Grant McCracken: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 13th, 2013 by bobmorris

McCrackenTrained as an anthropologist (Ph.D. University of Chicago), Grant McCracken has studied American culture and commerce for 25 years. He has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and worked for many organizations including Timberland, New York Historical Society, Diageo, IKEA, Sesame Street, Nike, and Kimberly Clark. He started the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, where he did the first museum exhibit on youth cultures. Grant has taught anthropology at the University of Cambridge, ethnography at MIT, and marketing at the Harvard Business School. He is presently a research affiliate in the Department of Comparative Media at MIT. He is a long time student of culture and commerce. He has explored this theme in two books: Culture and Consumption I and Culture and Consumption II.

He has also looked at how Americans invent and reinvent themselves. He had explored this theme in two more books: Big Hair and Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Grant is the student of American culture. Plenitude published in 1997 looked at the new explosive growth of contemporary culture. In Flock and Flow, he shows how contemporary culture and commerce change. His most recent books are Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation (2011) and Culturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football…Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas (2012).

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Morris: Before discussing Culturematic, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

McCracken: I guess Marshall Sahlins, my advisor at Chicago and Georg Simmel, a German sociologist.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

McCracken: Monty Sommers was the chair of my first department. He was wise and smart in ways that still astound me.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

McCracken: I don’t know that there has been a turning point. I just stick to my guns, even when people have real and probably legitimate doubts about the course I’ve charted.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

McCracken: The University of Chicago is an astounding place. It’s Yeshiva, a priesthood. It gives you an education, but more than that it gives you a mission. Oh, and an arrogance. But being Canadian helps with that.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

McCracken: I wish I understood investment and capital markets. That part of my education came slow.

Morris: Of all the firms that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

McCracken: Several years ago, the Coca-Cola Company was staring obscurity square in the face. I know because I was doing lots of consulting there. In the last say five years they have managed to get remarkably smarter and faster. And I regret to say they did this without my help.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

McCracken: This will sound a little strange, but I learn a lot from the Times Literary Supplement every time I read it. Its an intellectual smorgasbord, endlessly interesting and useful.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

McCracken: I like this a lot. It is very anthropological. You need to begin where people are. You can’t punt ideas or innovations in from the 40 yard line. And yes, the work should feel so collaborative that it should feel like the end result belongs to everyone. Your best moment as a consultant is when your client plays your idea back to you as their idea. Your job: to nod sagely and say, “that’s an excellent idea.”

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

McCracken: Yes, that idea is with us everywhere these days. Now that everyone is reinventing and innovating, advantage goes to those who keep at it. We need to greet even success with humility.

Morris: And then, from Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

McCracken: I don’t know. You hope people will see the light without acts of violence.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

McCracken: This is exactly right, now we are constantly called upon to perform what Kuhn called the “paradigm shift”

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

McCracken: Yes, somewhere Theodore Levitt, another hero, says that in the 1960s Detroit never asked a question for which they did not have the answer. We have to ensure that we are not reproducing what we know instead of what the world now wants.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

McCracken: This is a tough one. I see that the group is often the source of great thinking. But there is still room for that charismatic leader who comes in and asks us all to think and act again.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘ Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

McCracken: Yes, now that the future is so hard to read, we have to fire small experiments into it in the hope that one of them will discover something out there and phone home. This is what the Culturematics idea is all about: How we makes experiments out of culture.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

McCracken: Often it takes more time to explain a task than to do it yourself, and when you do it yourself there is no data lost in transmission.  We have something to learn about how communication works in these settings.  Sometimes it takes a really long time to communicate the full meaning of what we want to say.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

McCracken: This is the thing that AG Lafley says about his work at P&G, communicating with small bursts of speech, brilliant turns of phrase. McCracken: Thank you. Each of these represents a different way of working with culture, each has its characteristic advantages and opportunities.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

McCracken: The real cause of lots of resistance often is that however much a team might say that it wants to change, the old assumptions are woven, invisibly, deep within the corporate culture, and from this staging ground they act invisibly to sustain the old order. Finding the assumption out and then rooting them out is a special skill. It calls for assumption hunters, I call them. Here’s a post on the topic.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

McCracken: B schools do most things very well. They are just not comprehensive and what they miss are things like culture and creativity and a certain kind of pattern recognition that comes easily to people trained in the liberal arts.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

McCracken: Keeping the ship on course will be the first and most difficult order of business. Everyone is going to be piloting their organization through very high waters where things can change in an instant.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Culturematic. When and why did you decide to write it?

McCracken: I wrote this book because I thought I saw a series of innovations taking place “out there,” a special category of innovation that were more culture than technical. R&D is very good at tech innovation. We are much less good at cultural innovation and this is the sources of some of the value gushers that matter most.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

McCracken: That culture is a a critical resource the organization ignores. Competely mystifying. The organization continues to act as if culture were dark matter, something essentially inaccessible to us. When in fact there is an ancient discipline called anthropology that’s pretty good at thinking about it.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

McCracken: It’s pretty close to what I was thinking. That’s probably not a good thing.

Morris: You suggest that “the technical side of innovation is exploding.” What are the major implications and potential (if not probable) consequences of that?

McCracken: We have so many more resources to work with. Big data is one example. We can do real time reads and course corrections that would have taken years to sort out as few as 10 years ago. It is becoming possible to navigate in real time.

Morris: How specifically do you propose to “make innovation a little more practical and a lot less fashionable”?

McCracken: Innovation got hip. It got cool. I prefer the people who investigate the world out a brute sense of curiosity, a fundamental sense of play.

Morris: Why does innovation need to be saved from mechanization?

McCracken: Well, people like John Kearon like to argue that some companies are less innovative because they now have innovation centers. More process, rules and regs doesnt necessarily make for more innovation.

Morris: What are the core principles and core concepts of the “new model of business creativity” that you believe is needed?

McCracken: I think the corporations if it wants to be truly responses to the changes taking place in the world is going to have to learn how to be much more porous to the world. And that is ever so difficult. We are good at boundaries and systems. We need to learn how to open those up.

Morris: Please your reference to “a crisis brewing in the world of marketing.”

McCracken: The world of the consumer, the sheer innovation and dynamism of our culture has never been easy for marketing to keep up with, but now these are suddenly faster and much more powerful. We need a new idea and practice of marketing and of the brand.

Morris: By what specific process can a Culturematic be invented?

McCracken: Oh, that’s all in the book. I hope people will have a look. So does my publisher. Really it comes down to making innovation, new things that consumers want, by working with culture to make culture.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which the Culturematic spirit is most likely to thrive?

McCracken: I think it needs to be a place that is reckless with creativity and risk taken and absolutely ferocious in its ability to pare down and brings perfect things to market

Morris: Please explain how a laboratory can be an “idea funnel.”

McCracken: So further to the previous point, we want to start very wide and end up with something very small and perfectly formed.

Morris: Can almost any organization (regardless of size or nature) establish its own lab/funnel?

McCracken: Yes, laboratories are cheap and easy. Start by setting a room aside and give people a half day a week.

Morris: You observe that Culturematics “can’t say where they’re headed till they get there.” Please explain.

McCracken: Often creativity comes from a very pragmatic kind of “well, what if we try this. How about this.” You set some parameters and then work through the variations. It’s hard to see something as a concept. It literally comes out of the hands on experiment.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the relevance of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s concept of “flow” to creating and executing breakthrough ideas?

McCracken: You want to give ideas permission and a space to form. And for that you need to release a certain kind of intellectual flow.

Morris: Throughout your insightful and eloquent narrative, you examine a number of exemplary organizations. In your opinion, what is the most important lesson to be learned from each of several. Apple Cirque du Soleil, Ford Motor Company, Four Seasons Microsoft, Nike, Starbucks

McCracken: Yes, I think each of these company gives us another glimpse of a corporation that has found a blue ocean, a new opportunity that was sitting there, reading for the taking, what was required was a powerful act of thinking and creativity to see what was there waiting to happen. The more you know about culture, the more easy these acts are.

Morris: I really enjoyed the material provided in Chapter 7, “Culturematic Me” (Pages 189-202). You describe several quite different “roles” that a leader may use as devices for re-invention: “Anthropologist” “Typifier” “Cartographer” “Curator”, “Storyteller,” and “Time Traveler.”

McCracken: Thank you. Each of these represents a different way of working with culture, each has its characteristic advantages and opportunities. Great leaders are resilient, capable of playing several different roles such as these but are always authentic, whatever their role, guided by the same moral compass.

Morris: You suggest a six-step process for those in the C-Suite to manage Culturematics. Which of these initiatives seems to be most difficult to [begin italics] sustain [end italics]? Why?

McCracken: Finding the right people and giving power and letting them go find value in the world. That’s got to be toughest. Really, its like the Spanish court in the 16th century saying, um, take this ship and go see what you can find. You have to believe in your sailors!

Morris: When concluding the book, you observe, “The more we think about the future, the more we realize it is ‘more besides.’ More besides, and we’re not sure what. That’s what our Culturematics are for. Fire when ready.”

I take this as a call to action as well as a caution, a challenge as well as a reassurance. Is that a fair assessment?

McCracken: The future is going to be stranger and more various and more dynamic than anything we can imagine now. We will be extraordiarily tested. I wish us the best of luck!

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Culturematic and is now determined to increase and improve innovative thinking at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

McCracken: I would be grateful if they would read my book Chief Culture Officer and appoint one.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Culturematic, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

McCracken: I think gives us a laboratory to imagine, invent and take possession of the future, that’s the name of the game here.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

McCracken: A final comment rather than a question. This has been a brilliant interview, Bob, and I am deeply grateful for the care and intelligence with which you have crafted your questions. I am in your debt.

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Grant cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His blog website

His Amazon page

HBR link

Wired link

Psychology Today link

Twitter link

LinkedIn link

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