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What Do Zombies, Jungian Archetypes, and IT Have In Common?

Oct 31, 2013

What Do Zombies, Jungian Archetypes, and IT Have In Common?

It’s Halloween, so you know what that means: Time to talk about Jungian archetypes and how they relate to your role as a CIO.

No, really. There’re zombies and everything.

For those who didn’t have to suffer through Psych 101, archetypes are a shared collective unconscious of roles and themes. What’s interesting is that these themes repeat themselves in a variety of cultures, in stories and myths. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist from the early 20th century, became famous for studying and identifying these archetypes and explaining what they mean and their relationship is with each other. People still look at them today in a modern context.

Vampires, for example, were popular in the Victorian era because they symbolized sexual desire, which was repressed in that time. (And now you know why young women are so fascinated with Twilight.)

So why are zombies so popular now? It’s because they symbolize “the shadow” and represent all the things we’re afraid of and yet have a hard time fighting, such as terrorism and pandemics. “Zombies thrive in popular culture during times of recession, epidemic and general unhappiness,” writes Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics. “Concerns about terrorism have not abated since 9/11, and cyberattacks have now emerged as a new anxiety. Drug-resistant pandemics have been a staple of local news hysteria since the H1N1 virus swept the globe in 2009. Scientists continue to warn about the dangers that climate change poses to our planet. And if the financial crisis taught us anything, it is that contagion is endemic to the global market system. Zombies are the perfect metaphor for these threats.”

Half of all zombie movies ever made were made in the past decade. And when were other great eras of zombie movies? In the 1950s, when we were worried about Communism, and in the social tumult of the early 1960s. It is an unconscious manifestation of feeling disempowered.

Kind of takes all the fun out of putting on makeup and croaking “Braaaaaains….,” doesn’t it?

Halloween tends to be a time when people play with archetypes. Intellectual people dress up like a twerking Miley Cyrus. Shy people dress up like superheroes. “You may claim your choice of a costume is based on what’s in the back of your closet or what you just thought would get the biggest laugh or win the prize for best costume at the party, but undoubtedly, your outfit reveals more about you than you might be consciously aware of,” writes counselor Gina Campbell, in “Metaphorum, the Mining Your Metaphors” blog. “Does your costume display your deepest fantasy? Your secret desire to mock those with different opinions? Your attitude towards authority? Your attempt to overcome your childhood fears? Does it show your naughty side, your rebellious self, your wish for innocence and simplicity?”

But what does this all have to do with corporate IT?

Remember, these archetypes are everywhere. People -- like those at your company whose computers and infrastructure you manage -- make up stories using these archetypes all the time, whether they realize it or not. You’re not going to be able to stop them from doing it, so then you’re left with one question: Do you want them to make up their own stories using their own archetypes and interpretations, or do you want to have some control over the process?

Do you want IT to be the “stern father,” who tries to control everything they do? Do you want IT to be the “nurturing mother,” who is always kind and loving and helpful, even when they make mistakes? The hero, who surmounts all obstacles to save the day?

In the IT world, many experts -- perhaps not having gone through Psych 101 -- developed their own archetypes rather than using the ones Jung developed. Forrester, for example, postulated in 2006 its three archetypes of IT: the Solid Utility, Trusted Supplier, or Partner Player. Since then, the organization has modified its archetypes to two: aligned IT, and empowered business technology -- in other words, just keeping the lights on vs. “operating as a technology-savvy partner to the rest of the corporation.” McKinsey & Co. offers a survey to help you determine if your company belongs to one of these five IT archetypes: Enabling, Innovative, Efficient, Reliable, and Responsive. Both models are helpful, if not exactly as catchy as zombies or vampires.

Similarly, InformationWeek recently described its Six Archetypes of Bad IT Project Managers, including the Yes Man, the Micromanager, the Procrastinator, the Know-It-All, the Pollyanna, and the Pessimist. CIO Magazine, on the other hand, describes IT manager archetypes in terms of Business Leader, Innovation Agent, Operational Expert, and Turnaround Artist.

Going back to the Jungian archetypes, you probably want to avoid being “the trickster,” who screws things up on purpose just to mess with people (think leprechauns, brownies, etc.). On the other hand, haven’t we all worked at places where IT had that reputation?

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