Fast Company

The SNL/Andy Samberg Approach To Creating Innovation

A Culturematic is a little machine for making culture. It is designed to do three things: test the world, discover meaning, and unleash value. It's what Andy Samberg does for SNL--and what you should be doing within your organization.

What Andy Samberg does for Saturday Night Live is a Culturematic--a little machine for making culture. Samberg’s “Digital Shorts” appear most weeks: “Dick in a Box” with Justin Timberlake, “Jizz in My Pants” with Molly Sims. These came from a tiny production company called The Lonely Island, consisting of Samberg and two of his high school friends, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer.

The Lonely Island turns out to be a brilliant Culturematic. It’s good at testing the world, discovering meaning, and unleashing value. Traditionally, the SNL show runner, Lorne Michaels, expects a new comedian like Samberg to become part of the cast. Even the likes of Bill Murray and Tina Fey were obliged to sign on. But Samberg was allowed to stay aloof. Why? It was to give SNL a little spaceship that could go places and do things out of the range of the SNL players. At 30 Rock, no one invests so much as a second in something that might not work. But The Lonely Island can try stuff until something works. Here, failure is acceptable, because, as Michaels puts it, it’s the guys, not the cast, who “take the risk.”

The rewards are huge. Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer got freedom. While the rest of the team fought for oxygen at 30 Rock, The Lonely Island folks got to investigate new comedic territory. They took the “digital short” to new levels. This was something we hadn’t quite seen before, the music video meets sketch comedy meets frank disclosure meets celebrity appearance meets social commentary. And they used this short to go places SNL had never gone before, partnering with celebrities instead of merely jamming them into the skit. Michaels’s rewards were greater still. Digital shorts revived SNL with digital and social media. “Jizz in My Pants” has been viewed more than 100 million times. Each viewing is an ad for SNL and its advertisers. This is a great torrent of value.

We are all Lorne Michaels now. Every organization needs a Culturematic like The Lonely Island. The senior manager navigates an increasingly inscrutable world. It is really useful to have a landing party standing by, a team who can search for navigable space and habitable worlds. Managers can wait for the future to happen to them. Or they can use Culturematics to examine their options.

Culturematics for the CEO

There are six steps for managing Culturematics from the C-suite.

1. Bully the Bullies

Innovations are the new kids on the block. They are picked on and laughed at. The corporation already has a range of products and services that give the corporation its reason to be. The people who manage these incumbents scorn the newcomers or, worse, treat them as “threats to the firm’s core identity and values.” It is the CEO’s job to make everyone play nicely and to give the innovations a place to play and room to grow. Innovations, especially the radical ones, are at odds with the corporate culture and therefore hard to reckon with. It is much easier for the corporation to return to form and go with what it knows. So even when an innovation has a champion and a budget line, it needs a protector. That’s the CEO.

2. Discover the Vectors Outside

In a world of real dynamism, the strategic thing to do is to entertain a radically different future with radically different structural properties. We are looking for a variety of view corridors, let’s call them, that give the corporation diverse ideas of what the corporation is and what it might become. 

Once the CEO can see into many futures, he or she is in a position to say where the corporation should be firing its Culturematics. 

3. Find the Assumptions Inside

For most of the twentieth century, soft drink manufacturers believed, without thinking about it, that sugary sodas were a permanent fixture in the American diet. Water? That was what the tap was for. No one was ever going to pay for water. By the 1990s, both Coke and Pepsi had water brands. And it happened just in time: in the period from 1997 to 2005, per capita consumption of bottled water increased by 90 percent.

In a perfect world, these assumptions would float to the surface when they expire. As fish do. But they don’t. So we keep using them. After all, they are deeply implicated in the way we see the world, the stuff of our best hunches and most powerful intuitions.

It’s up to the CEO to send in the assumption hunters. They will act like ferrets, rooting around for the assumptions that invisibly shape the corporation. The hunters must work comprehensively. We need to know where all the assumptions are buried, and then assess whether and how any of them can blind us to the future.

4. Create the Catalysts

Scott Cook, cofounder of Intuit, wanted a new approach to innovation. He turned to Kaaren Hanson, and the two of them created innovation catalysts who could help create prototypes, run experiments, and learn from customers. The new system had hot-house consequences. The Intuit tax group began by observing customers in the world. 

The team created multiple concepts and iterated with customers on a weekly basis. They brought customers in each Friday, distilled what they’d learned on Monday, brainstormed concepts on Tuesday, designed them on Wednesday, and coded them on Thursday, before the customers came in again.

Building and launching a series of Culturematics, Intuit was now able to speed up the innovation cycle and to make it zero in on opportunity as never before. Catalysts such as these are excellent teams with which to build and refine Culturematics.

5. Measure Return on Investment

Culturematics may be cheap, but they are not free. One of the key management decisions is how much to invest in them and how to measure return on investment.

Here’s how Procter & Gamble’s A. G. Lafley and Wharton’s Ram Charan advise us to think about the problem:

Think about measuring innovation as you would an investment portfolio, where you are concerned with the total return rather than individual stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. The key is not to measure each project individually and then declare victory or defeat, but to measure total investment over a period of time compared to total output. This pools high- and low-risk projects and encourages people to take canny chances.

6. Cultivate a Deeper Field of Vision

Nimble corporations are learning to abandon their existing business model before someone rips it out from under them. The good CEO prepares the corporation by mapping out useful options and getting the corporation ready to make the transition if and when the moment comes.

A More Porous Corporation

Innovation demands a new kind of corporation, one that changes the boundary between the corporation and the world. We have to become more porous. We have to let the corporation out and the world in. This spells the end of the corporation as a tightly defined, carefully bounded, organization that has all but only the people it needs performing all but only the tasks it needs to perform.

Innovation will demand this order of porousness and still more. The corporation will be not only the products and services we have in production at the moment, but also all the things we have in play, all those tiny bets we have fired into deep space. In a sense, we are looking at the end of the headquarters view of the corporation, the one that says, “This is where the corporation is really resident. Right here.” Now we are looking at a spread corporation, a distributed enterprise.

There are many new changes that will be required of us. The objective in all of them is to create a corporation that is porous enough to let new products out and intelligence in. In a sense, the corporation is turning into a Culturematic.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Culturematic by Grant McCracken. Copyright 2012, all rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Trotman]