Category Archives: Dynamism watch

The Bill Belichick disruption (and what we can learn from it)

screenshot 2(This post was originally published on Medium two days ago. It is reproduced here with light editing only.)

How do they do it? How do the New England Patriots win so much?

Yes, Belichick is a genius. Yes, this system is the beneficiary of continuities at owner, coach, quarterback and players other teams can only dream of.

There are lots of answers. Every football fan has pondered them.

But here’s one I hadn’t heard of.

On Get Up (ESPN), Dan Orlovsky said this about the Pats offense.

“I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs.
They just take a bunch of guys [who are] football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman, Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same, playing different positions.”

This Belichick innovation is something more than a clever adaptation. It’s exactly the kind of thinking we prize these days. It rises above the architecture of thought and solves a problem in a new way. This is a classic disruption, a veritable black swan. The opposition can’t see it coming until there it is on the field.

Other coaches are prisoners of convention. They start with the positions specified by the age-old architecture of football. They find the players that fit these slots. And only then do they begin the work of strategy and execution.

Belichick’s innovation says, in effect,

“We don’t have positions to fill. We have problems to solve. We have plays to run. We will ask our players to conform to the play…instead of asking the play to conform to conventional thinking. Luckily, we have players so talented they can change their stripes from play to play.”

Has Belichick been reading Complexity theory? It’s possible.

What does the Belichick disruption mean to the rest of us?

Most organizations are slaves to convention. There’s the hierarchy that distributes power. There’s the division of labor that tells people what to do. We ask our personnel to conform to these conventions. Instead of turning them loose to solve the problem at hand.

Why can’t we be more like the Pats?


The photo is public domain.

Catch and release, diffusion style

Tom Yesterday, at Truetalk, Tom Guarriello did a great reconstruction of what it’s like to ride the diffusion curve. 

He gives us an insider’s view of that human impulse for coolness, the one forces innovation through the system, turning something that is new and tantalizing into something that is tedious and laboriously obvious. 

Tom’s phenomenological exercise also shows one of the impulses that makes our culture stream with change, the way we all contribute to the formation of a world that is never still.

Georg Simmel would love this piece.  Dude!  Beauty!   


Guarriello, Tom.  2008.  Adopt early, adopt often.  True Talk. July 17, 2008.  here

Assumption hunters, a new consulting business?

Img_0307 What is the most vexing problem in management today?

Next to setting our objectives, running a tight ship and meeting our numbers, I would argue that it’s watching out for the blind side hit.

By blind side hit, I mean the kind of thing that Google did to Microsoft, that Barak did to Hillary, that hip hop did to Levi-Strauss, that Snapple did to Coca-Cola. 

Watching for blind side hits is difficult because it means knowing our assumptions.  And this is hard because assumptions are not for knowing, they are for making.  For instance, in the late 1980s, I don’t think anyone at Coke believed that a new brand could use the Mom and Pop corner store as a platform from which to stage an industry coup.  I mean, get real.  The Mom and Pop store was too small, too quirky, too amateur.  Right?  Wham!  By the time, Coca-Cola understand what had happened to it, Snapple had stolen a march on the market.

The trouble with assumptions is that they are by definition invisible from view.  (That’s why we call them "unknown unknowns.")  We hold ideas about the world without full awareness of what these ideas are or how they make us vulnerable. 

Oh, I hear a voice of skepticism.  Smart companies and gifted managers ferret these assumptions out.  I mean, isn’t that why we go to conferences?  Well, sometimes.  But did management find them soon enough?  And did management discover all of them.  Is there, somewhere out there on the far, invisible horizon, a tsunami headed our way?  Sorry, but the bad news these days is always and unequivocally, "yes."  Somewhere, way out there, there is an innovation that is eventually going to turn our business model upside down.  It’s not a question of whether, it’s just a question of when.

So what to do.  How about, for starters, this three step "assumption hunting" process? 

1) ferret out the assumptions.  Hire someone to go through the operation of daily business and capture every assumption.  Philosophers are quite good at this.  Anthropologists are very good at it.  This is after all the way they study culture, which is, by and large, a set of assumptions that helps us think and act fluidly precisely because we don’t know we are making them. 

2) identify the parts of the world that could present challenges. Figure out just what the challenge is and when and how it will "come ashore." 

3) Keep watch with a big board.  In effect, what we are doing is "sunsetting" our assumptions with a view to discovery when they reach they end of their useful lives. 

If I were Pine and/or Gilmore, I would write the book, get on the lecture tour, build the consulting company, and make a fortune.  But hey, reader, feel free.


I took this photo with my iPhone, now equipped with a special feature (OS 1.1.7) that allows the camera to capture never-before-seen assumptions "on film."  This particular assumption is large and powerful, and we were lucky to bag it.  The boys in the lap are giving it a once over now.

Follow up

Those of you are wondering what happened yesterday when I was waiting for royalty at PJ Clarke’s in NYC.  Nothing.  But our guest didn’t show.  I guess if you’re royalty, you’re allowed.  Andrew Creighton (McCann Canada) and I took the opportunity to reinvent the universe over a couple of beers.      

Odyssey or Arc

David_brooks In the Times today, David Brooks describes a new life stage, the one that stands, he says, between adolescence and adulthood.  Odyssey, he calls it.

Odyssey is a time of upheaval and uncertainty, a transition phase. Patterns do not form.  A sense of direction is hard to come by.  Things seem suspended.

Most of all, the Odyssians experience a kind of fluidity. 

Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.


The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for.

Social life is fluid. There’s been a shift in the balance of power between the genders. Thirty-six percent of female workers in their 20s now have a college degree, compared with 23 percent of male workers. Male wages have stagnated over the past decades, while female wages have risen.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Brooks is on to something.  But I do wonder whether the things he attributes to the Odyssey phase of life, the uncertainty, indeterminacy, and fluidity, are not true of all the stages of life thereafter.  Isn’t this just another way of talking about the dynamism that has descended on us all?

Mr. Brooks says it is "possible even for baby boomers to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of the odyssey years."  But exactly.  Living in a cultural and political regime that turn on a time, occupying industries and corporations that may or may not be around in 5 years from now, vulnerable by international politics and globalized economies that can intrude at any moment, boomers don’t need to be paragons of empathy to know what it’s like to be an Odyssian. They live this condition most all the time. 

I have great respect for Mr. Brooks, but on this assignment I couldn’t help wondering, "Where is Virginia Postrel when you need her."


Brooks, David.  2007.  The Odyssey Years.  The New York Times.  October 9, 2007. here

The corporate “bow wave” problem, aka the Postrel effect

Bow_wave This morning I came down I-95 headed for JFK airport and my flight to Mexico City.  I passed Stamford, all it’s buildings (UBS, etc.) pressed up against the highway like ponies at feeding time.
And I was thinking we don’t love the corporation for its own sake.  It’s not intrinsically better as a form of organization.  It’s just better than the alternatives.

But this organizational form has very distinct problems, and it finds itself perpetually uneasy.  The problem is that the better the corporation becomes, the more difficult it makes the world.  As it gets swifter, smarter and more adaptive, it creates a world that becomes every more dynamic.  (And the farther behind the mark falls the public sector, not for profit, organization.)

The corporation pushes the world to become more testing.  In the process, it pushes itself systematically to the edge of its own incompetence.  There are moments when it looks like absolute gains are possible.  The telephone, computer, email, the advice of Peter Drucker or Tom Peters.  Any one of these promises an opportunity for the corporation to pull ahead, to win a lead, to get "on top of things." But of course as every corporation uses its new advantage, it recreates a world beyond its grasp. 

I am not sure what to call this problem.  I was thinking of something like "The Problem of the Perpetual Last Mile (aka the Postrel Principle)."  Or the "bow wave effect (aka the Postrel Principle)." The subtitle I choose to honor Virginia and Steve Postrel, two of the people best positioned to help us understand the problem.  (See Virginia’s The Future and Enemies for essential reading on the problem.) 

Any and all suggestions gratefully received.  Maybe I will think of something on the way to Mexico City.


Postrel, Virginia.  The Future and Its Enemies.  New York: The Free Press.  [this may be imprecise in some of its particulars, I am sitting in an airport lounge, book title and author’s name are correct, though.]

France at the intersection of anthropology and economics

Img_0924 First, the economics:

In France,

  • economic growth has fallen well below other industrialized nations
  • the economy tumbled from 8th to 19th in national rankings of gross domestic product per head (over the last 25 years)
  • youth unemployment stands at 22%
  • France is the only eurozone country that has not reduced the financial weight of the state over the post 10 years. 
  • Government spending (54% of GDP) is among the highest in the world.
  • The public sector employees 1/4 of the labor force
  • State borrowing accounts  for 66% of GDP. (The service charge for this debt is 40 billion euros.)
  • France’s share of world exports fell 5% in the period 1999-2005.
  • Morgan Stanley calls France the "New Sick Man of Europe"

Now the anthropology:

Last week, doing ethnographic interviews in Paris, I was told several times that the French are "equal." 

To an outsider like me, this is improbable.  Certainly, equality is there in the model of social democracy France has embraced.  Yes, the French are equal before the law and their God.  And yes, equality is there in the commitment to "egalite" that survives the revolution of the 18th century.

But evidence of inequality is everywhere.  Indeed, the French insist on differences of class, status, wealth, power, and several kinds of capital.

Respondents would not to be dissuaded, and I got to thinking how it is the French might be said to be "equal."  Here’s my guess, and it’s only a guess.

European hierarchies in the medieval and early modern periods used a relatively simple system of status marking: the notion of relative fineness.  Those who ranked high exhibited fineness in their clothing, their food, the manners, their speech and their very bodies.  Those who ranked low exhibited a relative coarseness in clothing, food, manners, speech and bodies. I will spare you the details except to say that fineness was finally a matter of intellectual, aesthetic, almost spiritual disposition.  High standing people could make fine distinctions.  Low standing people could not. 

At some point, France constructed an idea of itself, its culture, its collectivity that broke with this longstanding historical convention.  In France, according to this convention, everyone was capable of discerning and exhibiting fineness.  Especially, in the domain of eating, food, cooking, cuisine, here the French were one.  The table was the place were fineness was identified, discussed, shared, prized and that was just for starters.  The main course had yet to come.  (The democratization of fineness extends beyond food, of course.  It is there in the language itself, which is why the lowliest clerk at the Tabac is entitled [obliged!] to sneer at our high school French.)

There was some period in which culture and economy worked hand in glove.  Discernment and taste were national exports.  Industries based on discernment and taste flourished.  Wine, food stuffs, perfume, handbags, scarves, watches, and clothing brought in a fortune.  The language itself exported well. 

The grandeur that was the culture that was France…this was accessible to the rest of us, miserable cretins living in the far provinces. Everywhere in North America, there were little shrines everywhere, "French restaurants," we called them, places where middle class families could go to glimpse for a moment, to taste for a moment, what France had created with its national accomplishment.  French restaurants were draped in seriousness and heavy red curtains.  They were staffed by men with deep knowledge and great courtesy.  The food was heavy and ornate.  Tables groaned Silver, plate, and crystal.  The whole thing was well off the Paris standard, of course, but obeisance was called for and obeisance was paid.

And some few years ago, we North Americans decided we couldn’t care less.  Several culture trends made this restaurant and many of the exports of France look suddenly too…too.  We decided that formality counted for less than informality.  We shifted from ceremony to spontaneity as our preferred cultural mode.  We gave up solemnity for something more winning and cheerful.  We abandoned heavy foods for something lighter and more "fun."  Most important, food became a place to experiment, and now the French looked, even after nouvelle cuisine, positively hide bound. 

Bad for France.  But not, one would have thought, intolerable.  If France were committed to the creative destruction that most Western economies and cultures take for granted, this should have been a simple matter.  Accept your losses, make your accommodations, and move on. 

But in France this was not simple.  It would have meant compromising the  beautiful idea, the magnificent theater of French life.  (And this is very beautiful indeed.  Even the smallest details of the built world exhibits the French faculty for fineness.  And you find yourself thinking, "ok, this is what it looks like, when everyone in a culture, over a very long period, cares about design and execution.") 

This may be the only Western culture in which the phrase "creative destruction" is fully paradoxical.  All of us balk for a moment at the phrase, but the French, I think, must just shake their heads and say, "no, it’s creative or it’s destructive."  This is a culture that approaches perfection, and for a world like this all of the things that make other Western economies go, innovation, responsiveness, competition and innovations, these, in France, are wrong.  These contradict the the French style of life.   

The English could invent punk because there wasn’t very much to keep them from the aesthetic violence it required.  The Germans could rebuild the nation state because all it demanded of them was that they tear down a place stinking of cabbage and soft coal.  Americans could push us all down the bobsled of post modernity because all it meant was surviving the the bouleversement of Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. 

But the French, for them change must feel lapsarian, a fall from an exquisitely accomplished grace.  The rest of us blunder from a uncertain present into the maw of a chaotic future, but then as one of my French respondents said, "it’s not like you’ve got very much to lose."  The French, you see, pay dearly for change, and sometimes they just can’t bring themselves to budge. 


Thornhill, John. 2007.  Not working: why France may find its social model exacts too high a price.  Financial Times.  April 16, 2007, p. 9.

Scitovsky, dynamic design, and the Frankfurt shower head

Parker_jotter In The Joyless Economy, Scitovsky observed a problem in the consumer society: that the pleasure of ownership turns to mere comfort. 

Here’s an example.  We give up our Ford Focus and buy an Audi.  We are immediately impressed by how much more fun it is to drive the Audi.  It is better engineered, better built.  But it is not very long before we forget the Focus.  And eventually we come to take the Audi for granted.  Our pleasure has turned to comfort.

I am a little suspicious of the argument as a general proposition.  I own things that continue to give pleasure long after purchase.  I love my ThinkPad.  I love my new pen, a Parker Jotter (pictured). Inexpensive, a little inelegant, old fashioned, it is the perfect implement for the hard working ethnographer (and a lot likes its owner).  I’ve had my Jotter for several months now and if anything I grow more fond of it. 

(Scitovsky assumes that the meanings of the object are only those created by marketing and that these wear away with ownership.  But we know perfectly well that our possessions take on new, more personal, meanings, and that good marketing "scores" them precisely so that they may do so.  When this is the case, the first pleasure ownership is augmented by second and subsequent pleasures.)

But Scitovsky is on to something.  I now live in a free standing house much roomier and better appointed than the little condo I had in Montreal.  I have ceased to note the difference and no longer treasure more room, a back yard, the ability to walk to the Long Island sound. This pleasure has turned to comfort.  My present cell phone is much better than my first cell phone but I do not give it credit for the difference.  Pleasure is merely comfort. 

And this brings me, of course, to the shower head of my room at the Hilton.  For reasons of its own, it delivers an inconsistent temperature.  Sometimes, the water is much hotter than I want. Sometimes, less.  Generally, it circulates gently up and down this narrow range, but occasionally it spikes high, and I have to be quick about getting out of the way.  (This turns out to be good training for the rest of the day.)

Now, I am pretty sure this is an accidental product feature.  The water system of the hotel must deliver water at many temperatures to many rooms, so variation is inevitable.  But this does have the effect of gently changing the temperature, and giving me the pleasure of reentry.  As I return from too warm or too cold to "just right," I have the opportunity to appreciate "just right" all over again.

And I wonder of this is not a way of solving the Scitovsky problem. Could we build variation into product formula in order to remind the consumer of what they liked about the product in the first place? 

Clearly, it doesn’t make any sense to hobble our Audi for some purposes that we might be reminded of its "go fast" ability in others.  And indeed we don’t have to.  Traffic congestion takes care of this. Variation is naturally occurring.

Similarly, I don’t want my Parker pen to skip periodically that I may reminded of its ability to write smoothly.  But it might be possible to build in a shifting center of balance so that the pen feels differently in the hand from time to time.  This would help remind me of how well it is designed.  (Naturally, it should also be possible for me to lock in or release this ability as I want.)

I know that some companies are thinking about how they can allow the consumer to change the formula by, say, twisting the bottom of a can.  But what I like about the Frankfurt shower head is precisely that my intervention is not required, that variation happens on its own.

I can see designers perhaps rising to this opportunity.  After all, we do sometimes come to take for granted their best work.  Work in a little variation, and we are returned to our first reaction of awe struck wonder.  What designerly ego could resist this opportunity?

We could see a time when a variation cycle is a standard feature of design, and something we go looking for.  (Of course, some will want something that remains precisely what it is and not another thing.)  But on balance, I think variation might be the coming thing, and it represents a new challenge for the designer, yet another consideration that must be factored in.  (Note to self: ask Holly Kretschmar at Ideo if there’s anything like this in the works.)

Ours is a culture that embraces variation, variety, change and even discontinuity.  Sometimes this mean we prefer things to remain precisely what they are.  But there will be moments when this immutability will make brands and products seem tedious and a little repetitive, as if they insist on making the same joke over and over again.  Static products may eventually appear stingy and withholding.  These will be products to avoid, for they do nothing in the face of the Scitovsky effect, blithely allowing pleasure to disappear into comfort. 


Scitovsky, Tibor.   1992.  The Joyless Economy.  Revised edition.  New York: Oxford University Press. 

Innovations for the Innovator

The corporation once had a "perfect world" scenario: create an extraordinary product in a blue ocean (i.e., new) category and defend a fountain of profit with good strategy and smart tactics. 

In the perfect world, change came in increments.  Some competitors would enter the category with some variation on the theme.  Others would look for "nook and cranny" weaknesses.  The corporation would secure it’s position with incremental responses…and profit poured forth. 

The world changed.  Now, the corporation is subject to blind side hits. Now the problem is not incremental challenges, but fundamental shifts. For Time Warner, this was the rise of an advertising based revenue model.  For The Coca-Cola Company, it was the rise of the non-corbonated soft drink.  For Microsoft, it was the rise first of the internet and then server-based software.  For Detroit, it was Japan. (The irony: while American corporations are being encouraged to set out in search of "blue oceans," the real challenge are the great masses of water that come looking for them.)

These changes require fundamental shifts in corporate assumption and practice.  And this is hard.  Corporations rise to greatness because they are good at, say, CSDs (carbonated soft drinks).  The advent of Snapple and Gatorade forces them to take on the new, but often this feels like a betrayal of the very things that make the corporation exceptional.  "Sure," goes the complaint, "we can make fruit juice, but what we exist to make CSDs!" 

It is, finally, a cultural problem.  CSD assumptions supply not just the "what" and the "why" of the corporation, but it’s deepest, most powerful, and least visible assumptions, the "unknown knowns," we might call them (with apologies to Donald  Rumsfeld).

The problem at corporations like Time Warner, the Coca-Cola Company, Microsoft and "Detroit," is not intellectual laziness, a failure of the imagination, or, God knows, a failure of will.  The problem is that non-incremental change forces the corporation off its game, out of its competence, and away from its deepest understandings of the world.  Adaptation is possible, but a voice of warning sounds in the head of the senior manager: that way lies the destruction of the extraordinary intellectual, strategic, and cultural capitals that make us who we are.  That way lies chaos.

There are lots of ways to rethink the corporation so that it can address the problem of non-incremental change.  There is the challenge taken up by Brown and Eisenhardt, Foster and Kaplan, Hammer and Chompy, Handy, Peters, Prahalad, to name a few.  The corporation is learning new tricks.  The new corporation is being invented fitfully, gradually, and painfully.  But it’s coming. 

Innovator’s innovation 1

What I would like to see, for deeply self interested reasons, is the creation of an observation platform from which we can keep an eye out for the next new things.  In keeping with our Tsunami references, let’s call it a wheelhouse, a conning tower, or a ship’s bridge. 

The trick would be to find 5 or 6 really smart, well educated, well informed, well connected, deeply curious, utterly practical people.  These qualifications create a tiny Venn intersection, but, hey, we only need 5 or 6 people.   

Innovator’s innovation 2

Once potential changes are identified, it is time to see what difference their difference will make.  How will the corporation as it is presently constituted in these particular waters?  This will help us to find, extract and replace the "unknown knowns" in the corporate culture. 

Innovator’s innovation 3

Ok, now we need to build a series of simulated corporations, fit them out, run them in a tub somewhere,  and refit as necessary.  (Will someone please scuttle the naval  metaphor, please!)  We can’t wait till the future is here to start the work of adaptation.  We want to have done the conceptual work for eventualities well before they eventuate.

Ok, out of time.


Brown, Shona L. and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt.  1998.  Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 

Foster, Richard and Sarah Kaplan.  2001.  Creative Destruction.  New York: Currency. 

Hammer, Michael, and James Champy.  1993.  Reengineering the Corporation.  New York: HarperBusiness.

Handy, Charles. 1990.  The Age of Unreason.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Kim, Chan and Renee Mauborgne.  2005.  Blue Ocean Strategy.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 

Peters, Tom. 1987.  Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for Management Revolution.  New York: Knopf. 

Prahalad, C.K. and Venkat Ramaswamy.  2004.  The Future of Competition.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

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. 

Remodelling the corporation

Detail_of_vasco_da_gamas_tomb_in_the_cha Here’s a thought.  What if we gave up consistency as an organizational objective?  What if  we stopped trying to integrate ventures and strategies?  What if we just let the corporation rip as something essentially inconsistent and unintegrated?

This thought struck me while reading Stefan Stern on the new article by Philip Kotler and Neil Rackham in the Harvard Business Review. (I know, I know.  I should be working from the HBR original, but, hey, I’m on train and the noble, winged Acela doesn’t have internet access.)

The Kotler/Rackham argument addresses the troubled relationship between marketing and sales departments.  Readers of this blog know that I regard Philip Kotler as a kind of God.  I don’t know Rackham’s work particularly, but if Kotler is prepared to work with him, he must be a demi-God at the very least.

But I paused when Stern offered this summary of the Kotler and Rackham argument:

[C]ompanies need to do more than simply align sales and marketing better.  They actually need to integrate them fully and concentrate on deploying the skills that generate revenue. 

It’s that word "integrate" that got me.  Isn’t corporate integration almost always a recipe for unhappiness.  Doesn’t it almost always leave those who have been "integrated" with the sense that one culture had been given the upper hand or that both cultures have been diminished. 

My second thought was that the very idea of "integration" might be a relic of another age.  The old idea of the corporation imagined it a model of modernist clarity.  In the minds of senior managers (and some analysts), it was a beautifully clear, well defined idea, consistent, coherent, elegant, not a single assumption out of place, a perfect rendering of all but only the roles, responsibilities and personnel needed to make and sell all but only and exactly the kitchen appliances America needs at any given moment.

By this reckoning, the corporation was supposed to present itself to the world with a single face.  And it was the job of marketing, among others, to make this so. Clean up all the false starts, the bad ideas, the notions now antique, and replace them with a single concept, that elegant idea, of what the corporation was. 

This was especially what designers would do when they consulting to the corporation.  They would do an image inventory, a review of all the brands, logos, and executions by which the corporations was known.  The dramatic script was always the same. Fill a board room with clients, shakes your head gravely, and say, "Children, children, children, your image is all over the place.  The corporation has more faces than Eve!  You are immensely fortunate to have hired me.  Consistency, this is what you pay me for."  And then the designer would begin a process of discipline that all the corporate faces might now be one.

That was then. This is now.  Now the corporation is entitled, if not obliged, to be many things to many people.  Consumers have multiplied externally and internally.  They appreciate that the world is complicated and, in better moments, complex.  I don’t think anyone demands consistency from the corporation.  I’m not sure that they expect integration.  I mean, everyone understands what has happened to the world, the tsunami of dynamism that washed over us all.  No one lives an "integrated" or "consistent" life.  I do not believe they hold the corporation to a higher standard.  (Actually, this is an interesting question.  Who and what is the corporation now in the mind of the consumer?  What do we expect and demand of it?  I do not presume to know the answer here or to treat the question with scant regard.  Which of course I just did.)

So what if we dumbed consistency and integration as marketing objectives and just let her rip.  We speak with many tonques, we are known by many faces.  It’s an ugly idea, by modernist standards, but an incredibly useful one.  It is for instance, the answer to a newly complicated market place, one in which there are lots of segments, and lots of cultural difference between the segments.  In an age of plenitude, is the strategic thing to do.

Partly, I am playing the guru game here.  The rules of the game: 1) come up with a bold idea!  2) Say it loud, say it proud!  3) Bang your own drum, until the world says, "enough all ready, we’ll buy the book!"  4) roll out the franchise of books, articles and speaking engagements.  5) unleash the guru!  (Christensen, Cook and Hall played this game recently with their launch of the "purpose brand" argument.)  The guru game depends on the introduction of a single conceptual stroke that claims to cut away the obfuscation, confusion, and shilly shallying that stands between the corporation and new clarity.  Behold, says the guru, here is an idea before which the world must defer (and wallets open). 

In the case of Christensen, Cook and Hall, the results are disasterous.  The world of marketing is actually encouraged to forget much of what it knows, to dumb itself down in a most unHBS way. (Shame on you, Mr. Christensen.  HBS is nothing if not tactical, and the "function" idea dispenses with all tactics but one.)  This failing might be apply here too.  Oh, let’s be honest, it probably is true here too.

There are larger intellectual and institutional validations.  The concept of the corporation as a creature of many faces is the concept of the corporation cultivated by complexity theory.  From this point of view, the corporation cannot be, and should not be, consistent, integrated, and monolithic.  For the purposes of evolutionary success, it should be messy and multiple, a thing constantly in the process of becoming, and entirely unapologetic about the multiplicity that results.  By this reckoning, the coporation is a CAS, a complex adaptive system. 

Anyhow, perhaps consistency and integration are best regarded as intellectual, managerial antiques.  Perhaps it’s time to move on. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  And stop calling me stupid.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. November 30, 2005. here.

Stern, Stefan.  2006.  Why the people from marketing must be branded a failure.  Financial Times.  October 10, 2006.  p. 8.

Assumption jumping and the senior manager

Cat Michael Fraizer has a conventional problem.

Windows of opportunity open and close so quickly today, you can’t just mull decisions right in front of you.  You have to look around the corner and figure out where you need to go, without becoming spastic or jerking your company in too many directions.  (Michael Fraizer, CEO Genworth Financial)

Michael Frazier has an unconventional solution.

Mr. Fraizer regularly fires himself.  (Carol Hymowitz, WSJ)

This proves to be a good way for Fraizer to react to windows of opportunity.  After all, new windows take new assumptions.  You can pop the hood, reach in and see if you can identify all the operative assumptions, and adjust them (as you use them).  It’s tough to do this at all.  It’s really tough to do it in real time.

Or you can just start again.  In which case, you give yourself a pink slip, break all ties with the person you were as the old CEO.  Go for a vacation, or perhaps just drive around the block, and come back a new man (or woman). 

The "start fresh" principle is well known terrain for certain purposes.  Thanks to the work of Tom Peters and several others, we know how often and how much the corporation can change.  Thanks to the work of Rosabeth Moss Kantner, we know how tough it is to try to transition from old to new managerial philosophy, strategy, and tactics. 

But this tactic, of firing ourselves, this is new and it takes us in a new direction.  Here the managerial literature is a little less forthcoming.  We could think of this as a multiplicity theme, and if we think about it this way, we may draw upon a lots of ferment that has taken place in contemporary culture.  We have contemplate "multiple selves" and sudden discontinuities a lot. 

There is actually a movie called multiplicity.  Robin Williams’ stage act is a study in managing multiplicity.  Indeed, many celebrities have made a habit, if not a strategy, of moving from persona to persona.  Madonna is everyone’s favorite example here.  But we know see multiplicity practiced by everyone from Christina Agulera to Beck.  So it is not as if managers must solve this problem all on their own.  Our culture precedes them. 

But there is another way to do this.  It is to cultivate what we might call a capacity for frame mobility. Frame mobility is the ability to reconfigure one’s head so that new assumptions apply, and then to move between this "frames" as we contemplate our options.  This is a habit that anthropologists have had to cultivate for professional purposes.  They need to be able to see things first with these assumptions in place, and then with these very different ones. 

We can cultivate this with training.  We can learn to "assumption jump"

This is actually then moving violently from one self to a new one.  The advantage is that we get to takes things with us as we go.  We don’t have to "forget everything we know."  We have the opportunity actually to take advantage of those hard earned revelation.  And of course this is precisely what we want to do.  After all, it makes just as much, perhaps more, sense for the corporation to fire us and hire someone new.  (And if this is not what we mean, then we are tacitly acknowledging that in fact the new CEO is actually smuggling in some of what the old CEO knows.)

But however we accomplish it, this will have to be an exercise in managed multiplicity, and that drops the CEO who often likes to keep his or her distance from contemporary culture right into the middle of this culture.  And that, for anthropological purposes, is interesting too. 


Hymowitz, Carol.  2006.  Fire Yourself — Then Come Back and Act Like a New Boss Would.  Wall Street Journal.  October 9, 2006.

Decoding dynamism, or, planned communities as “faux towns”

McwhimseyToday, in the Wall Street Journal, another slam against planned communities.  This from Constantine Valhouli of the Hammersmith Group.

These fakes towns seem oddly appropriate for a generation that grew up with shopping malls as their downtown.  Not only can they purchase mass-market reproductions of antiques, they can now live in homogenized versions of cities without grit–residences that offer amenities without character or history.

Notice the tone here, a characteristic Brahminian sneering at the consumer.  Consumers don’t know what they want and when they do, it’s crap.  (Funny, though, I wouldn’t have said that Valhouli is an old Boston name.  Funny how widely the Brahmin critique has spread.)

Valhouli’s argument turns on two assumptions, one true, one false.

He contends that

Many of the most charming neighborhoods were developed before modern zoing and building codes.  These places grew organically into complex, irregular and fascinanting urban forms. 

This is true.

Valhouli further contends,

Advances in building technology make it possible, perhaps even easier, to rebuild them [communities] in a single run.  But it seems a pity that to duplicate Harvard Square or Beacon Hill today would be a nightmare of variances and zoing relief.

This is false.

When last in Dallas, I had the pleasure of having dinner with Steve and Virginia Postrel.  They told me about a recent Dallas building that was build to look as if it had been renovated several times.  False archaeological cues had been insinuated into form and surface. 

In point of fact, variation, inconsistency and discontinuity can be build into every aspect of the consumer economy and it indeed it is now being installed there on a systematic basis.  (See the post from Vegas on Mr. Heap the architect who works with "controlled accident.") 

Indeed, one can imagine a zoning code that insisted on variation, one that said, it doesn’t matter what you build here, it just has to be inconsistent with what you build here last.  But of course one would not want to imagine such a zoning code, because, generally speaking, code do much more harm that developers.  I mean, there’s a reason why Boston pre-code is more interesting than Boston post-code. 

All of this puts the liberals in an awkward spot.  They continue to sneer at the market driven producer and the market driving consumer.  They would like to control what one produces and the other consumes.  But their grounds for umbrage is a world created without code, by the willy nilly of the market place. 

Hmmm.  Dear Mr. Valhouli, this is your rock, this is your hard place. 

But finally, this is everyone’s problem.  What we need are producers who get better at letting variation in, at "controlled accidents," at building communities that have variation and take on variation.  And what we need are building codes that are not so busy us protecting us from commerce that they prevent this commerce from creating variation and dynamism.

By the by, sometime in conversation in Las Vegas, it occurred to me that we could create communities virtually in Second Life and allow committed and would be buyers to "live" there.  This would give the powers of community a leg up.  Consumers would move into their new towns with prior acquaintance.  But more to the present point, Second Life creations of planned communities would give the developers a chance to see where the "variation" tolerances of this community lay. 


Valhouli, Constantine.  2006.  New Urbanism Revitalizes an Old Precedent.  Wall Street Journal.  June 14, 2006. (Letter to the Editor.)  P. A 15. 

For a visit to Second Life, a community of virtual communities, go here.

Planning communities (or sparrows in the courtyard)

Vegas_1 From a Keno form at our table at the Bellagio:

Regulations require that these rules be followed. 

The key question for my presentation at the Urban Land Institute had to do with planned communities.

In the old days, all planning was good, and more planning was better.

Now there is a feeling that too much planning is bad, that it tends to make a community feel inert and lifeless.  The case in point here is the planned community from Disney called Celebration.

In the early days, it was felt that Disney had gone too far.  The early Celebration was tight,  grim, and overregimented.  Disney found that by loosening up the community actually increased the value of homes there, that people’s love of the unpredictable was bigger than their fear of the unpredictable.

Pam and I were debating the questions of how much planning was enough when two sparrows flew  into the courtyard just beyond the restaurant’s window.

The courtyard is sealed off from the world outside the hotel.  (Evidently, the sparrows had found a way to sneak in.)  It is filled with a great Banyan tree.  Water leaps in arcs.  A little train trundles on a track high above the visitor’s head.  Many of the world’s great wonders have been reproduced in miniature.  The last gesture aside, this view scape teems with dynamism.  But the sparrows offered something extra, a new order of dynamism.

But that’s the rub.  Two sparrows.  Perfect.  Three sparrows.  Bad?  How many sparrows is one sparrow too many. 

Las Vegas is struggling with the "how many sparrows" problem.  After all, the world that sprang from Bugsy Siegel’s vision was always highly controlled.  Where it not for the adventures in sex and gambling, this place would have been as overmanaged as Disney.

Post modernism and the installation of New York skylines, Paris monuments and Cirque  performances mixes things up a little.  The tedium of resort culture has given way to new kinds of spectacle. 

But it’s clear there are not enough sparrows and that the entire enterprise risks becoming palid and stale (i.e., pale).  Can Las Vegas hope to keep its place as a favorite American playground now that some consumers, Brooks’ famous Bobos, have declared that they want all of the city’s buzzing confusion and then some.  And what happens when the Bobo’s mentality and worldview trickles down to millions more Americans, as it surely will.  Where is Vegas then?

The good news is that as the world demands something more vital and less manifestly planned, new models of administrative decision making have sprung up.  My host at the Urban Land Institute , Adrienne Schmitz, told me that there is at least one architect working on the problem of what he calls "controlled accident."  His name is Richard Heaps and he works at Street Works. 
More planning models will surely follow. 

In the meantime, sparrows that help to make the Bellagio courtyard feel more lively will be working there on a strictly volunteer capacity.  The old regime remains in effect and you are asked to remember:

Regulations require that these rules be followed. 

Are some brands claiming the future


Have you seen the new Allianz ad?  It shows the world changing in real time.  As someone walks through it, a clothing store changes on the outside and the inside.  (I tried to find it on line.  No luck.)

Add this ad to the BMW one I talked about last week, and it looks like there’s something on here.  Another data point might be the "change + HP" campaign.

According to the HP website, this campaign is designed to "help customers capitalize on change." HP wants show "change as a positive force."  More from the website:

Today, the world’s most successful companies have learned how to transform themselves into Adaptive Enterprises, in which business and IT are synchronized to capitalize on change. HP’s new advertising campaign celebrates this fundamental shift in the way we can all think and work, today and in the future.

So what is this.  I think we know that enterprise in the future will have very specific structural properties.  Complexity theory says that enterprise will be dynamic, loosebounded, messy, redundant aggregations that exhibit almost constant non-linearity. 

This is what the future will look like, part of it anyhow.  I wonder if BMW, HP and Allianz are now in the process of setting up the corporation and the brand to take advantage.  It’s almost as if we are looking at a semiotic gold rush.  Some brands, like some people, are still blissfully ignorant of what’s next.  It’s almost as if some brands have seen the future and they are now seeking what Veblen called the advantage of taking the lead. 


For more on the HP enterprise, go here.

Manville, Brook. 1999. Complex Adaptive Knowledge Management. The biology of business: decoding the natural laws of enterprise. editor John Henry Clippinger, 89-111 San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, p. 99.

How virtual worlds discovered dynamism


"I purposely avoid flying near Albuquerque because they’ve got some kids that don’t sound older than 10 years old doing the [air traffic] controlling."

This guy is talking about the perils of making a simulated flight into a simulated airport, guiding by simulated air traffic controllers.  It may be a virtual world, but it is a virtual world more lively and less predictable than before.  The machine world is coming of age, and it is now taking on structural properties once characteristic only of the "real" world. 

In the old days, a lot of virtual activity had a "wagon wheel" pattern to it.  Each player was a spoke, the machine was the center.  We might all be playing Flight Simulator, but we are speaking (spoking) to the machine and not to one another.  Any challenge (and all interaction) came from the machine.  There could millions of people playing Flight Simulator but each of them experienced the game as a discrete, solipsistic event.  We could pretend that the game was occupied with other creatures, but we knew perfectly well that it was just the machine vamping for our benefit. 

Then software, chips and the internet increased so much in speed and power that we can now play in a virtual world occupied by other players.  This means that a "flightsimmer" might "fly" from Seattle to Honolulu, and, as he approaches the airport there, he will see planes piloted by other players guided by controllers in a Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network (VATSIM). Near misses are no longer part of the game because they are programmed into the software.  Now they exist in the game because they have been introduced by the happenchance of human effort and error. 

This is a big change for three reasons.

First, this is a big advance over some simulations in which interaction is premeditated and deliberate.  In the case of Second Life, most interactions take place between creatures who mean to interact with one another.  (This is the crisis of Second Life at the moment, finding the pretexts and conventions that will make game play engaging, and something truly like a second life).  But in the VATSIM case, interaction take place between perfect strangers.  My game can be changed by behaviors you "throw off" in your game without really thinking about what they might mean to me.  Flying into Albuquerque, I may "crash" because it just so happens that you, the controller, are inexperienced, tired, distracted, or wrestling with your sister for control of the family computer.  The controller is not (or need not be) concerned with what my flight simulation experience is going to be.  No, he is just doing what he does, and whatever this is will sometimes have important implications for my game play.

Second: Now to climb the hierarchy, this means we have a "Jonathan Miller" effect at work.  I have referenced this so often in this blog I am quite sure that frequent readers can supply the argument by heart.  Miller argued that the way to create a convincing performance on stage was to construct a character who defied expectation.  Any character who sprang only from genre, Miller argued, would fail to be convincing.  It is only when noise and contradiction are built into the character that the character comes to life.  This is, it seems to me, pretty close to what happens when by game play is constructed not out of the programmer’s anticipation of what I will find engaging, or someone’s deliberate efforts to engage me, but by the far more random effects of happenstance.  Other players, pursuing their own agenda, buffeted by their own peculiarities and accidents, are more likely to create the vitality of the real world than even the most inventive programmer.

Third: Up one more stage, and we are looking at a virtual world that resembles the most dynamic thing in our real world: the economy.  It is precisely when individuals engage in unmediated, undeliberated behaviors, that extraordinary social and cultural patterns begin to emerge.  To use the once fashionable language of French structuralism, the economy comes not from "structure" (the shared, preconceived, conventionalized ideas) but from "event" (in this case, behaviors, their aggregations and cocatenations). 

In effect, the virtual world has struck upon the thing that Western cultures and economies embraced in the 17th and 18th centuries.  For an astonishing number and variety of reasons, the West was suddenly prepared to give the economy pride of place and to live with the dynamism that came spinning out of it.  Unlike almost every other culture and society in the ethnographic record, the West said, "we will install this difference (the marketplace) in our midst and we will live with all the differences it creates for us."  Periodically, the West lost its nerve and repudiated this arrangement, but overall and in the aggregate, this bargain with reality was allowed to stand.  Allowed to stand even when it left almost nothing standing. 

So the virtual worlds now have access to the secret of dynamism, the one difference that will create many differences.  Anthropology still hasn’t done a very good job examining it own, real, contemporary culture.  Too bad, because flights to new worlds will now be leaving terminal 1 virtually every hour on the hour.   For this anthropologist, the arrival of real dynamism in virtual worlds means that there will be more and more realistic transformational vehicles for us  to try out, and that, as we try them out, still more worlds will be generated.  Holy cow. 


Sanders, Peter.  2006.  In Imaginary Skies, Would-be Controllers Guide Pretend Pilots.  Wall Street Journal.  May 18, 2006, p. A1.