Use Culture to Help Select Ideas

Grant McCracken’s latest book Chief Culture Officer is a really interesting one. The basic premise is that for businesses to succeed, they have to be in touch with culture. In defining culture, McCracken doesn’t make much of a distinction between high-brow and low-brow – he’s more interested in the things that real people are actually interested in – which means that he talks about a pretty broad range of culture.

Here is a talk that he gave outlining some of the main points in the book:

There are at least two useful innovation lessons in this.

The first concerns the value of taking an anthropological approach to learning how your customers think – the value is very high. This is one of the issues with design-driven innovation. A key idea in that approach is that you need to have a deep understanding of what your customers are trying to accomplish, and you can’t get this by asking them questions. You really need to undertake deep observation to get a handle on this. Chief Culture Officer includes quite a few case studies and hints about how to do this successfully. If you are interested in using design thinking to improve innovation, this is a useful book.

The second useful innovation idea is that culture can be an important screen in helping you select ideas. Here is a quote from the book:

The secret of success is not “bigger risks.” It is to harvest error, to take new risks more strategically. The motto of tech guru Esther Dyson captures the prevailing managerial wisdom nicely: “Always make new mistakes.” Taking risks because they are risks is an abdication of managerial responsibility.

Management can’t be Darwinian. It’s not a random evolutionary walk, searching for good options by exploring all bad ones. The point of management is choice. And the point of a Chief Culture Officer is to factor culture into choice.

I don’t fully agree that management can’t be Darwinian. I think that there is an unavoidable random element in discovering what works and what doesn’t. Nevertheless, the idea that management is about choice is correct. McCracken’s main point is that gaining a deep understanding of culture can improve the choices you make when you select which innovations to pursue.

I guess if I’m going to take all this seriously, I’m going to have to start watching a lot more television. Or hire an RA to do it and let them be my Chief Culture Officer…

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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10 thoughts on “Use Culture to Help Select Ideas

  1. Hiring an RA to watch TV for you. Smart move. TV caters to the lowest common denominator and effectively dumbs down the general populace, imho.

    What I find particularly interesting is steering the culture. Taking an existing group and help them to break free of whatever media-driven molds/courses they’ve allowed themselves to subscribe to over time. Of course, one cannot change direction without first understanding where we are right now, so this one has me thinking of adding it to my list.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting article – thanks Ralph!

    Sam, I’ll check to see how my RA budget is looking…

    Thanks for the link Veronica – I’ll look into that book.

    Brian, I’d be interested to hear what you think of the book if you read it. McCracken is more interested in just understanding culture than he is in steering it, but there’s a lot of interesting ideas that he builds around just the understanding part.

  3. Hey Tim –

    Just wanted to let you know I picked up CCO over the weekend. At scarcely over 200 pages in a smaller form factor, it’s a relatively quick read, but that’s not to say my highlighter hasn’t been getting some use in the first half.

    Thus far, I find myself torn. I appreciate the need to observe and understand culture (“homeyness”) to be better positioned when there is a shift, but as someone looking to effectively change culture, there’s a bit of dissonance.

    For example, for all McCracken’s points about television watchers becoming more intelligent, demanding more interesting and specific plot lines, I still would like to steer more people away from television.

    What really stands out to me at this point in reading CCO is a trend to watch society in order to better keep up with changing culture. It’s both reactive and proactive. Through pessimistic eyes, however, watching society to keep pace with society is akin to racing to the bottom.

    Can organizations be the change agents which create the spark and flame front to move a new way of thinking around the world? If there is value in understanding culture and there is merit creating culture within the organization, then I believe contributing value to global culture is possible.

    Will check back in upon completion of the book. Thanks for the tip. Collaboration and community are my passions.

  4. Glad you’re getting something out of it Brian. I read it on kindle, so the smaller form factor isn’t as obvious there – hope you find it to be value for money!

    With regard to TV, there are two separate points I think. One is that because it is the dominant form of culture (at least in the US, and at least in recent history), then whether we like it or not we have to understand it. I think that’s a valid point.

    The second point is yours – which is that it might be desirable to move people away from TV. I agree with that too – although even there having a better understanding of what goes on on TV will help!

  5. Right you are, sir.

    If we understand that TV audiences are demanding more intelligent, thought-provoking programs, with longtail plot lines which encourage fan imaginations, what could we offer the TV-watching masses which might provide all the desirable characteristics, without the downsides of wasted time?

    There’s something to that thought, but I’m not prepared to take it to the next level yet. Still, it reveals the power of what McCracken talks about.

  6. I think you’re on exactly the right track here Brian. As you say, taking that idea to the next level is a big task – but also an important one!

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