private condition.  Now people are openly acknowledging it.  And this is a good idea because there are moments when someone (perhaps ones own self) becomes obstructionist because suddenly their (your) nerve has snapped.  Building emotional difficulty into the model because this sensation and the problem more manageable. 

7.  new language like "chunking"

For a few years now, people have been using the term "chunking."  From the outside, this look like sloppy language for sloppy thought.  And of course lots of people like to think that corporations are "stupid." The Left is especially guilty of this.  But in point of fact the corporation is pretty smart not least because it is filled with smart people.  And "chunking" is a good example. 

When problem sets are really messing and heard to read, "chunking" is useful.  It’s a way of saying let’s call this [thing] a something. Because we are chunking we are not obliged to say or to know what it means.  We are just saying "there’s something here we need to look at."  This is a kind of problem solving in a fog.  It’s a kind of "edge finding" exercise.  (From whom did I get this term?)   We know have language for the first and vaguest act of problem identification. 

8.  porousness

People are now prepared to acknowledge that the corporation is no longer a free standing, discrete entity.  It is customary to hear people dealing with the fact that the corporation has loose boundaries.  This is because, in a Japanese manner, they are cooperating with competitors.  It’s because they are "cocreating" with the consumer.  This throws into question the very idea that the corporation is a corporation.  After all, this term is a metaphor. It’s saying that this business enterprise is a body, separate and free standing.  Now that porousness is the new order of the day a new term is called for.  Suggestions?  I still like calling these new units "drafty" or "cloudy" but I may be the only one who finds these terms appealing.

In sum:

All of these new intellectual inclinations and practices suggest I think that the corporation is learning to live with dynamism by learning how to practice dynamism.


That image is the floor of an elevator of a hotel in Cambridge, MA.  But it kind of reminded me of a starter’s flag, hence its metaphorical usefulness here.


I have learned a lot about the corporation from many people, including Tom Peters, Stuart Kauffman, Ed Batista, Tom Guerriello,  Rick Sterling, all of whom are acknowledged here. 

8 thoughts on “An anthropological report from inside the corporation

  1. peter

    Some very apt insights, Grant. I think particularly that porousness is a key notion for the modern corporation, which B-schools (and people generally) have a hard time recognizing.

    When a major corporation such as American Express wants direct access to the telephone switches of its telco services supplier (eg Verizon) to enable fast reconfiguration of its services, it usually gets this. But then AmEx, not being a phone company, often does not have the skilled staff to execute such reconfigs. So, Verizon lends AmEx some personnel. So a Verizon employee is sent on longterm secondment to work for AmEx; he or she is paid by AmEx and reports to a boss at AmEx — although physically he or she may still be sitting in a Verizon office. Where do his or her loyalties lie?

  2. botogol

    I have been in so many of those [but never with an anthropogist to help us along :-)]

    QU: is chunking the same thing as tagging?

  3. Carol Gee

    Thank you, Grant, for catching me up with a critical aspect of the world, from which retirement had removed me for several years. I was sent back to my non-profit world with its problem solving workshops, its CEU training (15 hours a year required to keep my social work license). In fact I facilitated some of those workshops myself.
    But back to reflections on today: What is new after ten years? Acknowledging fear, messier models, chunking and porousness. But much of what you describe feels wonderfully familiar to the old Brain Storming method, but with new names.

    In your audience I recognize and celebrate these admirable new generations. I joined a bunch of them at a Texas Democratic caucus not long ago. We sat with the slight majority in the little church sanctuary On the Obama side. A good number were Black and much younger than we Seniors. And we were happy to be included in the process. I wrote a blog post about it, marveling at the way leadership emerged and worked well, in our case. (See:

  4. jkh

    it may be cloudy in meetings like this. it may be about shifting and abandoning zillions of semi transparent layers. it may be about connecting the dots and about abandoning some connections. it may be about admitting doubt and fear even.
    but in the end it comes down to bold decisions and sharp execution (and – yes – some feedback loops).

  5. jkh

    and yes, the organization IS stupid and can only be as smart as the gal or guy who makes the decisions.
    as most companies of considerable size are driven by rather short term financial interest and a fierce competition they are urged to find or create market opportunities rather than wait and see for a ‘natural’ opportunity to occur.
    being driven to action in such a way, proposed action as such is always a risky take on reality, it is always a rather risky approach of reducing complexity.
    openess of such strategy meetings as you described it here is important. – but it is only just as important as to cut down down on all feel-good blabla at some point and to come to a truly bold decision.

    those meetings can hardly achieve more than to establish an urgency of a fundamental shift in strategy. they can only wipe the board clean so to speak and vaguely outline some new direction.
    the rest lies in the doing.

    fail, fail again, fail better.
    it is as simple – or as ‘stupid’ – as this.

  6. Ed Batista

    Great stuff, Grant (and I’m honored by the mention.)

    I particularly like your inclusion of fear as a key factor to be addressed (or at least acknowledged) in any reinvention or change management process. You go a step further and reference any “emotional difficulty” in the text, but I agree that “fear” makes for a better headline 🙂

    Our inability to sense, legitimize and express our emotions in the workplace creates a huge gap between our collective and our individual experiences. For example, I’m scared or angered by your proposal, but I can’t effectively communicate those feelings at work, so you never truly understand my position–and we’re left wondering why we make so little progress!

    This is why much of my work as a coach and group facilitator involves helping people better understand and express feelings that typically get ignored, and it’s great to hear that people are “building emotional difficulty into the model.”


  7. jkh

    why did i say that the modern organization is STUPID?
    because in best taylorist tradition the modern organization splits work into small little entities and then focuses on optimizing them in a linear fashion. – karl marx – a one might call him a ‘leftie’ – spoke of alienation of labor in this context. and georg simmel – a free thinking sociologist of aesthetical reflection – spoke of the modern world as being built on the logic of completely abandoning the ‘subjective’ (iow instinct, holistic qualities, inherent identity or character) in favour of the ‘objective’ (facts, numbers, singular elements and parts etc).

    it is the logic of the modern organization that it therefore cannot feel or in any way refer to so-called soft factors of any kind other than linking them to numbers. – …a certain design may sell better or less good than another one – but that is about all an organization can identify, discuss and process.

    in this way an organization can be called as stupid, because it has very limited ways to planfully provide some of the things that are so dear to customers right now: meaning and a holistic experience.

    this limitation of the modern organization – this ‘relative stupidity’ – turns into ‘absolute stupidity’ – when it can neither identify, nor discuss or process – the essential factors that determine success in the marketplace today. and today these factors have lots to do with soft factors – with exactly these qualities that are alien to the nature of an organization.

    calling an organization STUPID, in this way has nothing disrespectful or counterproductive – on the contrary. a clear eye for the limitations is the essential step to overcome them in the end.

    or why do you think Apple, the almost magically successful company of the decade, is run like a dictatorship rather than a democracy?

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