Gesamtkunstwerk

I.

In the mid-nineteenth century, German composer Richard Wagner, inspired by the ancient Greeks, began advocating for a synthesis of all art forms—drama, music, dance, poetry, spectacle—into what he called a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. His vision came closest to realization in his 17-hour Ring Cycle and in his Bayreuth opera house, which he had custom-built to stage his epic works.

The design of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is innovative and meticulous. Famously, the giant orchestra is nested underneath the stage, which allows the singing actors to project over Wagner’s dense scores without barking or straining their voices. Orfeo International recently released a live 1958 recording of Birgit Nilsson singing Isolde at Bayreuth, and the balance between the singer and the orchestra is indeed exceptional.
 

For opera-lovers, the yearly pilgrimage to Bayreuth was and remains a tradition with obvious religious overtones. Gesamtkunstwerk as a concept borrows heavily from religious ceremonies that for centuries have united environment and art to captivate, integrate, and transform communities.

Wagner has had an enduring influence on Western culture since his death, not only in the world of music and aesthetics. Erich Ludendorff, the losing German general of World War I, used a reference from the Ring to claim brazenly and falsely that the homefront Germans, allied with Jews and degenerates, had “stabbed them in the back” and thus ensured the German defeat. This myth would later be promulgated by the rising Nazi Party, and Hitler’s personal love of Wagner would give the composer a central place in Nazi culture.

Though Hitler’s direct reports generally did not share his love for Wagner, Wagner’s music nevertheless was heavily featured at the annual Nuremberg Party Rallies. Pilgrims to Nuremberg were greeted with a new kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, carefully crafted by Hitler and the Nazi leaders, that included theatricality and strict control of space, consistent and prominent logos, and artful use of film and modern amplification to induce religious fervor and passive acceptance of Nazi control.
 

II.

Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I think of Gesamtkunstwerk, I also think of enantiodromia

Enantiodromia is a Greek term used by Carl Jung to describe a tendency for movements and forces to turn into their energetic (shadow) opposite. An example of enantiodromia is when the black sheep of a family is judged and rejected for spurious reasons, but then, once rejected, she becomes the hard-hearted monster the family imagines her to be.

Enantiodromia is central to many Greek tragedies, where heroes like Oedipus try strenuously to avoid some fate, but in doing so, they bring that fate about. The wonderful documentary Protagonist explores how this tendency is implicit in human life. Children turn into their parents, inclusive groups become exclusive groups, revolutions replicate the problems of the systems they originally overthrew, freedom fighters become terrorists.

I think that enantiodromia is key to understanding the aftermath of WWII, what happened next, and what happened after that.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Western intellectuals and artists like Theodor Adorno, Margaret Mead, and John Cage were terrified by the totalitarian movements that led to the war. In mass culture—and particularly in popular music—some of them saw the emergence of dangerous and similar patterns, where young people were happy and willing to surrender their agency completely to a “parent” influence. These intellectuals and artists worked actively, often with federal government support, to foster “democratic” experiences—in museums, happenings, and public spaces—that would connect individuals with their own subjective points of view, and that would break up totalitarian media control.

They won and they lost. As Fred Turner points out, the fruits of their efforts paid off exactly where these intellectuals wouldn’t expect nor want it: in the Human Be-In of 1967 and the Summer of Love that followed—i.e., at a rock concert. Turner writes: “The children of the 1960s did not only overthrow their parents’ expectations. They also fulfilled them.”

The hippie generation, passionate about individuality, social progress, drug culture, and the liberating potential of networked technology, would put down roots and pick up jobs in the defense-funded companies of Silicon Valley, spurring the next wave of economic progress and technology development that we live with today. A love movement finding a home (and an income) within a war machine.

An obvious poster child for this transition is the wunderkind Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. Jobs’ product launches for Apple remain superlative examples of showmanship, brand-building, and tribe-building. They were not just announcements, but genuine events, with every aspect of logo placement, spectacle, music, and sound design carefully crafted to induce agreement, to induce awe.

This should look familiar at this point.
 

III.

The story of Gesamtkuntswerk continues from the iPhone launch to our present day. But it also stretches back in time. It pre-dates Wagner. It even predates cities.

Anthropologist Monica L. Smith has recounted how human hunter-gatherer tribes built religious sites like Stonehenge, and around these sites, they created festivals, where strangeness and strangers, warmth and spectacle, community and commerce would all combine. Later on, cities would represent the possibility of keeping that festival experience going year-round. As Zadie Smith recently described, a city is a kind of living Gesamtkuntswerk, and one’s life there likewise becomes a work of art, energetically omnivorous, borrowed and built from everything around it.

In rural communities to this day, people go to the fair to experience the beyond, the sublime, the different. In cities, they go to the opera house.

IV.

All humans have a yearning to transcend. But the difficult reality is that contemporary life is not a Matrix but instead a Gesamtkuntswerk.

There is no human reality outside Gesamtkunstwerk: all of us are consuming fictions, creating fictions, heading to the festival, shaking our heads in bewilderment that someone else could believe “fake news,” buying the latest device, watching our latest fictions on said device.

David Rock has pointed out that when the brain can’t decide if something is good or bad, it labels it as “very bad.” And so all of us are engaging in casual or runaway splitting, sculpting our perceptions and recollections to make them beautiful, total, true, and trustworthy… if false.

We keep telling the tale again, refining it as we go, hoping to get it right. With every retelling, the story gets more inclusive, more refined, more artful.

But at the same time, we’re trapped by the limits to what any one person can see, our essential drives, and how humans relate to symbols and each other. Sometimes we see a straight line (e.g., from the church to the opera house to the military rally to the product launch to the filter bubble), sometimes a recursion. Sometimes a strange loop, sometimes an eternal return. Sometimes an evolution, sometimes a revolution.

In 2020, the SF Opera will present one of the most celebrated operas of the early 21st century, the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. I already have my tickets.

V.

My professional craft is “unlocking human energy,” which today happens in the context of leadership, strategy, marketing, and brand consulting. I am often helping organizations tell better stories, create more beautiful and captivating experiences, focus on some things but not other things, succeed even when the game is rigged.

Even for the most well-intentioned organizations, the nature of this work is morally treacherous. A “total work of art” as a phrase suggests both the apogee of human symbolic expression and a complete falsehood. I have many colleagues who will admit without any cognitive dissonance that they choose to believe things they know to be false just to survive.

Here’s what helps me navigate an insane world skillfully for myself and for the organizations I work with:

  • I accept that every organization is going to feel the pull to create a message and an “experience” that’s beautifully self-consistent, if detached from the realities of their product, their culture, and the outside world.

  • I accept as a given that human beings are limited, and our perceptions, wants, and survival needs are going to twist us to re-organize the world to suit our human priorities. We are human, and humanity is both wonderful and terrible. Humanity, for better or worse, is what we have to work with.

  • I accept that our deepest sense of fulfillment can come when we are caught up in a lie, whether that lie is the Ring, an origin myth, a new Apple device, or a beautiful story about who is right and who is wrong or what is good and what is not.

  • I appreciate how Gesamtkunstwerk thrives on nuance—the yearning of the violins, the graceful curve of an iPhone, the just-right Instagram filter, the throw pillow placed just-so—adding more sparkle and vitality to our felt existence. And at the same time, it obliterates nuance, obscuring anything outside its own incomplete totality, its lie.

  • I accept that ambivalence, though uncomfortable, can be adaptive.

  • Like the Met Opera conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, I cultivate a cold mind and a warm heart.

VI.

Classical music critic and cultural historian Alex Ross recently said of Wagner:

“[T]o equate him with Hitler ignores the complexity of his achievement and in the end does little more than grant Hitler a posthumous victory. The necessary ambivalence of Wagnerism today can play a constructive role: It can teach us to be generally more honest about the role that art plays in the world.

In Wagner’s vicinity, we cannot claim to fantasies of the pure, autonomous work of art. We cannot forget how art unfolds in time and unravels in history. And so Wagner is liberated from the mystification of great art. He becomes something more unstable, perishable, and mutable. Incomplete in himself, he requires the most active and critical kind of listening…

I think this disturbing kind of intervention of reality and history might make for almost a deeper experience, certainly a more complex one. And so we shift from a kind of adoration and immersion to an experience that has this critical dimension to it. So we are always aware, we are always a little wary of Wagner. We should be.”

 
Be artistic. Be critical. Be aware. Be wary.


Trauma center

I think of my professional craft, and my professional interest, as “unlocking human energy.” Over the last decade or so, as the logical continuation of that interest, I’ve become increasingly focused on trauma.

Trauma arrests human energy. It prevents individuals, groups, and societies from flourishing. The traumas I am thinking of include a range, from developmental traumas of neglect and abandonment, to extreme violence, to daily mundane dissatisfactions and thwarted expectations, to giant historical injustices.

Trauma wants our acceptance and understanding. As an intrinsic part of the human experience, it is both the obstacle and the path. Trauma triggers the undifferentiated Self to form an Ego, and that ego then eventually becomes a trap, a limited way of relating to the world that will eventually prove ineffectual.

Not all traumas are the same or of equal moral, medical, or social concern. But from childbirth on, trauma affects us and surrounds us, and as Jordan Peele depicted in his recent movie, it makes us us.

A scene from Us (2019). All rights reserved.

Mark Epstein in The Trauma of Everyday Life talks about how and why unhealed traumas escape conscious awareness:

“One of the distinguishing qualities of trauma is that it cannot be held in normal memory. Because the feelings associated with it are by definition unendurable, they never make it into the part of the brain that makes sense of emotional experience. Robert Stolorow describes it this way. Developmental traumas, he says, ‘derive their lasting significance from the establishment of invariant and relentless principles of organization that remain beyond the influence of reflective self-awareness or of subsequent experience.’… Stolorow makes an interesting point about the impact of trauma, one that the Buddha’s psychology also supports. Trauma takes us out of time. There is no past or future when one is overtaken by it; it is as if it were happening now. ‘Experiences of trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which one remains forever trapped, or which one is condemned to be perpetually returned through the portkeys supplied by life’s slings and arrows,’ he says. The sense of one’s own continuity, of what he calls the ‘stretching along between past and future,’ is collapsed by trauma. The traumatized individual lives outside time, in his or her own separate reality, unable to relate to the consensual reality of others. The remembering quality of mindfulness counters this tendency. It allows the experiences of trauma to come out of their frozen states and back into the warmth of time.”

Working with Shadow

In my earlier post The Six Centers, I talked about organizational Shadow and how it can pull businesses away from their goals, their customers, and their self-preservation. The Shadow is not sinister… it is simply good intentions and old pain struggling to come back to reality, to re-enter “the warmth of time.”

The Shadow center is trauma. Shadow and trauma are the same.

Most organizations don’t have a line item in their budget for Shadow work, and so most Shadow work tends to be implicit… it comes up while we are working on other things: customer relationships, culture change, goals. Shadow reveals itself, in other words, when we are moving towards and working towards one of the other five centers.

Shadow work is tricky: it can be hard to describe to others, and not everyone is interested in or attuned to it. It brings up intense negative feelings, including fear, anger, and sadness. To normalize these feelings and put them in a bigger context, it helps to have clear tools to explain what Shadow work is all about.

One such tool that I particularly like comes from the book Working With Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy by Lynne E. Angus & Leslie S. Greenberg. Angus and Greenberg have identified four types of stories that are indicative of traumas that have yet to be assimilated by the conscious mind. These four types of narrative glitches can be a clue that Shadow dynamics are at work and that useful creative energy is currently trapped:

  1. Same old stories—stories that are repeated too often
  2. Empty stories—stories lacking emotional meaning
  3. Unstoried emotion—upwellings of dysregulated feeling
  4. Broken stories—stories that don’t make sense

Angus and Greenberg write primarily for a professional audience of therapists, and they have many detailed, technical suggestions for how to create a holding environment and interactive zone of play for old fears and stuck ways of being to rise to the surface and dissolve. For instance, the table below is very gritty, but like the book overall, it’s a goldmine for anyone interested in effective, healing conversations:

Client Problem-Markers and End-State Tasks, Angus and Greenberg. All rights reserved.

I am not a therapist, and I keep clear boundaries so that my clients and I don’t slip into therapy-like roles that go beyond my training or scope of work. At the same time, all humans are wired for stories, so where you find humans, you find narratives, and where you find narratives, you find narrative glitches.

The four types of dysfunctional narratives called out by Angus and Greenberg appear not just in therapists’ offices, but in the stories all organizations and individuals tell themselves and use to connect with external stakeholders.

Examples

Here are some examples of how the four narrative glitches can show up in how leaders and organizations communicate.

1. Same-old stories

  • A manager is struggling to make the leap to leadership. He repeatedly tells a personal anecdote to justify his lack of progress—e.g., how he learned in the military that “no plan survives first contact” and so as a result, he refuses to plan. He eventually risks being let go for his failure to transcend his same-old story.
  • The founder of a company repeatedly reminds his staff in group meetings that the organization is a living testament to a deceased family member. Awkward silences ensue. Some strategic issues can never be discussed or challenged because the same-old story is too poignant and defensive to allow in other realities or perspectives.
  • A leader has an idée fixe that he uses continually to justify an unpopular strategic direction. When the leader’s obsessive focus finds no resonance with direct reports, he repeats his story more frequently, more loudly, and with more detail as a misguided way to make others understand.
  • An organization clings to a tagline, mission statement, or story about the world that is deeply comforting internally… even if the story is demonstrably false or does not connect with external stakeholders.

2. Empty stories

  • Pivotal episodes of uproar and pain within a company—e.g., layoffs, important or messy departures, personal tragedies, mistakes, or failures to achieve a goal—are reported by the management team with a flat affect. The organization struggles for a long time to move past these traumas because the grief is never acknowledged or given space.
  • External marketing copy is deadly dull and factual, devoid of any emotional energy or distinctive voice.

3. Unstoried emotion

  • When speaking with a CEO who has notably high energy, a lightning-quick mind, and frequent self-contradictions, an external consultant begin to feel a lot of fear. She slowly recognizes that the CEO has “outsourced” his fears to her because he is terrified of experiencing that fear personally. His persona is, in fact, a defense against fear… a fear of making mistakes and of owning mistakes.
  • A CEO is warm-hearted and passionate about his business, but a reporter speaking with him one-on-one begins to feel instead his “outsourced” anger—a clue that the CEO is hiding frustration and embarrassment that his big-hearted persona (the version of himself that he like best) is not inspiring effective action with his team.
  • Slap-happy, cute, or whimsical marketing messages are experienced by customers or community members as being disturbing, a desperate attempt to control perception and disown responsibility. A major PR campaign backfires.
  • A nonprofit’s marketing messages about empowerment implicitly sell its clients on the idea that they have no power. The organization’s messages are experienced (consciously or not) as condescending and generic.

4. Broken stories

  • The CEO, leadership team of a company, or staff as a whole repeat an explanation of events that is self-evidently inconsistent and false, sometimes spiked with blame, anger, and strange digressions.
  • An important communication asset—e.g., a website, speech, strategic framework, merger announcement, etc.—becomes a “pile-on” of many conflicting points of view, explanations, and details so that no central story emerges.
  • The ad campaign, packaging, product design, in-box instructions, and customer support experience for a consumer hardware product feel like they were created by five different teams (which is in fact the case). The organization is “shipping its org structure” and as a result, its storytelling to customers is never consistent or integrated.

Closing thoughts

One could argue that some of the examples above don’t count as trauma, or that I’ve stretched the framework from Angus and Greenberg beyond its original, clinical intention. I, of course, do want to separate genuine tragedies and emergencies from quotidian work drudgeries. But like Epstein, I think it’s very helpful to see traumas along a spectrum from a stubbed toe, to normal ego development, to PTSD, to historical tragedies.

Trauma is an instrinsic and fractal element of the human experience, and it affects individuals and groups in similar ways. Trauma creates identity, and identity creates narrative. Trauma, identity, and narrative are social phenomena, shared phenomena. Organizations that cannot communicate effectively with their customers are not just lazy, inept, or self-serving; they are caught in traumatic historical and economic patterns that themselves have Shadow material.

Angus and Greenberg provide instructions to therapists on how to work with traumas directly, but in professional environments, and in life in general, people strongly resent unhired therapists. No one likes to be analyzed, and no one wants unsolicited advice. Good managers, coaches, and consultants therefore always ask for permission before doing any Shadow work. They stay absolutely committed to the people they work with, seeing them as “whole against the sky” and not flawed and in need of correction. A compulsion to understand, fix, rescue, and control other people is itself a sign of trauma.

Identifying undercurrents of Shadow is useful even if one doesn’t then work with the Shadow material directly. As I mentioned in the Six Centers post, working with one of the other five centers can bring Shadow to the surface, and bringing things to the surface can often be more productive and comfortable than diving into the depths.

Sincere effort towards external or internal organizational objectives in due time brings Shadow out into the open, in resolvable crises.

Similarly, one of the best (if slower) ways to resolve traumas can be to try to live and work as fully and well as you can. Opportunities to heal will present themselves one at a time as steps along the path.

# # #

For further reading, see our recommended list of trauma resources.


The Six Centers

All individuals and groups have finite attentional resources.

These attentional limits constrain what organizations can do, including their efficiency, ambitiousness, insightfulness, and success. As I’ve said elsewhere:

“In his wonderful and occasionally heady book The Ecology of Attention, Yves Citton writes that ‘we never have the means to pay enough attention’ and so we end up paying attention to what preoccupies others. Limited attention leads to groupthink: we pay attention to what others in the group pay attention to, reacting to and in the context of other people’s priorities, in an endless feedback loop. Attention, in other words, is ‘an essentially collective phenomenon: “I” am only attentive to what we pay attention to collectively.'”

 
When I work with businesses as a consultant, coach, or embedded team member, my implicit task is often to expand or redirect the group’s attentional resources. Typically the biggest blind spots and opportunities reveal themselves within marketing or in any related functions that live within an organization’s relationships and revenue engine (e.g., sales, brand, customer success, donor management, etc.).

Inattention or misdirected attention internally makes effective relationship-building externally that much more difficult.

How “customer centricity” falls short

The phrase “customer centricity” has become very popular these days, and one might think I’d be all for it. As a marketer who believes in connecting all functions of the business in a deep and intentional way, I fully support having a clear view of the customer across multiple systems and touchpoints, with optimized experiences, journeys, and stories to engage and deepen the relationship at every step.

That said, I’m not a big fan of “customer centricity.”

My first issue with “customer centricity” is that it appears to be a utopian ideal rather than a proven best practice. Empirical observation will quickly show that all organizations regularly do things that are at odds, sometimes flagrantly, with what their customers actually want. Netflix recently canceled Luke Cage. American Airlines and United have both gutted their customer loyalty programs. SaaS platforms regularly kill features and raise prices. Capital One in a cheery, dissociated way, drives its customers into poverty.

The idea that an upwelling of empathy or a belief that “the customer is always right” will lead to a healthier financial position is a just-so story: true sometimes, in some contexts, to some extent… but in no way an objective reality or proven best practice.

I’ve shared this Art Kleiner quote before, and it bears repeating:

“‘The customer comes first’ is one of the three great lies of the modern corporation. The other two are: ‘We make decisions on behalf of our shareholders’ and ‘Employees are our most important asset.’ Government agencies have their own equivalent lies: ‘We are here to serve the public interest.’ Nonprofits, associations, and labor unions have theirs: ‘Above all else, we represent the needs of our members.’” (Kleiner, Who Really Matters?)

 
My second issue with “customer centricity” as a term is that it ignores the fact that all organizations have multiple “centers” that compete for priority and attentional focus, like warring families in Game of Thrones, or the various guilds and factions in the early Dune novels. The existence of multiple centers is a feature of human organizations in a capitalist system, not a bug. Customer centricity is never the complete answer.

My third issue with “customer centricity” as a term is the self-serving intentions and agendas of those who are promoting the meme. It’s notable that many design firms and enterprises pitching “customer centricity” these days are also pitching products and services. Selling “customer centricity” is not part of their selfless mission to make the world a better place: it’s a mediasphere hack to earn more revenue themselves.

CMO.com magazine, for example, is an enthusiastic popularizer of customer centricity… and it’s owned by Adobe, a self-proclaimed Customer Experience company that sells high-cost “CX” solutions that regularly leap up further in price beyond the means of legacy customers.
 

 
Adobe isn’t the only guilty party here. Many consultancies sell “customer centricity” solutions (sometimes with that moniker, or with “brand,” “experience design” or some equivalent) with no conscience or parameters as to how, or to what extent, their offerings will actually help a business. Not everyone needs ethnographic research, a highly finessed and beautiful cross-platform design system, an award-winning logo, buckets of Big Data with AI bots sorting through it day and night, combined with dynamically personalized landing pages and automated marketing follow-up. Those things are necessary or not, monetizable or not, to different degrees, depending on the context.

“Customer centricity” in other words is often a principle (in this case, a believable lie) connected to a specific tool (an organization’s products and services) that supposedly but not really will lead to a predictable result. Before any organization makes the leap from principle to tool—say, by hiring a big name UX firm for an expensive waterfall project—it would be good risk insurance to have a super solid methodology first. In other words, be sure you’re asking the right questions in the right order and only giving attention to customer centricity to the extent that it makes sense.

Getting centered

I said above that “customers” is one of several centers.

In fact, it is one of six:

External — Strategic — Growth Centers

  1. Investors (constraint + object)
  2. Goals (telos)
  3. Customers (object)

Internal — Cultural — Static Centers

  1. Homeostasis (inertia)
  2. Core Group (object + strange attractor)
  3. Shadow (strange attractor)

 
Culture eats strategy for breakfast, as they say, so it’s helpful to think of the three external “centers” as an organization’s steering wheel and the three internal “centers” as the brakes or backseat driving. Attention is the fuel.

Note: I’m going to ignore for now some additional levels of epigenetic complexity that kick in at enterprise scale, including issues related to internal bureaucracy, corporate strategy, and cross-sector collaboration and interdependence. Those are real and important, but they build on the foundation above.

Let’s look at each of these six centers one by one.

 

THE EXTERNAL CENTERS

 
1. Investors (constraint + object)

All enterprises, small businesses, startups, and nonprofits in a capitalist system run on money, so the will and intentions of the investors will determine the context for the organization’s overall business goals. For example, a solo designer running a lifestyle business will work within their personal financial limits, while Jay-Z will dump millions into Tidal and hope for the best. A startup will accept the steroid-driven growth requirements and milestone evaluation criteria of its VC investors, while a SMB will keep its books very clean for its next loan application. Public enterprises will take dramatic action to secure the good graces and ongoing financial contributions of their shareholders, even if these actions endanger the long-term health of the company.

Tip: Follow the money. Think outside-in.
 
2. Goals (telos)

As I’ve discussed previously, goal-setting and goal-tracking create efficiency within a business. Clear, defined goals optimize internal attention, making sure everyone is paying attention to the same thing and the right thing. Appropriate goals are constrained by investor realities, and they prioritize external achievements over internal ones. Appropriate goals help organizations optimize (i.e., balance) long- and short-term revenue, not maximize either one.

Clear, measurable, and appropriately ambitious external goals provoke change, and for complex systems (including human individuals and groups), change is always resisted. Thus, many organizations rationalize getting by without concrete goals, which reduces short-term stress… until the stress of the work avoided becomes overwhelming.

Tip: Ask every business what its goals are. The (often incomplete) answers will be illuminating and will constrain and create context for any customer relationship-building activities or communication efforts.
 
3. Customers (object)

Customers (including nonprofit donors and anyone else who contributes to revenue) are the last of the three external centers. Asking a business “what do you want?” (the second center above) is often paralyzing. Asking them “who is your customer?” can be even more stressful. Clear customer segmentation is mandatory for any sustainable, scalable business, yet the competing pull of the other five centers can make the “who is our customer?” question a challenging one, and sometimes even a job-endangering one, to ask aloud.

Investor constraints, business goals, and customer goals are often in conflict with each other—a Business 101 reality that is sometimes lost in all the hype around “customer centricity.”

Tip: Ask every business who its customers are. Apply the four lenses of (1) demographics, (2) psychographics, (3) occasions and (4) categories.
 

THE INTERNAL CENTERS

 
The internal centers are more powerful and harder to work with because human beings are incredibly social, and social dynamics can quickly override what we see and how we see.

4. Homeostasis (inertia)

The first of the three internal centers is self-preservation… which by definition is in dynamic conflict with growth—i.e., all three external centers. Organizations must cultivate stability, sustainability, and repeatability to survive, but inertia in any complex system unavoidably becomes an end in itself due to positive feedback loops, which can endanger the health of the system. Though many organizational consultants won’t or don’t say this, equilibrium is achieved not (only) by cultivating peaceful stability but by continually confronting new challenges and threats. Equilibrium is dynamic.

Excessive internal focus prevents organizations from seeing or understanding their customers: the internal dramas and realities become all-consuming, and the view of the customer, to the extent that it exists at all, becomes a projection of the internal reality onto the outside world.

Per Pournelle’s Law, this Homeostasis center is always stronger than the Goals center. (H/t to Venkat Rao for making me aware of Pournelle’s Law.)

Tip: Advocates of homeostasis will furiously defend their position and ignore calls to change, even if it endangers the overall health of the business.
 
5. Core Group (strange attractor)

In his book Who Really Matters?, Art Kleiner coined the term “Core Group” to refer to the clique who is secretly in control, no matter what the org chart or objective, external goals might say. A give-away feature of the Core Group is that it cannot be discussed plainly within the organization. Employees who successfully align themselves to the Core Group may say things like “Charlie really gets it” or “Jo doesn’t understand how things work around here.” But “it” can never be defined aloud, and how-things-work-around-here can never be spelled out and evaluated.

Examples of Core Groups include:

  • Deceased former members of the company or board set up systems long ago that are now treated as sacred for no reason.
  • Only men or white people at a given organization succeed, because the leadership team is guilty of systematic and unconscious bias.
  • There is a clique that unites several powerful positions across functions or levels of the organization: e.g., a group of friends, family members, or people who share an outside affiliation or allegiance.
  • A CEO runs important decisions by their spouse, and whatever the spouse says goes. The “spouse” card beats all other cards, including core values, RACI matrices, previous public commitments, etc.

Savvy consultants and other outsiders can sense these dynamics almost instantly. They reveal themselves in how people breathe, hold their bodies, congregate in physical spaces, what they don’t say, and where and how important communications happen (e.g., in public meetings vs. 1-on-1 vs. Slack). There will be clear patterns of deference and omission that siphon attention away from some of the other centers.

That said, the Core Group always has allies. The Core Group always acts in service to one or more of the other centers, which strengthens its invisible influence. To this extent, the Core Group functions like the Bene Gesserit in the Avalon Hill board game version of Dune:

“The Bene Gesserit player may coexist with other players’ units without causing a confrontation, and may command other players to use or not to use certain cards during combat (representing their use of ‘the Voice’). At the beginning of the game the Bene Gesserit player secretly records the name of another player and the turn at which they think that other player will win the game. If the Bene Gesserit correctly guesses who will win and when, they win the game instead.” (Wikipedia)

 
Incidentally, this is an obnoxious and boring rule in an otherwise excellent game. Core Group dynamics can likewise feel ridiculous or inconvenient, but like it or not, they are encoded in the rules of play.

Tip: The Core Group, like the other internal centers, cannot be confronted directly; its defenses—and defensiveness—are too strong. However, a savvy advisor or new internal leader can shine a light on whichever external centers the Core Group is currently de-prioritizing (Investors, Goals, Customers) and use this as a forcing mechanism to get the Core Group to adapt to a new attentional ecosystem. Also, the Core Group can be forced to evolve when its allegiance to Homeostasis or the Shadow is exposed, or when an organization is in crisis and self-preservation (Homeostasis) is in jeopardy.
 
6. The Shadow (strange attractor)

The Shadow, like the Core Group, is undiscussable and its undiscussability is undiscussable. The Shadow and the Core Group might seem like the same thing, but they are actually distinct. An organization’s Shadow, in the Jungian sense, is whatever emotional energy the organization has failed to recognize or confront and, in fact, is always actively suppressing, at high cost. The Shadow is different from the Core Group in that there isn’t necessarily a group one can point to, only a group dynamic or emotional contagion.

The Shadow can be interpreted, but it can’t be isolated or proven, which makes it a wily beast. It can also never be fully eradicated: most thoughts and feelings are unconscious and our neurobiology is inherently interpersonal. There will always be a Shadow.

Here are some examples of organizational Shadow:

  • A CEO with an active addiction or addictive tendencies will provoke codependent relationships around them.
  • A CEO with a specific personality will force unconscious emulation of, or reaction to, that personality throughout the organization.
  • The physical working environment will warp and create culture in ways that are taken for granted.
  • Emotions that the CEO is not comfortable feeling will be projected onto others or dramatized in relationships with others.
  • The likely or imminent failure of the business, or its external destructive impact, are unacceptable realities and are therefore never discussed in a forthright, manageable way.

The Shadow feels like vitality for those who tap into it and try to align to it, but it is in fact depleting: it stretches an organization’s attention away from all its other centers. (The collapse-in-progress of the WeWork IPO this month is one example of Shadow run amok.)

Strongly empathetic individuals who join or visit an organization for the first time will intuitively pick up on the Shadow center quickly. They will start feeling emotions that they recognize as “not their own” and can then backwards-engineer what secrets and patterns would lead to those emotions having free reign.

“The underlying assumption here is that the patient who cannot (or will not) articulate his own dissociated and disavowed experience will evoke it in others, enact it, or embody it.” – David J. Wallins, Attachment in Psychotherapy

 
Unlike the Core Group, which supplies a secret battery pack to one or more other centers, the Shadow supplies only lip service: it only exists to serve itself. Also, importantly, the Shadow is by definition hidden from view: many organizational dysfunctions might seem like the Shadow, but anything an internal employee is able to see and discuss is by definition not Shadow: the real Shadow is always hidden.

When the Shadow is named by an external observer, the reaction is usually silence followed by an abrupt topic change, an angry attack, or a wave of sadness and stress as unconscious incompetence shifts into conscious incompetence. Working with Shadow is delicate work but also very powerful in expanding organizational attention capacity.

As Raphael Cushnir said: “You’re only able to proceed successfully as fast as the slowest part of you can go.”

Shadow is every organization’s slowest part.

Closing thoughts

Some bad news and good news here.

The bad news: The Six Centers exist for every business, from a single individual to a multi-national corporation. They are intrinsic wherever human social nature and capitalist macroeconomic constraints intersect. They cannot be eradicated.

The good news: Because the Six Centers are a universal phenomenon, they can also be predicted in advance and used as a framework to forward organizational growth. An organization can see its external centers by looking outward, and it can see its internal centers by bringing in skilled outsiders to look within.
 
I was recently reading Jean Baudrillard’s Fragments and stumbled across the following phrase:

“There are two-way mirrors which allow you innocently to spy on people. This is one of the finest metaphors for consciousness. There is no two-way screen because there is nothing to see on the other side of the screen, nothing to see without being seen.”

 
Shortly after starting the Baudrillard book, I watched the great mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato interview Dame Janet Baker about her craft. Baker used a very similar metaphor to describe her work:

“A glass is not a mirror. It’s something you do not see yourself in. You look through it—at something else, either the audience or at the responsibility which you have to the composer and the liberettist. You’ve got to keep the glass clean. You’ve got to be able to see out to that purpose, which is bigger than you are. And you’ve also got to allow people to look in. There is a sense of nakedness, actually. It’s a very brave thing to do, to stand up in front of other people isn’t it, and bare your soul. It’s not the sort of [thing] that’s usually done, and yet that is what we are required to do. That kind of responsibility is enormous, and one can’t expect it to be perfect. We can’t keep the glass clean all the time, but that’s what I think performing is about: you’re serving something much, much, much more important and bigger than you are, and yet you have an important role to play. So, we have to keep the glass clean.”- Dame Janet Baker

 

 
To organizations everywhere: The best way to nurture, respect, and understand all six centers is to keep the glass clean.


Scaling a small business

It’s very easy these days to start a small business.

It’s very difficult these days to scale a small business.

In my earlier post “Becoming #1,” I used a crude model to talk about the competitive environment and growth trajectory for all organizations:

 

 

I noted that every organization, at every level of scale, must become either the market leader or the thought leader for their niche or category.

And I was almost but not-quite explicit about the zigzag path all organizations take as they grow:

 

 
To sum up:

  • An organization starts as a niche player with a narrow and precisely defined value proposition.
  • Then it grows to become a disruptive thought leader, trying to create a new category around its provocative idea.
  • Over time, it becomes the market leader of a category that it has helped coalesce around its own distinctive point of view.
  • Then, if possible, it ascends higher, disrupting and creating new categories along the way, aiming for monopoly status.

The easy road gets harder

The kind of marketing needed at each stage of growth is very different.

In my article “What is positioning?” I depicted the following progression in how an organization tells its story at each growth stage:

 

 

I want to point out that this transition from a niche player to a thought leader requires a much higher investment in time and energy dedicated to marketing and brand (as well as, of course, operations and product).

Telling a thought leadership story requires clear, differentiated ideas, repeated loudly and consistently, with ritualized behaviors and signature moments to make them compelling and believable… all working against the inertial biases of an audience who doesn’t know about you, doesn’t care, or has an existing mindset that you are trying to shift.

An organization making this transition can’t just incrementally add to its existing value proposition or present a confusing buffet of value propositions across multiple offerings and audiences. It needs to have a noteworthy and ownable Big Idea. (As a marketer, I can tell you that no value prop statement is more deadly or forgettable than “We offer baby toys, fishing tackle, pilates classes… and more!“)

Graduating from the niche market leader to the mid-level thought leadership position is, in other words, a predictable “oh shift” moment in every organization’s lifecycle, where the only way to go after the expanded market is to injure your existing profitability and efficiency:

 

Going after a new Total Addressable Market at some point requires exponential investment, not incremental investment. Small organizations that cannot invest appropriately will cease to grow.

 

Almost every organization I work with is in this exact position: fixated on short-term revenue or impact with an existing audience… while needing to grow towards that next big opportunity.

The peculiar and particular challenge facing small businesses these days is that there is no longer an obvious growth ladder from niche brand to mid-sized disruptive player status. Startups can use mega doses of VC investment to rapidly ascend to the next level, but most SMBs don’t have access to those kinds of resources.

In Curtains: The Future of the Arts in America, Michael Kaiser writes:

“My experience consulting to a range of corporations in a myriad of industries, coupled with my own observations over thirty years in arts management, have created a deep-seated discomfort with the current state of the art world. The many trends at work now are going to change our art ecology forever. We have been fortunate to live in a remarkable era of arts accessibility, a true golden age. But it is coming to an end… [T]rends in technology, demographics, government support, and arts education are working against us. It is going to be increasingly difficult to thrive, or even survive, as an arts organization in the coming decades. There will be winners, for sure, but I am equally certain there will be a larger group of losers.”

 

The gathering storm that Kaiser depicts is for the most part not limited to arts organizations, or even nonprofits, but to any small business that finds there are fewer paths to ascend on the way to long-term success.

Monopolies are now dominating the landscape, and the hardy winners that make it to the middle stage, or are already there, are more surefire bets for investors, donors, and customers than building and supporting new and possibly-redundant infrastructure from below. Doordash and Square/Caviar succeed, while individual small restaurants fail.

 

The hard road gets easier

The proliferation of interesting micro businesses, gig economy side hustles, and startup success stories is to some extent distracting from the unique difficulties of small businesses (including small nonprofits) in our current environment.

That said, some small businesses are indeed growing and thriving: ones I keep my eye on include CB Insights, Venkat Rao‘s mini media empire, and the many “turnaround” nonprofit success stories that Michael Kaiser describes in his books. Mergers also remain a viable exit for SMBs who find they can’t grow on their own: across industries and sectors, we’re seeing a lot of them.

Luck, industry, skill, and resource availability of course all play a role, but the small businesses I see succeeding these days are willing to embrace experimentation—failing forward into new products and services, marketing, and operational practices—while standing in the future and foreseeing an expensive and perilous climb ahead.

p.s. For more on the growth path of small businesses, see my partially-dated, but still mostly-valid 2014 post “The future of consulting.”


The Three Machines: Nonprofit Edition

In an earlier post, I shared a model, adapted from Brad Feld, that describes all contemporary organizations as having “three machines.”

 

Each of these machines is in fact a funnel—moving clients along a journey, turning interested parties into brand advocates and dollars into sustainable strategic advantage.

 

With a few nomenclature tweaks and clarifications, this model works not just for private sector organizations, but for nonprofits, too.

The Programs machine

Though some nonprofits sell products, most are primarily services businesses, so our Product machine needs a new name.

An arts organization might label this machine “Programming,” and some other nonprofits might use “Services” or “Offerings.” But “Programs” is the label that fits best for most nonprofits and matches the language that they already use.

A private sector professional coming to the nonprofit world for the first time will need to adjust their expectations for what the Programs machine actually produces. Whereas private sector organizations can measure their products and services success using metrics like NPS, MAU, and others, most nonprofit organizations can’t use those measures to evaluate their impact. Social sector organizations exist by definition to solve things the private sector can’t: the measures of success tend to be different.

As the economy tightens, and new technologies proliferate, there is a major trend in nonprofits to have quantitative, evidence-based outcomes data for their core programs. However, having rigorous impact data is desirable but not always fully possible: for example, the data might be fiendishly difficult or expensive to collect, or no dominant paradigm may exist to know what kind of data to track; outcomes replicability across widely varying contexts might be a serious challenge, etc. etc.

To navigate these ambiguities and uncertainties, many social sector organizations articulate a specific Theory of Change. “Theory of Change” is the standard terminology to describe the intent of a nonprofit intervention or suite of interventions. The Theory of Change describes, unifies, and prescribes a nonprofit’s program strategy and also determines its program success measures. It’s equivalent to “product strategy” in the private sector. The ToC may or may not be evidence-based or fully evidence-based—i.e., it might be speculative. Hence, it’s a theory. Over time, ideally both the theory and the execution could be tested.

Note: A ToC is often critical to securing funding, since major private and corporate donors typically invest in organizations that reflect their own Theory of Change.

Nonprofit Relationship functions

Like any organization, a nonprofit needs to maintain tight relationships with a wide range of external stakeholders—strategic partners, community leaders, press, employee recruits—but the three relationship activities that tend to matter the most for most nonprofits are Marketing, Development, and Board Composition:

  • Marketing is critical to communicate clearly the value and unique point of view of the organization.
  • Development (aka fundraising) is critical to secure revenue from appropriate, segmented, and prioritized sources.
  • Board composition is important to ensure that the leadership of the organization advances those messages credibly while supercharging the efforts of the staff.

In his many excellent books, Michael Kaiser describes how the proactive, ongoing refreshing and up-leveling of nonprofit boards is essential to ensuring organizational health:

“Unfortunately, many of the board members who were helpful when the company was founded may not be able to give or develop resources; different skills are required. But too many organizations do not explicitly recognize the need for change, and the members of the board not able to make the transition are allowed to stay on indefinitely.” – Michael Kaiser, Leading Roles

 
Kaiser also talks about how institutional marketing and programmatic marketing must both be strong, and work together—an insight that has obvious parallels to the private sector. (See my previous posts on product marketing and growth marketing.) As was true for the private sector, this distinction between program, institutional, and performance marketing layers naturally across our “three machines” model:

  • Institutional marketing = promoting our organization’s long-term revenue and brand (e.g., the San Francisco Opera)
  • Program marketing = promoting individual programs (e.g., this season’s production of Romeo and Juliet)
  • Performance marketing = optimizing short-term revenue (e.g., Friday night ticket sales)

Balancing these three kinds of marketing, as always, involves difficult tradeoffs in messaging, channel investment, and funding predictability.

Note: The Relationships machine could also be labeled Revenue. Both names work equally well.

Putting it all together

When I work with nonprofits, I often use this “three machines” model diagnostically to assess where an organization is strong and where it has room for improvement. Some organizations I work with have very solid programs but no operational engine to scale their business. Some have strong marketing engines but weak boards (or vice versa). The three machines model makes it easy to isolate what’s working well and what’s not.

But the three machines don’t work just isolation—they need to work together synergistically for an organization to maximize its longevity and impact.

Michael Kaiser once again talks about a Cycle that connects an arts organization’s programs to an ever-expanding, ever-deepening “family” of supporters, who in turn drive a stable and scalable financial model. This same basic idea applies, I think, to all nonprofits. Finding this cycle, synergy, or flywheel is key to maximizing a nonprofit’s long-term opportunity.

Nonprofits have several different filters they can apply to discover and define bold, integrated strategies:

  • Mission: Why do we exist? What is our primary interest and moral responsibility and how does that deepen, expand, or shift over time?
  • Vision: What is the external impact we seek to create? Are we stretching from a short-term, known opportunity into new areas? Could we?
  • Theory of Change: How does our Theory of Change guide us to decide what we do and what we don’t do? What new hypotheses could we test for the good of our populations served and/or for the many other organizations doing cause-based work in our space?
  • Development: What are the fundraising realities of our space? What are the requirements of the private and public funding sources we currently enjoy or potentially could, with organizational changes?
  • Operations: As a nimble, small organization, what can we do uniquely well? Or, as a larger organization with significant infrastructure, what worthy goals can we take on that will lead to greater impact or more efficient allocation of philanthropic capital—particularly in today’s challenging economic and technological landscape?
  • Core Group: Do we have the right team in place internally and on our board? Is who we are limiting what do we do, and if so, how do we need to evolve our board composition to better serve our mission?
  • Leadership: What new business partnerships, business models, ventures, and programs can we envision that connect our three machines in new and powerful ways?

The need for leadership is critical: solid strategy development requires a leader who can see unique opportunities and marshall resources and energy to pursue them, working against the homeostatic internal culture.

Closing thoughts

I work extensively with both for-profit and nonprofit businesses, and I think it’s helpful to have models that apply equally well to both. The two sectors are deeply intertwined and must become even more so to pursue worthy societal goals.

For those who have been following The Next Us for a long time, you know that this “three machines” model is the culmination of a long series of frameworks related to vision, business strategy, audience segmentation, brand strategy, marketing strategy, marketing planning, and board optimization. With occasional tweaks here and there, all of these component frameworks work equally well for private sector and social sector businesses.

Nonprofits, indeed, are fundamentally businesses. They sometimes have a reputation for being fluffy and unfocused, but in reality, they are highly entrepreneurial, perhaps even more so than private sector organizations:

“Effectuation is an idea with a sense of purpose – a desire to improve the state of the world and the lives of individuals by enabling the creation of firms, products, markets, services, and ideas… Effectuation articulates a dynamic and iterative process of creating new artifacts in the world. Effectual reasoning is a type of human problem solving that takes the future as fundamentally unpredictable, yet controllable through human action; the environment as constructible through choice; and goal as negotiated residuals of stakeholder commitments rather than as pre-existent preference orderings.” – Society for Effectual Action, Batten Institute, UVa. Darden Graduate School of Business [emphasis added]