American culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery



[this post was originally published on Medium and LinkedIn]

When the Harvard Business School invited me to teach a few years ago, I had one question.


Why, I wondered, would a business school want to hire an anthropologist?

The answer was illuminating.

“We are good at solving business problems, but we notice that around 20% of the time we are wrong. Not just wrong but spectacularly mistaken.”

“Really?” I exclaimed.

“Really,” they assured me.

“We do a postmortem to figure out what we did wrong with our analysis. And often the answer is American culture. We don’t know how to think about culture. You do. Help us.”

I now think the figure might be higher than 20%.

American culture is the dark matter of contemporary business. People know it’s out there. But they don’t quite know what it is or how think about it.


Hence the Culture Camp I’m teaching in June. (More details here.)

I am running this camp because I believe understanding American culture has become an imperative for every organization, for the C-suite, for anyone who cares about how people buy, vote, seek entertainment, engage with culture, and respond to communications, innovation, advertising, and PR. American culture is where the blue oceans exist and the black swans swarms.

And not a moment too soon.

I believe there is a new American culture in place. The future is here. It is not, as William Gibson used to say, “badly distributed.” It’s right under our noses.

I believe that there are 5 structural properties that now define American culture.

But more on that later.

Let’s concentrate on the HBS discovery:

that American culture matters and business is bad at it.

Over the next couple of days, I will offer the following tiny case-studies:

Case Study 1: What happened to orange juice? (Wednesday, May 2)

Case Study 2: Fixing Coca-Cola (Thursday, May 3)

Case Study 3: The crisis at P&G (Friday, May 4)

Case Study 4: Using culture in a Silicon Valley start up (Monday, May 7)

Case Study 5: Making memes out of American culture and American culture out of memes (Tuesday, (May 8)

Case Study 6: The trouble with “cool hunters,” “trend watchers,” and other observers of American culture. (Wednesday, May 9)

Case Study 7: American culture and its 5 new structural properties (Thursday, May 10)

Come join us at Culture Camp June 7, New York City. The details, again, are here.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

8 thoughts on “American culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery

    1. Grant Post author

      Jonathan, thanks for your post, if by americo-centric, you mean ‘about America,’ good spot. If you mean, I am not entitled to talk about American culture, or that no one should talk about American culture, there is something very wrong with your argument. Grant

      1. Craig McCarthy

        The details link for the June camp was not working for me. Can you reply with the link, please?

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  3. Larry Snyder

    Thank you for examining this important topic. I look forward to learning how you approach what I perceive to be the defining “culture of short- termism” that spans both American and corporate culture, encircling the investor mindset, Wall Street behavior, the boardroom, and the C-suite — all at once.

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