Illustration: Script and Seal

Culture and commerce have never been unrelated: What any one group of people values invariably influences the goods and services they buy and sell. The enterprises lining the streets of ancient Grecian agoras were of course radically different from those engaging in global business today. Indeed, given the increasing pace and complexity of social and cultural change, companies need to arm themselves with the capacities to decipher and anticipate how forces in the world outside their walls may be undermining their current products and services—or perhaps creating the conditions for new ones.

Among those advocating for that view most persuasively is Grant McCracken, a consultant, author, and cultural anthropologist. “The only way you can understand all the stuff that’s out there—all the ways people see the world and what their assumptions about the world are—is that you sort of have to play the anthropologist,” he says. (He would know: McCracken earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago and is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.)

“If you were the Coca-Cola company, or P&G [Procter and Gamble] or any big CPG [consumer packaged goods] player 20 years ago,” McCracken continues, “if we had come to you and said, ‘We’ve been tracking cultural trends and we know as a result of these trends you are going to be shut out of 10 percent of your retail outlets in 10 years,’ what’s that worth to you?’”

The question isn’t rhetorical. That was exactly the impact on retail groceries of what was still a fledgling market for natural and organic foods, with Whole Foods serving as the disrupter.

“Because they didn’t have a chief culture officer and didn’t get the news, all these giant players didn’t see Whole Foods coming,” McCracken says. “Whole Foods now controls a vast piece of retail, and if all you do is shop at Whole Foods, you never see a product from Procter & Gamble, Unilever, or Coca-Cola.” Interestingly enough, though, Whole Foods now faces something of the same challenge as its incumbents did decades ago: Retail grocery chains have caught up, as have big-boxed retailers like Walmart, and now they’re challenging Whole Foods’ market dominance.

It’s a stark example, one that defies characterizations of “culture” as a lightweight nice-to-have rather than a strategic business intelligence tool. Culture isn’t a ping-pong table in the keg room. Nor is it the occasional focus group, outside expert, or third-party study. It’s a radical, data-driven, always-on approach to perpetual innovation and disruption.

How, then, can a company—like Whole Foods, once the insurgent and now the incumbent—safeguard itself against being similarly blindsided by the next cultural shift? McCracken suggests a range of ideas, including installing a chief culture officer in the executive suite, instilling an anti-hierarchical, self-motivated, and innovative attitude into the rest of the company, establishing a two-way mentoring program between older and younger employees about their different generational cultures, and committing to the maintenance of a central idea board for cultural trends.

COMPANY CULTURE DO'S AND DONT'S

A conversation with Jim Joyce, Sr. Vice President Agile Workplace, Xerox Corporation

Adopting new systems and technologies is often a source of tension in a culture. How can that be avoided?

JIM JOYCE: By involving those who are going to use the technology and recognizing that whatever is launched needs to allow enough freedom for the individual to perform tasks their own way. There are many, many massive project failures with the root cause being that the design was built to drive robotic or specific actions on behalf of a group of individuals—or the design was built for management benefit as opposed to enabling the productivity of those they lead.

How important is having a team with a multi-faceted skill set in developing a collaborative culture?

JIM JOYCE: You can’t even express the degree to which this is critical. Most organizations, projects, and teams fail when they lack this element.

Is a culture of innovation most often initiated from the top or by individual employees?

JIM JOYCE: It’s a circular process, a mix of both. Wherever the initial idea comes from, innovation usually results from co-development by small teams who form around an opportunity, build something in an iterative, agile process, and then launch it with the expectation that it will continue to be developed and improved over time. The idea that you launch a platform that will stay the same until it’s replaced in three to five years is out-of-date, costly, and highly counterproductive.

Does working remotely lead to misunderstandings that could be avoided if people were talking face-to-face?

JIM JOYCE: Not as much anymore, because most people have become far more accustomed to working and communicating remotely. Often people are more direct, less emotional, and more to the point during a remote conversation than they are in person.

How about offices with open floor plans. Some people argue that they foster a feeling of togetherness. What do you think?

JIM JOYCE: In many cases, they do. In fact, some companies consider open-floor designs part of their corporate agility initiative. Others would tell you they can be a major distraction and cause for a desire for increased privacy and less knowledge sharing. I think both can be true.

Water-cooler talk: Creativity booster or time-killer?

JIM JOYCE: Time-killer. Most water-cooler talks are not about work topics or work creativity. It is an important time for employees to spend together, but topics are not generally going to drive work-related creativity. They will help foster togetherness in the workplace, but most creativity happens in a room with grease boards, flip charts, and the like.

Is there still merit to old-fashioned events like office parties and office teams, or is that unrealistic in the modern tech-driven office?

JIM JOYCE: There is no effective electronic substitute for in-person, eye-to-eye contact, collaboration, and team building. As someone who has been involved with large teams of virtual workers, up, for nearly 20 years, I believe the need to get people together at times cannot be ignored. Yet when you do get them together, if the only purpose is to sit them in a room and make them listen to people and not allow them to interact directly, the in-person sessions can be a negative experience and a waste of time.

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First, says McCracken, companies need to move past ingrained assumptions—about lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors that are manifest in popular products and services—and embrace perpetual cultural change. At the same time, they must develop a sensitivity for trends that are still at the larval stage, before they fully emerge. Without constant attention to cultural memes and milieus, “our assumptions and expectations fall out of alignment with the world, and we don’t know that has happened,” says McCracken. “We’re still operating on old-fashioned ideas of the world.”

Right now, major companies typically rely on external sources—advertising agencies or marketing consultants—to bring them news of trends, or they may already have executives serving in other functions who have finely tuned cultural sensitivities. McCracken, however, believes that tracking and identifying important cultural shifts should be a specific role in all companies’ management structure, one central to any enterprise’s strategy. “In a more perfect world, they would have…somebody in the organization whose job it is to take this responsibility and organize the resources and get people involved.”

In his latest book, Culturematic, McCracken describes an organization that’s unafraid to try out small-scale products and services just to gauge consumer reactions. Such organizations, he says, discover that those kinds of small, sometimes counterintuitive experiments can expose undiscovered cultural meaning—and, not incidentally, dormant economic and strategic value.  

Hafthor

To monetize that value, McCracken says enlightened management must be open to innovation through culture, not just technology. Take, for example, fantasy football. Now a multi-billion-dollar industry, it began in 1963 with the foresight of an Oakland-area businessman and limited partner in the Oakland Raiders, Wilfred “Bill the Gill” Winkenbach, who saw the potential in letting fans control their own “teams”—and putting money on them. Thirty-four years later, in 1997, CBS, recognizing the opportunity in the Internet, launched the first-ever fantasy football website. It took only three more years for every sports media brand to launch its own version. Today, fantasy football is considered the NFL’s most significant marketing tool—and represents $11 billion in consumer spending alone, not to mention advertising and other ancillary benefits to the sport.

McCracken suggests an initiative that can serve as the basis for cultural, and therefore business, innovation: a project that spots and translates data, trends, and other cultural signals, which are projected and tracked on a huge screen visible to the entire company. Even if the data may have no immediate relevance, what first appears as white noise, he says, could be a signal of what’s to come.

“You get lots of people in the organization looking at this big board routinely, whether it’s once a week or once a day,” says McCracken. All of this helps pierce the veil of a “super-inscrutable future…so fraught with so many possibilities that we can’t really know what we’re looking at.”

The big board approach can also be a tool for managers to convey the company’s mission and get employee buy-in. A visual representation of where the company has been and where it’s going allows managers to “just stand in front of this array and talk about your passion for this transition,” McCracken says. “That is, I think, the way to get the message across.”

Even mentoring between various generations of employees can help acculturate an entire company, from Baby Boomers to Millennials. Boomers and some Gen Xers can be slightly embarrassed to admit to their popular culture habits and tastes, he says. “And at some point, probably in the last 20 years, people just said, popular culture is our culture, we care about it, we don’t apologize for it, and it’s changed fundamentally the way in which younger employees in a corporation think about culture.”

It’s never too late—or too early—to take on acculturation as a corporate priority, says McCracken, citing the story of Sergio Zyman, former marketing executive at Coca-Cola, who sat down with the company’s freshly minted top officer. “The guy had just been catapulted into the CEO suite and knew he didn’t know culture,” says McCracken. “And Sergio said, ‘That’s okay, we’re going to meet every Saturday in your basement, and I’m going to teach you about culture.’”

A marketing executive educating a new CEO at a multinational brand every week about evolving trends: that’s culture. So, too, is a centralized dashboard with real-time data and a robust intergenerational exchange across the enterprise. That’s a far cry from the seemingly childish, sometimes-valuable, generally-harmless domain of gestures that “culture” often gets reduced to: stocked fridges and inspiring talks. No, in McCracken’s view, “culture” is an integral business strategy tool, one that affords companies invaluable foresight, openness to change, a collaborative orientation, and continuous agility. Considering that the pace of change is unlikely to slow at any point in the near future, McCracken says, executives should start playing anthropologist more often. That way, they won’t just be energizing their employees around what’s next, important as that may be: If they do it right, they will also be future-proofing their business.