The Not-So-Blind Watchmaker: Evolution by Design in Corporate Culture

Kate Barrett, PhD, Olson

This paper begins with a discussion of the discrepancies between academic definitions of “evolution” and those that pervade business and popular discourse. The former emphasizes the unpredictable and unknowable, and frames evolution as a process best understood in retrospect. In contrast, business presents organizational evolution as a future-focused activity – one that can be controlled, channeled, and otherwise managed. In reality, what businesses hope to achieve through their appeal to “evolution” is more akin to enculturation – the process by which communities create new members and guide them toward a hoped-for future. Building on three key elements in the enculturation process – language, ritual, and sacrifice – this paper presents a detailed ethnographic case study of our work with a marketing firm that sought to “evolve” its organization while remaining true to its heritage. Presenting our lessons learned, we suggest ways to help organizations articulate their developmental goals, and tools for enabling the process.