We often review books that are neat and organized and deadly dull because they essentially restate observations and insights that were old when our parents were young. That’s because it’s far easier to talk about the road everyone’s already traveled than it is to make sense of the one we’re currently on. And we understand that these books abound because people are comforted by that reiteration – it reinforces their prejudices and biases and reassures them that all is right with their world. How could it not be, I just read it in a book!
What Grant McCracken is doing in Culturematic is something far more useful, exciting and revolutionary. Which means it’s messy, elliptical, confusing, and at times a bit precious.
And it means it’s a book you absolutely have to read.
A culturematic, McCracken explains, is “a little machine for making culture. It is designed to do three things: test the world, discover meaning, unleash value.” Fairly ambiguous, that, so McCracken, an anthropologist and the author of “Chief Culture Officer” spends the rest of the book explaining what he means, with examples (chapter three has twenty of them), with advice about how to make your own, and thoughts on why any of this is important.
A culturematic pokes at culture to see what will happen and what that says about the culture. It is not a stunt, for a stunt is interested only in drawing attention to itself. It poses a question about culture and hopes to generate content – often content it was not expecting – from that question. “Supersize Me” was a culturematic. But so is Fantasy Football. And Brandtags.com.
Thus, Culturematic – the book, is nothing short of a clarion call for ideas. A sort of response to U2’s claim that “media is the new idea” – a claim that every VC-funded social media startup justifies. A claim that said “we use the gadgets of our lives to define and explain our lives.”
But there is a difference between media and ideas; ideas are where innovation comes from. And the paradox about innovation, McCracken writes “is this: we need ideas we can’t possibly guess we need.“ And he is exactly right. We don’t know what we’re going to need to know. Hell, we don’t even know how we’re going to have to think. It’s like Einstein’s 1946 “New York Times” Op-Ed piece – ”A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels”. We need new ideas. And new ideas is what culturematics make.
So how do you make one? Well you should start small and nimble. And you should get over your fear of failure.
Now this is not part of the “cult of failure” that has recently made the rounds of consultants and those who pay them. Failure is not a good thing but it is a cost of doing business. Success depends on trying new things, and new things mean that failure, to contradict Gene Kranz in “Apollo 13” is, in fact, an option. Hell, how many times did Ken Mattingly fail before he came up with the solution that saved his buddies? The key is to learn from your failures. Or, as Beckett wrote in “Worstword Ho” “Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”
None of which, McCracken realizes, corporations want to hear. “Culturematics” he writes “are a management challenge”. Why? Because “none of them can happen by simple fiat, by declaring that football, the stock market, Silicon Valley, fitness, and cafes are now transformed. First, there has to be a cultural change in play. Second there has to be a careful strategic and tactical undertaking to find out what is now culturally possible, what has momentum. Third, the innovation has to be made and presented with that same deft hand. In each case, a nuanced and well-crafted culturematic is called for.”
Does this sound like something your company or client are looking for? Me neither. And McCracken understands that. “Innovation” he writes, “demands a new kind of corporation, one that changes the boundary between the corporation and the world.”
Because culturematics are about discovering the boundaries and then pushing them to see what happens when you do. Which in turn raises questions itself. Why now? What about our current culture requires this? Was it not thus at other times for other generations?”
McCracken doesn’t answer these questions. Perhaps a culturematic is needed. What are you waiting for?
Culturematic byGrant McCracken was published by Harvard Business Review Press on 05/15/12 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).