More Thoughts on Outside In Thinking

Before I move on to Carlota Perez and her Regime Transition Theory, i just wanted to add some additional thoughts to yesterday’s post about Outside In Perspectives.

Strangers Amongst Us

As I mentioned yesterday, sometimes a stranger in a strange land is better able to see things than the natives. For the inside group, what they see everyday ceases to become remarkable. It’s just their everyday reality. And, as I said, people in a group tend to conform to the norm of the group. Herds work much better when everyone is heading in the same direction, so we have an inherent drive to get along with our herd-mates. There are multiple ways this plays out, but in the end, our collective behaviors define our culture. However, as we conform to the norms of our group, they tend to become invisible. What strikes an outsider as a quaint custom or odd behaviors is, to the insider, simply the routine of their day. Culture dictates what is remarkable or what is numbingly normal. For example, our noses curl up at some of the dishes from other cultures (China comes to mind, with roasted scorpions on a stick) yet we think there’s nothing remarkable about wolfing down a couple of scrambled chicken fetuses on toast. We may even add a couple of fried slices of belly fat from that foul smelling animal that loves to roll in its own excrement. Normal is in the eyes of the beholder.

When I travel (as I am right now) I notice things about a culture that a native never would. I also notice that travelers from different countries tend to have different levels of tolerance for the new and novel. For example, I find Canadian tourists quicker to conform to the customs of a foreign country than Americans. Americans (and realize, I’m talking about averaged behavior here) tend to like to take a little piece of America with them. They are like cultural missionaries, transplanting the seeds of American culture to the destinations they visit. Canadians are cultural observers, taking note but leaving few traces of their home country. Of course, when it comes to hockey games, all bets are off. The maple leaf suddenly sprouts everywhere.

Canadians in Search of a Culture

McDonaldsinRomeAmericans like the world to conform to them, where as Canadians are more apt to conform to wherever they are. The sheer bulk of American culture spreads far beyond its borders, where as Canadian culture is still struggling to fill the huge empty spaces that make up Canada itself.

Why the cultural differences between Canadians and Americans? Actually, Canadians have a long history of cultural observance. Some of the most esteemed observers of American society all have Canadian roots: Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker – to name just a few. Of course, entertainment is also about observing the foibles of our society, and Canadians have long mined this rich vein – Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen, Ivan Reitman, Rick Moranis, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Michael J. Fox, Eugene levy, Howie Mandel, Lorne Michaels, Leslie Nielsen, Martin Short, Norman Jewison and James Cameron are all Canadians.

Why are Canadians cultural observers and conformists, while Americans are cultural imperialists? In the animal world, Canadians would be chameleons and Americans would be peacocks. I think it has to do with the vibrancy of the culture, its critical mass and also the prevailing attitudes of the inhabitants. For example, there’s a strong correlation between the military history of an nation and the aggressiveness of it’s cultural imperialism. If we look at critical mass, that presents another challenge for Canadians. The sheer size of our country means we have pockets of population spread across the landscape, rather than one contiguous community. Each pocket has unique cultures (militantly so in Quebec) so Canadians continually conform to new cultures, even as we travel within our own borders. We don’t have the same unifying cultural icons that Americans do, in their TV, their movies and obsessions with celebrities. In fact, all those things we import from the US. If you go beyond hockey and Tim Hortons, there are precious few cultural threads to stitch our nation together (and we refuse to believe that our precious Timmie’s is now owned by a US corporation – PepsiCo). Before the US, we imported our culture from our British and French founders. As Helen Gordon McPherson said, Canadians have been so busy explaining to the Americans that we aren’t British, and to the British that we aren’t Americans that we haven’t had time to become Canadians.

Carry No Assumptions

My point in this rather long aside is that the less preoccupied you are with spreading your own culture, the more observant you can be with others. Canadians seem naturally suited to this. If you are going to become an effective observer, try to go in without assumptions.

These tendencies also speak to the role of past success in clouding our judgment of the present. It has seemed to me that the more successful an organization has been in the past, the more internally myopic they are now. Indeed, internal focusing of resources is one of the contributing factors to success, but that inward focusing often comes at the expense of an external perspective. Success entrenches group “in thinking” and even when marketplace dynamics cause the once successful company to begin to struggle, the thoroughly homogenized views within the company struggle to identify the problems. They can’t objectively benchmark against the outside world because they’re blind to their own blemishes.

IDEO and Organizational Observation

IDEO actually has a few processes that rely on an outside view. Here are some examples for the IDEO Method Cards:

Rapid Ethnography: Spend as much time as you can with people relevant to the design topic. Establish their trust in order to visit and/or participate in their natural habitat and witness specific activities.

Extreme User Interviews: Identify individuals who are extremely familiar or (for my point) completely unfamiliar with the product and ask them to evaluate their experience using it.

Unfocus Group: Assemble a diverse group of individuals in a workshop to use a stimulating range of materials and create things that are relevant to your project.

These are just a few of the ways that IDEO helps companies gain an outside perspective. My suggestion would be to develop this discipline, and, as your looking for outsiders to help identify your own reality, consider hiring a Canadian. It comes naturally to us!

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