Culturematic: A book review by Bob Morris

CulturematicCulturematic: How Reality TV, John Cheever, a Pie Lab, Julia Child, Fantasy Football . . . Will Help You Create and Execute Breakthrough Ideas
Grant McCracken
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

How to test the world and discover meaning in order to unleash value…sometimes

When I first saw the title of this book, I was reminded of the fact that Ron Popeil once promoted two products, Chop-O-Matic and Veg-O-Matic, that Dan Ackroyd later satirized on SNL with Bass-O-Matic. Has Grant McCracken invented a device that will slice and dice a culture? Not exactly but he does provide a wealth of information, insights, and counsel that can help almost anyone create and execute breakthrough ideas that will disrupt a status quo culture, one that is committed to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

As McCraken explains in the Introduction, “A Culturematic is a little machine for making culture. It is designed to do three things: test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value…It’s still a little vague, isn’t it? Some of you are saying, ‘I’m not exactly sure of what he means.’ Me neither. I am still working it out. The idea will get clearer as you read the rest of the book.” McCracken identifies a series of objectives for it that include making innovation “a little more practical and a lot less fashionable,” saving innovation from “mechanization” (isn’t Culturematic a “little machine”?), and providing a “new model of business creativity.”

McCracken examines dozens of examples of Culturematics. Some achieve great success, others don’t, but all are efforts to “to test the world and discover meaning in order to unleash value” and what may be viewed as “failures” may prove most valuable if recognized, rather — as Thomas Edison did — as a precious opportunity to learn what won’t work. After my first reading of this book, I was convinced that Culturematics and those who initiate them are pioneering iconoclasts.

“Culturematics come in all shapes and sizes. They have popped up online, on TV, and in the real world. They have changed the way we think about marketing, sports, advertising, and food. We might think of the Culturematic as an all-purpose innovation engine.” That is certainly true of those on whom McCracken focuses. He discusses 20 in Chapter 3: Rube Goldberg, Ford’s “Fiesta Movement,” Dan Harmon’s Channel 101, Gatorade’s Replay, SNL Digital Shorts (Andy Samberg), the Japanese Olympic Torch Run, Negro Baseball League Grave Marker Project, Twitter as a Culturematic, NFL Films,, Old Spice: “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” “Two Dollar Holler,” Chez Panisse (restaurant in Berkeley, CA), Evelyn Rodriguez’s “Unconference,” the Apple “Genius Bar,” Wordle, Smart Mobs (Howard Rheingold’s book on sudden, unexpected public groupings), Rodney Graham’s reworking of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the Two and a Half Men Man (Chuck Lorre). I provide this list for two reasons: To suggest the diversity of Culturematics, and, to create curiosity about those who are unfamiliar and well-worth knowing about.

Also of special interest to me is the “Culturematics for the CEO” section in the final chapter when McCracken recommends the following and explains why:

1. Bully the Bullies
My Take: Protect the culture within which Culturematics can flourish

2. Discover the Vectors Outside
My Take: Have Culturematic engineers focus on the most appropriate areas of opportunity for the given enterprise

3. Find the Assumptions Inside
My Take: Have assumption finders identify whatever “invisibly shapes” people’s values and decisions

4. Create the Catalysts
My Take: Have a dedicated team that helps to galvanize and energize disciplined curiosity (e.g. prototypes, experiments, and customer feedback)

5. Measure Return on Investment
My Take: Can’t improve on Lafley/Charan comments on Pages 227-228

6. Cultivate Deeper Field of Vision
My Take: The CEO (and hopefully others in the C-Suite) envision different, semi-distant, and plausible futures
and prepare accordingly with prudence and precision

To this last point, McCracken observes, “The future is a more various and destabilizing thing than it has ever been before. Indeed, it is so turbulent it has outstripped our instruments of prognostication. Scenarios, strategy, projection, planning, are going dark. The more we think about the future, the more we realize it is ‘more besides’ [the status quo]. More besides, and we’re not sure what. That’s what our Culturematics are for. Fire when ready.”

While re-reading highlighted passages prior to composing this review, I realized that this book is Grant McCracken’s Culturematic. I presume to suggest that, if true, his hope is that at least a few of his readers will take what they learned from the book and create a Culturematic of their own. That’s what I plan to do as I now begin to explore “more besides” in my world.

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