MccChie 10-02-029

Chief Culture Officer

How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation


Grant McCracken

Basic Books, 2009, 262 pp.  ISBN 978-0-465-01832-1



McCracken is a Research Affiliate at C3 at MIT.  He was the founding director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture.  The American corporation needs a new professional, the Chief Culture Officer.


“Culture matters for reasons good and bad.  First, it is the place to discover advantage, opportunity, and innovation. … Second, culture is the breeding ground of cataclysmic change….  Without a working knowledge of culture, the corporation lives in a perpetual state of surprise, waiting for the next big storm to hit.” (Introduction)


“Apple lived in a magic bubble with brand evangelists and huge profit margins.  Jobs had found a way to connect to the creative community.  He had found a way to read culture and speak to it.” (8)


(At Motorola) “Frost knew we don’t win contemporary markets by adding a feature or shaving the price point.  The trick is to make innovations that make people blink with surprise and perhaps shiver with desire.”  Phones are either charismatic or they are a commodity.  (12) 


“Corporations live or die by their connection to culture.” (13) 


For years our culture consisted of the mainstream and the avant-garde. 


P&G tended to narrow in on one aspect of the consumer—for example, their mouth for oral-care products, their hair for shampoo, etc.  When A. G. Lafley became CEO he said P&G needed to look at the whole person, to understand and appreciate her life—how busy she is; her job responsibilities; the roles she plays, her dreams, etc.  (29) 


A CCO moves in two directions, inward toward the consumer—to know what their lives are like—and outward to capture the bigger picture of the culture.  (30)


A “blue ocean” is a new market that is relatively undiscovered and free of competition.  (32)


“The secret of success is not ‘bigger risks.’  It is to harvest error, to take new risks more strategically. … Taking risks because they are risks is an abdication of managerial responsibility. … And the point of a Chief Culture Officer is to factor culture into choice.” (35) 


Fast culture is visible, vivid, obvious and fashionable.  Slow culture plays the country cousin, less interesting.  Fast culture is like ships on the ocean that you can see and count.  Slow culture is everything below the surface.  “Homeyness is slow culture.”  “Pity the COO who ignores it.  It is often homeyness that helps decide whether consumers will embrace a new product, how they will use it, what they will use it for, and whether this proves a ‘keeper’ for any given American household.” (45)  “’Homeyness’ is the secret, the very code, of domestic life in America.” (45)


“Culture supplies us with knowledge we don’t know we know, that operates invisibly to shape our understanding of the world.” (47)


Fast culture has many origins coming from the worlds of cuisine, sports, music, fashion, moviemaking, web sites, and new media, etc.  New technologies make it possible for obscure players to have sudden influence.  Fast culture can open up ‘blue oceans’ of opportunity and ‘game-changing’ developments but it also delivers blind-site hits. (54) 


We have a dispersive culture.  Everywhere we see multiplication, diversity and heterogeneity.  Many more people are making culture with more technologies, new motives, and less restraint.  Symptoms are everywhere.  It is the CCO’s job to find a pattern in this chaos. 


There are moments when a magical consensus will emerge.  Some new configuration jumps out of the commotion.  “The good news is that these convergences are scrutable.  We can sense them coming.”  (60)  “Every convergence culture is a remarkable opportunity, the bluest of oceans.  But only if we get there early.” (64) 


“The status convergence and the cool convergence are central for the CCO.  They are now foundational parts of our culture….” (65)


“For the early modern CCO, virtually everything you needed to know about culture was contained in the idea of status.” (66)  But the status system is now a mess.  Taste is in shambles and unclear.  “Our models of admiration have shifted.  Upward aspiration has been replaced by our search for authenticity.”  “Taste now comes from experts, and experts come … from television.”


“Cool culture is a much newer cultural force than status.  It arose as an attack on status.  Cool scorns status.  It started in art.  It moved to poetry and then to prose, and eventually to movies and music.  It turned into the hippie movement numbering in the millions in the 1970s, a massive counterculture, colonizing popular culture from top to bottom.  (75) 


Both parties won and lost.  The status code will never be the same.  Cool is now completely internalized, built into our entire culture, demonstrating culture’s ability to absorb conflicting impulses and embrace contradiction.  (77) 


“Culture was once made by a handful of producers and delivered to consumers.”  “The new contract between producer and consumer is perhaps the most urgent thing the CCO needs to know about.” (79)


The single biggest driver of popular culture has been Gen X and GenY.  Popular culture is their native language.  The consumers now rival the producers.  Vast numbers of people are entering the production game for example producing videos, music, and blogs.  The consumer culture is now like a conversation among equals.  Consumers are cocreators of brands.  More participation means less control.  Fan cultures produce new content.  Marketing is changing at high speed.  “If the corporation is now going to talk to consumers, instead of shout, or lie, it needs to know how to start and sustain the conversation.” (92)  The culture is getting more intellectually demanding. 


The first rule of a CCO is to talk to anyone who will talk to you.  And anyone will talk if you find the right question.  Find the question that makes them interesting, where they know the most and you know the least. 


Inferential Focus (IF) listens for change in business, society, technology, and politics by monitoring 300 magazines.  Find the magazines that matter and take advantage of the patterns.  Make friends of several editors and meet with them regularly. 


Fin tiny innovations in the world as early as possible.  Place them in the big picture and monitor their progress as they move into the mainstream.  “Some cultural shifts are heralded by tiny shifts in language, the disappearance of some terms, the rise of new phrases.” (103) The idea is to have a single place to identify and track all the developments we think might matter.  The next step is to make predictions.  We are posed for action, but nothing happens unless we persuade our corporation to act. 



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