Culturematic by Grant McCracken Makes a Great Case for Experimenting

Experiments are a critical innovation skill, and it’s one that you can use to build your Innovation Competence. A culture of experimentation is one of the elements that distinguishes highly innovative firms from those that arene’t quite as good at it.

The best thing that I’ve run across recently on the importance of experimentation is Grant McCracken’s new book Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football . . . Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas.

Here is how he defines a Culturematic:

Eventually, I found an idea that helps explain these oddities. I call it Culturematic. A Culturematic is a little machine for making culture. It is designed to do three things: test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value.

And here is a video where he gives a bunch of examples:

I’m in the middle of reading a string of outstanding books right now, and this is one of my recent favourites. Here are some quotes from it about experimenting:

Start-ups are inclined to put all their eggs in one basket, all their bets on a single idea. And this is wrong. If nothing else, it’s an evolutionary error. What we want instead is a Culturematic cluster, a bundle of experiments, investigating the world in a variety of ways, defined with enough intellectual generosity that several outcomes—some of them quite different—are possible. Are there venture capitalists out there who understand the Culturematic proposition? Are there people looking to fund ingenuity bundles instead of this-one-idea-take-it-or-leave-it? I hope this book will encourage a new approach.

This is a fairly novel view of startups, but it has some merit. It certainly applies to larger, more established firms that are trying to innovate. Build a bundle of experiments, test them out, and amplify what works.

Another quote:

The search for the future is an exercise in edge finding. We don’t know what we are looking for. We are not even sure what it is when we find it. We are working by instinct, by intuition. We are flying by the seat of our pants. To find the innovation that returns lots and lots of value, we will have to try many things that return next to nothing. It’s the nature of the hunt.

Experimenting is another tool that helps us when we are faced with a mystery rather than a puzzle. Mysteries are typified by large amounts of uncertainty, and in these situations, we must tools built for that – like Culturematics.

Innovation is a messy, multiple business. There is no single method. The sensible approach is to keep trying stuff—to provoke the world and let it start talking to you. As Sims puts it, invention and discovery emanate from the ability to try seemingly wild possibilities; to feel comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a careful observer, open to different experiences; to play with ideas without prematurely judging oneself or others; to persist through difficulties; and to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods, despite the conventional wisdom.

The reference there is to Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries,by Peter Sims. That was my favourite book last year on experimenting – these two books fit together quite nicely.

We know two things. First, we are obliged to innovate. This is the only way to survive the killing fields of the contemporary marketplace (where only 14 percent of the Fortune 500 survive for more than fifty years). Second, we’re hard-pressed to tell which innovations will flourish and which will die. Sometimes, we are not even sure where to start. In a world like this, we want lots of little experiments. So says the IPO prospectus for Google in an almost perfect expression of the Culturematic logic: We will not shy away from high-risk, high-reward projects because of short-term earnings pressure. For example, we would fund projects that have a 10 percent chance, [placing] smaller bets in areas that seem very speculative or even strange. As the ratio of reward to risk increases, we will accept projects further outside our normal areas, especially when the initial investment is small … Most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.

There’s not a whole lot more to add. Experimenting is a crucial part of innovation. If you want to improve your innovation capability, improving your capacity for experiment is a great first step to take. It’s probably more effective than the more symbolic steps, like making it a core value or integrating innovation with strategy (though you’ll eventually want to do both of those too).

We talk about experimenting a lot here, because it’s so important.

If you want to make your organisation better right now, what’s an idea that you can go out and test? If you can’t think of one, Culturematic will give some excellent suggestions about where to start.

So go to it.

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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