The Ketchup Conumdrum – Workplace Style

PluralismP is for Pluralism
What if you cooked up your work
as if it were a tossed salad?

Original Post: May 27, 2011
One size doesn’t fit all. I have said this so many times that I’m even getting tired of hearing it. So I am going to let some else say it – Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm, in his book What the Dog Saw, has an essay entitled “The Ketchup Conundrum”. Buried within this story is a sub-story about Howard Moskowitz, Diet Pepsi and spaghetti sauce.

Howard Moskowitz, now a legend in his industry, is the owner of a food-testing and market-research company. In the seventies, while trying to find the perfect sweetness mix for his client Pepsi’s new Diet version, he noticed all the data from his testing research was wacky. There was no clear winner. As Malcolm writes it, Moskowitz had an epiphany. “They had been asking the wrong question. There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis.”

Malcolm relates that Moskowitz spent years trying to get the food industry to understand “his idea about the plural nature of perfection.” Then in 1986 the Campbell Soup Company called. They were in huge competition against Ragu with their Prego brand of spaghetti sauce and losing. Moskowitz created forty-five varieties and, instead of just relying on professional food tasters, he took them on the road. Because, Gladwell quotes Moskowitz, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants.” Consumers don’t “know what they desire if what they desire doesn’t exist yet.”

What did the perfect competitive sauce turn out to be? It seems, after sifting through mounds of data, not one but three broad patterns emerged – “plain, spicy and extra-chunky.” Extra-chunky, the new version, brought “hundreds of millions of dollars to Pepsi” over the next decade. Thirty years later multiple flavors of spaghetti sauce is the expected norm.

Since the transition from factory work to office work, workplace designers have also been looking for perfection. They have engaged in a century-long effort to design that one, perfect place where everyone works full-throttle – happy, productive and efficient. The result is our current incarnation of supposed perfection – one-size-fits-all facilities. You know it, Dilbertville® on steroids.  Rows and rows, floors and floors, buildings and buildings of the same types of offices, varied only slightly based on hierarchy. Non-descript workspaces for a non-descript workforce of human cogs in the great corporate machine – modern age perfection.

The workplace’s parallel conundrum is that the workplace industry, from corporate real estate and facilities managers to architects, designers and furniture manufacturers, also has been asking the wrong questions. There is no such thing as the perfect workplace. They should be looking for the perfect workplaces. Because, as not everyone liked plain or spicy, not everyone works well in an office or cube.

Over the years, every time a new version of workplace is created, such as the original switch from offices and the typing-pool sea to offices and the system furniture cube-farm, or the current switching from four-sided, high cubes to low or sometimes even no-sided cubes, the same old pattern is followed. Everyone gets them. This is akin to totally dumping plain and spicy and offering only extra-chunky. A new group is now satisfied but the others are left out in the cold.

If the answer is found in pluralism, as Moskowitz, Gladwell and I believe, what are the perfect workplaces? I have my own thirty year study and I guarantee that it is not just some new combination of office workspaces. With the discovery of extra-chunky, that version was just one of forty-five tried that seemed to rise to prominence. Today there are even more flavors fulfilling every niche. For workplace, most companies and the workplace industry have yet tried only a few variations on the same theme.

Also key is another concept Moskowitz espoused – his mind-tongue ambiguity. That people don’t know what they don’t know is especially true for workplace. Having only been presented with two choices in their worklife, they don’t know what other types of workplaces really might be the right ones for them. Again, it comes back to asking the right question. The right question is not “What is the perfect workplace?” The right question is “Where do people work best?”

From my years of research and experience, I see there are also three strong patterns emerging. Most likely they are not the ones you think. Given the heavy industry pursuit in a single direction, you may never have been presented other choices to try. Try some, you might like them. But don’t just try one, try many. The plural nature of perfection is about choices.

You might also be interested in:
http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html