Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The Betterness Manifesto (2.0)
Here's a suggestion. If you're in the industrial age practice of mass-producing and push-marketing stuff know as, well, business, odds are - you're already living on borrowed time. Because in no uncertain, wavering terms, here's what tomorrow looks like: the people formerly known as "consumers" couldn't care less if your big, fat company died a horrible, agonizing death tomorrow, the thousands of low-cost competitors scrambling into action around the globe no longer just want to contract with you, they've got a contract out on you: they want your well-coiffed head on a plate at their next boardroom meeting, and everywhere you look, the once lush shores of every single one of yesterday's formerly fertile, untapped markets are, today, about as crowded as, noisy as, and frenzied as Bourbon Street at the height of Mardi Gras.
Hence, maybe, just maybe - "business" as you and I know it is obsolete. For all the reasons above - and many, many, more - yesterday's approach to commerce and trade just isn't good enough. In fact, viewed through a lens you might call constructive, rational, humanistic, or just plain enlightened, business as we know it, and, more importantly as we do it, is just a little, tiny bit lame, evil, brain-dead, and self-destructive.
Business is lame. Business isn't the panacea that yesterday's pundits thought it might be. Here we stand in the crumbling ruins of industrial age capitalism - and from the rubble, it's as plain as day that "business" as usual isn't enough for societies to sustainably prosper. Though it might be necessary for industrial age "growth", it's visibly, risibly not enough to reach the next level of prosperity.
Business is evil. Why isn't business as usual good enough for 21st century prosperity? Well, when you think about it, the answer's pretty simple: most businesses, and especially big ones, are value transfer machines, not value creation machines. Instead of creating value for people, communities, customers, or tomorrow's generations, business too often takes, grabs, and snatches it from them, and then simply doles it out to shareholders. And it has been doing so for decades. Just think about how Detroit blocked public transport investment in the states, and clogged up the skies.
Business is brain-dead. You know how you go to the store and there's 500 flavors of toothpaste...but they're all exactly the same? As a method of organizing human potential, business has to be a contender for the most brain-dead. It asks us to build hundred thousand person organizations in which we spend our days plotting how to churn out tomorrow's toothpaste - or imitate the next guy's. Something tells me that humans were built for - and are consistently, persistently capable of - bigger, better things.
Business is self-destructive. Business has only goal: sell, sell, sell stuff for you to buy, buy, buy. To, in other words, increase and accelerate the volume of trade. But when everything's privatized, private - well, then, society and culture have just ceased to exist. And when they do, of course, all commerce must as well. Business is self-destructive not just to itself - but to those that rely on it as a tool for growth.
Business is built on Big, Fat Lies. "See this jacket? It's going to help you land the supermodel of your dreams!!". "See this car? It's going to turn you into the equivalent of a celebrity!!". The "marketing" so beloved of business uses every trick in the well-worn book: pretty plastic people, subtle nudges at my human insecurities, slight provocations to challenge me to prove I'm worthy. In other words, business assumes I'm a simpleton, a rube, an easy mark, a credulous, gullible fool - because it's stock in trade is telling (let's just be honest about it for once) Big, Fat Lies.
Business is a house of cards. Business asks us to believe that more than a spoonful of evil from the very top is the price of a little bit of good. Let me put that in the dry, arcane language of econ. Business asks us to believe that the price of prosperity is that those who are in business must enjoy special privilege. Too big to fail? Try too dumb to last. Business asks us to build not economies that can enjoy lasting, enduring prosperity - but their opposite: houses of cards, which, when they ultimately crumble, lead squarely to austerity.
Yet it's not that commerce and trade are over - and that it's time for a utopia where there's no money, no asset, no trade, no companies, no commerce, no awesome stuff to buy, sell, and enjoy. Quite the opposite.
I'm suggesting (and I will be arguing, over the next few months) that the real lesson of the great recession is this: "business" - the industrial age approach to organizing commerce, companies, and trade, is obsolete. And that it's time for a fundamentally new approach to commerce - that doesn't have the self-limitations and inherent downsides above.
If all you want to do is, well, business - then you already know what to do. More of the same, the same as yesterday, choose another not-so-clever, not-so-worthy gambit from yesterday's tired, well-worn bag of tricks. Yawn. Want fries with that Frankenfuture, want onion rings with that Great Stagnation, want to super-size that Zombieconomy?
If, on the other hand, you want to join a global movement dedicated to toppling the old order by doing meaningful stuff that matters the most - well, then, it's time, in short, to go out of business - and into betterness*.
*We'll be spending plenty of time discussing it's assumptions, beliefs, economics, and strategies. For now, consider this a little introduction to the future of the global economy.
Umair! You do a beautiful job of describing the inherent contradictions of our times. There's a set of false economic assumptions that still drive how so many of us talk about innovation, change, growth, etc...
At a base level, we need to shift from saying and believing that a business' main purpose is to "create money". Profit is a measurement of something else; get clear on that something else. Ideally - its creating value that improves or betters people's lives.
If a company can't clearly articulate their larger narrative, the big idea, the drives their core value/contribution, IMHO, they're in big trouble.
I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that the way we do business in the 21st century needs a rethink, and am looking forward to your thoughts on what the new paradigms and systems will need to be.
I do think, however, that any new way need to take into account a couple of factors:
1. Human Nature.
Capitalism has been around for a mere nanosecond of human history. I think that the Human Race has an inherent desire to Conquer. This has shown itself throughout the ages. We just don't seem to be able to help ourselves. We innovate, and then use the innovation ouput to try and conquer something - land, fellow man, companies - anything to satiate our need to be the biggest/have more.
It is probably simultaneously responsible for our survival as well as untold self-destruction.
I think that any solution needs to show how we as a human race can move beyond this urge and evolve. Otherwise, I fear that any new systems will eventually succumb to the same destructive force.
2. The working class.
I am, by socio-economic status at least, a paid up member of the middle-class, "knowledge-based" (whatever that is) economy. But, I grew up in a working class house, and am acutely aware that the working class of the world has been left behind. Politicians no longer talk about helping working people - it's all about helping middle class families. It's almost as if it's a black mark to be considered part of that slice of society.
But, any solutions need to show how the minimum wage worker at Walmart is going to benefit, or at least have an opportunity to better their lot in life.
Whilst I agree that the system is in urgent need of a reboot, the odds are stacked against people combining en masse to make this happen. Unfortunately history has shown us that before that happens, society as a whole needs to experience obvious and severe economic/social turmoil, before it becomes undeniable to all that change is needed, and before the downtrodden and forgotten members of society have little to lose.
Humans have shown immense powers to adapt/innovate/survive, but they have also shown that lots of times, this happens only when forced into, or by luck.
Just some thoughts