For about a week I’ve been struggling with how to frame Grant McCracken‘s latest book, Chief Culture Officer, How to Create a Living , Breathing, Corporation. I like the book a great deal — it makes me want to run out and get a degree in anthropology. To start, this book has a wealth of insight and perspective on how culture — and I mean that in the broadest of all possible ways — impacts innovation. That said, I didn’t have a theme for my comments, but it came to me this morning, and the theme is… “holistic.”
Holistic Innovation is something I preach and it’s amazing it took me this long to connect the dots of my current mantra and McCracken’s thesis. McCracken is essentially saying that corporations that ignore popular culture do so at their peril. He suggests a new C-level role called the Chief Culture Officer. This CCO would have his or her fingers deep into a lot of cultural pies and would inform the CEO of potential pitfalls and opportunities. He makes a compelling business case. In a way, it’s common sense. However, that’s not so common for executives who are trained in business schools to focus on critique, analysis, and precision decision making. For those bottom-liners, “soft skills” like culture research just aren’t part of the equation. Ironically, ignoring culture is why many corporations completely miss the boat on new market opportunities. McCracken cites some high profile examples, from Coca-Cola to Motorola, and others.
This is a scholarly, well-researched book — something you would expect from a Harvard professor. Normally that would also mean BORING, but thankfully, this book is a notable exception. It’s a highly readable primer on pop culture. McCracken takes cultural concepts like “cool” and traces it all the way back to 18th century French cafe society and connects the dots all the way through to the hippies and the shaky camera’s in NYPD Blue. Compelling reading, and these aren’t just juicy tidbits about culture, this is about how those tidbits connect to innovation.
Now, getting back to the connection to Holistic Innovation. One of the reasons this book should be widely read (go buy it now, this is an important, seminal, 5 star business book) is that it goes beyond preaching innovation. It provides a specific road-map for how a corporation can stay aware of micro trends that may soon become macro trends. Corporate market research is often focused on numbers. Quantitative analysis of markets is important work, but if that’s all a corporation does they are flying blind. Qualitative research, usually thought of as Focus Groups, helps to bring in the softer insights. Still, focus groups alone won’t give a corporation the big picture, that is holistic, view of the world it needs to invent ahead of markets. The kind of research McCracken recommends as part of the role of CCO goes beyond traditional qualitative research. It’s observational, exploratory, and sometimes ethnographic, but mostly, it’s deep-dive extensive research into all those things we usually do a good job of ignoring.
The best marketers do this kind of research intuitively. I know small business people who founded lifelong businesses on a flash of insight about what people need — based on their own intimate knowledge and observations of a domain. The vast majority of us, however, are too busy screening out all the endless details of modern culture to know an opportunity when we see one.
This is a book to help open your eyes.
Holistic Innovation goes beyond “doing innovation” and encourages a corporation to not only do innovation in the form of initiatives, but also to “be” innovation, and that’s a cultural thing. How does a corporation live innovation?How do they “be” innovation? Culture awareness, internally first, and externally, is how! And this book is about that awareness.
I’ll stop here with my comments, but end with this: if you want to innovate you need insight. The deepest most profound insights are buried in the cultural haystack. Find that needle and you’ll do well. This book is a guide to systematically tearing that haystack apart. Buy it, read it, do it, be it.