This month's Frame: Jane Bennett and Vibrant Products
A framework for highlighting the non-human factors that define successful products.
In January our New Year's resolutions are freshly minted and imbued with optimism. A common resolution for those of us working for, and within, large organisations is to make more “impact”.
Impact is notoriously difficult to define, and varies by role. But more often than not the most valuable impact is our influence on what the business sells: its product.
For strategists and researchers our pursuit of product impact is borne of insecurity. We rarely feel in control of the decision-making process. And because our work is often advisory rather than operational we risk feeling ignored by those in power.
This can establish an unhealthy “us vs. them” dynamic. We “win” when our ideas are implemented and “lose” when they’re ignored. And when we’re ignored we take it personally: how can we be more convincing next time?
But this mental model is based on the premise that we, the people, are the only agents of change; thrown into an organisational structure which either empowers or disables our ideas.
In her book, “Vibrant Matter”, political theorist Jane Bennett argues that our obsession with structure overemphasises human agency and underplays the significance of “things”.
Bennett argues that nonhuman things—metals, animals, plants—all possess “trajectories, propensities and tendencies” independent of people. They have ideas and intentions of their own.
For Bennett, “structure is ultimately unable to give the force of things its due: a structure can only act negatively, as a constraint on human agency, or passively, as enabling background context for it.”
Bennett’s concept of “Vibrant Matter” helps us rethink how we can influence products. Products are not improved by an individual hero bending inert objects to their will, but a confluence of people, organisations, markets and technology colliding with one another through a series of events no one (and no thing) can entirely predict. In Bennett’s terms, products are Vibrant.
Using the framework
This has implications for those of us seeking to make an impact in 2022. First we must ask: what are the things that collectively constitute the product? Second, what does each of these things want?
By understanding organisations, markets and technology as entities with a life of their own (rather than merely expressions of human agency) we grant them their own logic and agency, independent of people.
To take a current example: when blockchain technology was invented people did not say they wanted NFTs. But the technology had the potential to develop in this way—it’s what it “wanted”. The ongoing controversy around the utility of Blockchain—“what problems does it actually solve?”—speaks to the fact that the technology is the agent driving forward momentum, rather than the needs of users or the market.
As with any technology or thing, there is an aspect to Blockchain that will always remain unknowable and uncontrollable. And herein lies its potential as an agent for change. It is a thing to be engaged and negotiated with, not bent to our own will, or reframed to be something it’s not. Successful products will harness Blockchain’s trajectory, along with trajectories of the people, organisations and markets that constitute them.