The anthropologists are coming!

The following is a slightly amended version of the speech I gave to the Institute of Internal Communication summer event in London, 10 July 2017.

I may be giving away too much information about my age here, but when punk first appeared in the long hot summer of 1976 I was an impressionable teenager and I’d never seen or heard anything so exciting.

One of my first memories of punk is a heated discussion with my mates at school about exactly what punks looked like. Yet within a few short months I had joined a band and we knew all about the markers of punk identity – safety pins, ripped shirts, pink hair, bondage trousers – I could go on, but you get the idea.

In other words, we’d assimilated the markers of punk culture, through a combination of first-hand experience, TV and newspapers, gossip, and a dollop of our own imaginations.

We don’t have time here for the curious story of the influences that shaped punk, or to consider its wider impact. Instead, I want to highlight a single connection. The Sex Pistols, the band that most perfectly encapsulated the punk ethos, performed in public for the first time at Central Saint Martins school of art on the Charing Cross Road.

This was at a time when art schools were all about rebellion and social critique. Today, Central Saint Martins is part of University of the Arts London, and a couple of weeks ago I attended the launch of their first-ever MBA course, in partnership with the business school at Birkbeck College. It’s a design thinking MBA, drawing on creative approaches and social engagement, and the tag line for the course is “what happens when you mix an arts school with a business school?”

Ezri speaking at IoIC summer event

Image via @amyhegs 

I’ve been developing an interest in design thinking for a while now. I did a session on design thinking at IoIC Live in Brighton a couple of years ago. And a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the incredible week-long design thinking bootcamp run by the Design Thinkers Academy (disclosure: I’m an Associate of the Academy now). What’s interesting about all of this is that it is evidence of a rapid and ongoing breaking down of old certainties, of the barriers between ‘arts’ and ‘business’, ‘commerce’ and ‘creativity’, ‘work’ and ‘play’.

And it’s also part of an invasion of ideas into the business world, ideas that come from very different places, and from some very smart people. And some of them are going to eat our lunch as communicators unless we wise up. Yes, folks, the anthropologists are coming!

Let me explain.

Just over ten years ago I was hired by Barclays as head of internal and change comms in the UK Retail division. In one of my first meetings with the then CEO Deanna Oppenheimer, she asked me to describe my ideal internal comms team. Without hesitating I said, “two journalists, a designer, a poet, and an anthropologist”.

Deanna looked at me and said, “no, really, what’s your ideal internal comms team?”

I wish I’d stuck to my guns and trusted my instincts – instead of mumbling something about an intranet manager and a couple of business partners – because even then I could see that internal comms is all about understanding the tribes and cultures (note the plural) in an organisation, and I knew that anthropologists’ work involved making scientific studies of human cultures.

Perhaps I could have tried harder to bring that perspective to my spell in the financial services sector. It’s certainly interesting to see the way that design thinking is shaking up the banking industry now. I guess I was just ahead of the times…

You may be thinking that anthropologists have studied businesses and organisations for many years, it’s nothing new – and that’s very true. But what is new is an explicit move by some very smart anthropologists into the area of organisational communication.

There are two aspects in particular of anthropology that I want to mention in this context – ethnography, which is about understanding; and framing, which is about influencing.

Ethnography, says Wikipedia, is “the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study”.

In a nutshell it’s a research method that focuses on getting a deep understanding of a particular group of people by immersing the researcher in their customs, habits, and worldview. In short, their culture.

It’s a big part of the design thinking process, because designers have long understood the importance of understanding the end users of the products or services they are designing. And note, it’s not just by asking end users their opinions. It’s a much deeper process of observing, analysing, and understanding.

So applying ethnographic methods to communications in general, and internal comms in particular, reveals just how much culture mediates, or gets in they way, of communications. For example when we talk about ‘hard to reach’ employees we mostly – not exclusively, but mostly – focus on channels. We need to change that thinking and focus on cultures.

Nat Kendall-Taylor is one of the smart anthropologists coming after the comms lunch, and he says, “we have to understand that culture always complicates our job as communicators” – our job, please note. “If we can go a step further and understand how people use culture to think about our issues, we can be dramatically more effective in our roles.”

It doesn’t matter if those issues are fundraising for a non-profit, health and safety in a mining company, or the perfect customer journey in a hospitality setting.  Culture influences how people process information, how they make meaning from messages, and how they take decisions and actions.

The next step is to establish how we can effectively – and ethically, of course – influence those actions. All of us in comms have had the experience of spending ages developing a great campaign for the business, but when it gets out into the real world it fails to ‘land’ with the intended audience (a very passive term for groups of employees, but that’s another story). A lot depends on how the messages have been framed.

Nat Kendall-Taylor runs an organisation called the Frameworks Institute, and their job is to frame issues in a way that makes the associated messages meaningful and actionable.

He points out that “understanding is frame-dependent. The choices that you make as communicators matter. Sometimes the little things, like the choice of pronoun, or the verbs that you use, and sometimes the big things, like the values you use to explain why your issue matters. Those things frequently have dramatic impact on what your people are willing to do, and how people are willing to act and engage with your issue.”

The clincher, of course, is that as a social scientist he has evidence to back up his claims about framing, just as ethnographers have evidence about what they do. It’s a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence, and it’s very powerful.

So just at the point when we thought we’d nailed the need – and the methods – for quantitative measurement in comms, along come the anthropologists with more convincing arguments. The challenge for comms folks now, whether they’re in internal comms, PR, corporate comms or any other flavour, is to get to grips with tools from social sciences like ethnography and framing.

We must understand and act on this emerging shift, from measuring to mapping, from counting to analysing, and from planning to testing and validating with end users.

Otherwise, the anthropologists are going to eat our lunch.


Two men, possibly anthropologists, having lunch.


Design thinking in DC

In a few weeks I will be heading to Washington DC for the IABC World Conference, and along with my friend and colleague Martha Muzychka, ABC MC I’ll be hosting a special pre-conference workshop on design thinking in business communications.

The session will be a non-stop, hands-on exercise in the practical use of design thinking, so there won’t be time for (much) philosophizing. Nor will there be any of the dreaded conference PowerPoint (you may find it helpful to compare design thinking and PowerPoint thinking…).

But we will make a few simple points about design thinking, primarily to separate design thinking as an aspect of the totality of design culture, in which design practice takes place, from design thinking as a toolkit derived from that totality and which can be applied in non-design settings to great effect.

In the session, we will attempt to demonstrate the importance of embodied design thinking, taking a cue from Lucy Kimbell‘s insistence that it is better to consider “situated, embodied design practices, rather than a generalized ‘design thinking’.”

In other words, it’s about thinking in a certain mode, but it’s also about acting in the world in a particular way, and for particular reasons. That involves a whole person, not just the mind, or whatever the thinking part of a person actually is. Perhaps it can be compared to octopus thinking – most of an octopus’s surprisingly numerous neurons are to be found in its tentacles – but without the suckers.

See you there!


A pondering ‘pus. Image From Wikimedia.

Bass: The final frontier

OK, apart from the pun (which was worth it, no?) the sole purpose of this post is to share the scene of bass mayhem in my office created by the arrival of a Lake Placid blue P bass for one of my boys, and a Boho Oil Can bass for me.
All that remains to do is sign off like Adam Neely.

L to R: Fender P, Godin A5, Boho Oil Can, Spike (36-year-old Romanian flat-back upright)

The Great Wall of Mexico

The Great Wall of Mexico: 1. Unreality

In 1988 the philosopher Jean Baudrillard declared that it was “no longer necessary to write science-fiction” because society had entered a “hyperreal” condition in which human experiences exist in juxtaposition with their own absence:

At the heart of hi-fi is music, haunted by its disappearance. At the heart of the most sophisticated experimentation is science haunted by the disappearance of its object. At the heart of porn is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance. Everywhere the same effect of “rendering” of the absolute proximity of the real: the same effect of simulation.

(Quoted in The SF 0f Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway 

There is a hint that society (and we’re talking advanced industrial western here, folks) had ‘written itself’ into this condition of hyperreality. All that McLuhan must have gone to our heads, taken over our minds, suffusing our media, fragmenting our messages.

But long before then, H. G. Wells prepared us for a Martian invasion (near-ubiquitous in our psyche thanks to the Cold War, and rendered here with bunnies), Karel Čapek’s robots stripped work of its dignity, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis sealed our urban fate in its chiaroscuro condition.

We knew what was coming.

We knew.

Didn’t we?

The Great Wall of Mexico: 2. Non-reality

“At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in which there are no spectators but only actors.”

Marshall McLuhan.

The Great Wall of Mexico: 3. Hyperreality

The Great Wall of Mexico is a short story by John Sladek. It appeared in a collection entitled Bad Moon Rising in 1974, and then in Sladek’s own volume Keep the Giraffe Burning.

Bad Moon Rising was a deliberate attempt to harness the apparent ability of science fiction (loosely defined) to hold a mirror to human endeavour that somehow catches a glimpse of what is coming. In the introduction, the book’s editor, Thomas M. Disch, writes, “The single theme unifying these stories (and poems) is a concern for the present political scene and the dismal, or dismaying, or downright terrifying direction in which it’s been drifting and/or hurtling…” Plus ça change…

Sladek’s story, set at an unspecified point in 1974’s near future, revolves around the President of the United States of America ordering the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. The FBI, which has hired large numbers of retirees – they have little to do, are mostly patriotic, and tend to be of a conservative inclination – to listen in on other people’s phone conversations, sends an agent to visit the many retirement homes in the vicinity of the planned wall:

“He explained that the Wall was a population barrier. While our own population was increasing at a reasonable rate, that of Mexico was completely out of control. ‘For years the slow poisons have been seeping across the border: marijuana, pornography, VD and cheap labour. They have seeped into America’s nervous system, turning our kids into drug addicts, infecting their minds and bodies with filth and stealing away American jobs.'”

So far, so familiar. But the true genius of the Administration in Sladek’s story is the Presidential team’s commercial bent. His advisers meet to discuss the Wall:

“‘A wall to write on!’ Karl said. ‘A challenge for our painters.’ ‘Sell off advertising space.’ Dan cracked his knuckles with unrestrained excitement. ‘This could be great for the old folks. Give them something to look at, a new interest in life. You realise that there are over a hundred retirement ranches in the area, and that more than half our retired folks live within a hundred miles of Mexico.’

Filcup seemed convulsed by a private joke. ‘Wait till I tell you the rest, Dan. There’s something in this for the old folks, all right, in phase two. But for now, we’ll not only sell space to advertisers, we’ll build gas stations, highways, concessions. A view of the wall. A view over the wall. Visit the gun emplacements. Amazing plastic replicas of the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem!’

Sladek’s insights into the psychotic State are hilarious and hideous at the same time. He may have thought no such manifestation could ever actually occur. After all, as the jacket blurb of Bad Moon Rising says of its various contributions, “Though the theme is serious, some of the stories are funny. Collectively they at least hold out the hope that, having been warned, we may avoid in fact what they present as fiction.”

I leave the last word to the President of The Great Wall of Mexico, beyond which no satire is necessary, or even possible, in 2017:

A Special Message from the President

The President’s black-and-white image appeared on the television screen surrounded by a black condolence border. He seemed almost too humble to have a clear image. Instead the fuzzy, bleached patches of his face, oddly patterned by liver spots and furrows, gave him the look of a soiled etching. ‘My countrymen, it is a grave announcement that I must make to you this evening. What I am about to say is a block of sadness and grief in the neighbourhood of my heart, as I am sure it will be in yours.

‘Tonight several nuclear explosions occurred at different places along the population barrier between the United States and Mexico. These explosions, let me make this perfectly clear, were accidental… Still, there’s no denying that many thousands, millions, rather, of people have been killed… It is also regrettable that a lethal zone has been created along our border.’

The black border vanished. Jubilant music swelled behind his voice as our leader intoned: ‘On the positive side, very few of our troops in the area were injured… As for the Wall itself, it has been badly burned and cratered in spots. Luckily it protects our border yet with a barrier of radiation. For the present, we are vigilant, but safe. And for the future?’

Suddenly the air about the grey President was filled with tiny, bright-coloured figures; animated elves, fairies, butterflies and bluebirds, tiny pink bats in spangled hose, flying chipmunks and dancing dragonflies. Smiling, he too burst into colour. ‘The future is ours, my countrymen! We will rebuild our Wall taller and stronger and safer than ever, so secure that it will last a thousand years! Come! Help me make this country strong!’


Cover image. For the Creedence Clearwater Revival song of the same name, see below.

Loving uncertainty

Uncertainty is definitely in. It’s the new normal, the new rock’n’roll, the new whatever.

It’s the one thing we can be certain about.

Echoing FDR’s iconic phrase “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”, the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Pat Harker, recently said, “My only concern is concern.”

Appearing on a Wharton Business School podcast, Harker went on to say “The biggest risk we face is uncertainty. If you ask every business leader, their biggest concern is: ‘Whatever changes occur, just do them gradually. Let us adapt.’ They have been in a world of change for a long time.”

Wait. Business leaders pleading for gradual change so they can adapt? I thought the mantra was ‘change or be changed’? In the new-new economy (how long can it keep being new, I wonder?) all we talk about is the speed of change. But now “every business leader” is saying “Let us adapt.”

Well, that’s good. We all need to adapt.

Here’s the thing, though; what we need to adapt to is… uncertainty. And how do you adapt to that?

Plan A. Make uncertainty your friend.

Lawyer, entrepreneur and author Jonathan Fields has a book out (published in 2011) to help you do just that. Uncertainty is about difficult things like judgment, risk, danger and fear. Check out the Ellsberg Paradox, for instance. “The Ellsberg paradox is a paradox in decision theory in which people’s choices violate the postulates of subjective expected utility.” (Uh, OK. Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Fields suggests finding ‘anchors’ of certainty to pivot around in coping with the inherent uncertainty of life. Religion, for instance. Despite the bad rap it gets sometimes (and, frankly, deservedly so), and even without the ‘spiritual’ or supernatural element, religious rituals, says Fields, “have immense power to counter the anxieties of an uncertain life”. Other kinds of habits and routines can work the same magic too.

Once you have ‘anchors’, surround yourself with people you trust and who won’t judge you (too much) for your decision making, or the choices you make in challenging situations. Then work on your neuro-biological functioning so that pre-rational, instinctive urges are better filtered by your ability to reason. And seek a broad perspective.

That way,  you can learn how to “lean into uncertainty”, tapping its creative potential, and harnessing it to fuel your projects, your passions, your life.

In fact, uncertainty can be more than your best friend, it can be “your secret weapon.” If you approach life like a designer. Patrick van der Pijl, Justin Lokitz and Lisa Kay Solomon write in Design a Better Business about how “[t]he world around you – and your business – is filled with uncertainty. But within that uncertainty exist innumerable opportunities to design (or redesign) game-changing businesses.”

For these authors, design is about “enhancing the way you look at the world” – in other words, it’s about perception. And, indeed, uncertainty itself is about perception. If we dig into the brain and its supporting structures a bit more ‘scientifically’, uncertainty becomes part of the prediction/action model in which our ‘wetware’ (to use the old cyberpunk term for human processing capability) processes the “sensory barrage” it receives and tries to “guess what is out there”.

Ergo, as philosopher Andy Clark, author of Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind, might say, “perception is controlled hallucination” (italics in the original). What we all do, all the time, is predict, adjust, and react as the “sensory barrage” changes, seeking to “minimize surprise” so that we can maximize survival. Sounds like a plan to me!

And what of Plan B, I hear you ask? Plan B goes something like this: get scared, freak out, blame somebody, try to harm them, try to harm yourself (drink, drugs, etc), join an ethno-nationalist movement and yearn for a non-existent golden age when everything was certain and good. Or, as Froese and Ikegami put it (as quoted by Andy Clark), you can opt for “catatonic withdrawal from the world, and autistic withdrawal from others.”

So we can either see uncertainty as the natural state of things, neither inherently good nor bad, part of the perceptual framework to which we have evolved to respond. Or we can give in to the fear of fear, as FDR so eloquently put it in his first inauguration speech back in 1933, and yield to “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”. History shows us where that leads.





I’ve been reading numerous articles about the consequences of two recent elections – the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential election in the US – and I’m struck by how quickly the commentariat have settled into a simple narrative. Poor white men, the story goes, have been ‘left behind’ by globalisation and ignored by the ‘liberal elite’, creating a political vacuum ripe for filling by right-wing nationalist and/or ‘populist’ extremists. Apparently, this ‘liberal elite’ were too busy being ‘politically correct’ by promoting equality and diversity to notice the concerns of the ‘silent majority’.

This is, as George Orwell so presciently warned, really about how language and politics collide, and how reason gets crushed under the resulting rubble. To give just one example, as I understand it ‘equality’ means the same for everyone. Equality for gay people does not in any way mean inequality for straight people. Equality for ethnic minorities – you get the point. How quickly Newspeak like ‘Brexit’ has become a handy tool for obscuring xenophobic suspicion. How easily ‘Trump’ has been invested with a near-holy authority by the far right, and, worse, how quickly that was normalised by others, who wish to sidle away from association with the ‘liberal elite’ and claim some ‘populist’ kudos (by the way, as you may have heard, Trump lost the popular vote).

Now, there are few sentences that don’t put ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’ in close proximity. Why don’t we just move straight to ‘Brump’ and have done with it? Or are we waiting for the increasingly touted (read: feared) victory of the extreme right National Front in France? Brumpen, anyone? Brumplepen, then. And so on.

The purpose is simple. It obscures the policies these movements promote. It affords them an effective disguise as they go about trying to undo a consensus on democracy and diversity and basic human decency that has slowly, painfully established institutions – flawed, no doubt – to try and rein in the violence of flag-waving realpolitikers while edging us towards a view of a single human race living on and preserving a single planet sufficiently well to ensure its existence for generations to come. How f*$&ing elitist is that?

Meanwhile, here’s a voice from the archives to cheer us up. Remember Whoops Apocalypse, the Cold War satire that ran for six episodes in 1982? It featured the election of an unlikely US president with only a tenuous grip on politics surrounded by ‘advisors’ of very dubious intent. Sound familiar? Allow me to share a few lines from one of President Johnny Cyclops’ campaign videos…

Sixty-three years ago, in small-town Pocatello, Idaho, a young baby was born. The humblest son of a Methodist preacher, he soon began to grow up, as only a child can. Today that man is Johnny Cyclops, President of the United States and Guardian of the Free World. He may not know exactly where Denmark is, or be completely sure whether or not Romania is a communist country, but he does care. He cares deeply about America. About every one of its fifty states, and not merely the ones he can name. Wyoming and Omaha, for instance, have nothing to fear in this context…

Oh how we laughed…

*Langrant (Newspeak, noun; to rant about the use of language as a beard for political ugliness)

Again, the future

…and so to FutureFest, ‘powered’ by NESTA, a two-day celebration of all things creative, innovative, futurish, and fantastical. I made it to the Sunday, courtesy of those fine people at Belonging Space (thanks Isabel!), and launched straight into the session ‘From design thinking to design playing’, which featured London College of Communication graphic branding and identity guru Grant Rose;  Marjorie Kaplan, president of content at Discovery Networks International; BBC Design and Engineering chief design officer Colin Burns; and Oxford primatologist and animal play expert Isabel Benhcke – all coordinated by Wolff Olins CEO Ije Nwokorie.

Phew, just typing out that list was exhausting! As was keeping up with the rapidly-changing perspectives which the respondents brought to bear on the central questions, about the relationship between playing and designing and, I guess, thinking. The points that stood out for me were Grant Rose’s warning that play is not measurable, and we need to find other ways of evaluating its impact, particularly in a higher education setting where the intellectual context demands that we learn from failure. Yet, as Rose put it, “education is not going that way”. Instead, it is increasingly dominated by assessment, measurement, satisfaction surveys, and so on.

Marjorie Kaplan shared a great story about scientists in a biomechanics lab printing artificial bones on a super complex 3-D printer. Apparently, in quiet moments they would go over to a more ‘basic’ 3-D printer to make toys – a process they considered no less important to their work than the business of bone making itself.

Colin Burns made a strong appeal for ‘grown-ups’ (I use the inverted commas advisedly, typing this on my 54th birthday) to recover and model the play behaviour that is innate in all of us, so highly valued and encouraged in children, and then so comprehensively suppressed once we ‘mature’ (see above…).

But the greatest insights, at least to my mind, came from Isabel Behncke’s work, investigating animal play and looking at human play from the perspective of evolutionary biology. “Play is full of bad ideas,” she pointed out, “but evolution is full of bad ideas”. In other words, you have to be comfortable with bad ideas to have any hope of realising good ones. As the discussion ranged over the relationship between play (in and of itself, and as a proxy for ‘creativity’) and innovation, Behncke came out with an absolute gem: “Evolution innovates through the play behaviour of animals.” Huizinga himself would be proud of that!

After a quick chat and a coffee it was on to hear Frank Furedi, on love as risk. Furedi is well known for his critique of self-help culture, and he began by calling out the growing tendency to represent love as a pathology, and the correlated idea that greater love means greater vulnerability. In love we reveal something of our inner or true nature, but the more we reveal of ourselves the more we risk the possibility of betrayal.

He made the intriguing suggestion that the novel can be construed as a ‘technology’ of love, referring to the story in the Inferno where Dante arrives in the second circle of hell. There he finds the damned spirit of Francesca, married to a handsome young man who grew into an ugly and demanding old man. One day she was sat with her husband’s younger brother, and they were reading the story of Guinevere and Lancelot. Carried away by the romance, they kissed (and, she then tells Dante and Virgil while her erstwhile lover’s spirit wails, that was the end of reading that day!). They were discovered by her husband who murdered them both, yet she didn’t regret her desire. Had she not been murdered, she would have had the chance to repent, and, she points out, her killer resides far below in the lowest circle of hell. So that’s alright then.

Furedi went on to suggest that the 18th-century moral panic over romantic novels is in some way similar to the current pathologizing of sexting. But, with only 15 minutes for the whole session, we didn’t get much of an explanation of this. Perhaps there is – or will be – a book to buy at some point…

Next up was ‘the seaweed guy’, possibly the best moniker I’ve heard in a long time. Dr Craig Rose is managing director of Seaweed & Co., a business based on sourcing, accrediting, and supplying high-quality seaweed. You see, seaweed is the future – this sub-set of the algae kingdom is an entirely natural, completely sustainable resource, with staggering potential in biofuels, bioplastics, textiles, and medicine, as well as its rather more obvious possibilities on the dinner plate.  I won’t rehearse the facts and figures here, check them out for yourself, and as you do so please bear in mind that seaweed is 100% vegan plant power.

For Dr Rose and Seaweed & Co., seaweed is no longer the stuff of slimy shocks to delicate feet on cold seashores; it’s time to change those negative perceptions. Time, I would add, to create a new algae rhythm (see what I did there?) in which the 10,000 or so different varieties of seaweed that are found globally can fulfil their destiny, as part of the answer to climate change, global hunger, and world peace (sort of).

Much else was available at this sumptuous feast of future stuffs, but I’ll leave it there for now. Next time, robotic drinking pals, drop-out business magnates, and dull old musos. Watch this space!

Below: Ascophyllum Nodosum. Or dinner, to you. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.