Our prehistoric ancestors were simple people, speaking in grunts and chipping away at rocks
It is a miracle the human race survived at all. With their limited intelligence, primitive mindset and total lack of technology, their survival under some of the most impossible circumstances most have been dumb luck. Any evidence of global trading from prehistoric times should be attributed to nothing more than the random stumbling about of simpletons. Their megalithic monuments are just a product of brute force and stubbornness. It’s a good thing we modern humans have evolved so far beyond our brutish, stupid beginnings and are so much smarter than our primitive ancestors.
Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that you were transported back in time, to the world our pre-historic ancestors lived in. Surely you, with your superior intellect and sophisticated technological knowledge would soon be able to lead those poor dimwits out of their Stone Age into an Age of Enlightenment.
Or would you?
How much of the technology you have come to rely on do you actually understand? Do you know how to make even the most basic of the tools that are part and parcel of our modern world?
And how resilient are you, really, without any of those tools readily at hand? Would you be able to find and prepare food straight from Nature? Would you be able to navigate dense forests, vast open steppes, and even medium-sized seas without your technological crutches? Do you know how to carve a megalith out of a sheer cliff face, let alone how to transport it for 100s of kilometers, and then place it upright in a way that will last for millennia?
Before you assume you would easily become the King of the Stone Age people, consider this: not only did they survive and often thrive in situations you would perish in within minutes of your arrival; they did so using mostly their own brains, cunning, muscle-power, and verbally transmitted lore. All of the daily challenges you need modern technology for — technology invented by others, made by others, and kept running by others — they would have to find solutions for themselves.
Who is the clever one now? You, who can Google anything you need to know, stay in touch with 100’s of friends you never actually meet, and program a microwave to cook the perfect frozen meal? Or the ‘primitive’ Stone Age human, who had to remember 1000s of lines of verbal tradition, could survive solely on what Nature provided, and still managed to traverse the globe, and leave monuments that will outlast almost anything modern humans have produced?
Business is a means to make money. Nothing more, nothing less
Money is all that matters in the end. The sole purpose of a business is to make its owners rich. Everything else is just embellishment and sales speak, covering up primal greed in lofty words and false sentimentality. There is no room for altruism or empathy in this cold, hard economic reality of business.
This assumption of the ruthless, relentless drive for profit is the one constant argument used to push back at anyone suggesting we should strive for a more humane version of the current capitalist model of commerce. This model has won, we are told, and is the dominant – maybe the only remaining – working economic model in existence. You may not like it, but there is no alternative. Businesses exist to make profit, and even their most altruistic and humane actions can ultimately only be explained by that economic necessity.
Is that really all there is to it? Business is business and there is no room for sentimentality when it comes to the bottom line?
I find it hard to believe that a system that leaves no room whatsoever for human values, such as virtue, compassion, kindness, higher purpose, social responsibility, etc. can ultimately thrive for long in our human world.
Because businesses are not alien life forms or soulless machines, but a collaboration of human beings, like you and me. And I don’t believe human beings are purely driven by greed and a selfish lust for power. We are social creatures at our very core. Wherever there are people, there are social structures and social rules to encourage collaboration, protect the weak, help each other and balance the greater good against the individual’s needs and desires.
Some people would argue that the very existence of those structures and rules proves that without them we would all just be brutal predators, waiting for a chance to pounce on the weak and helpless for nothing but our personal satisfaction. We have societies, they would say, because without them we would be savages.
Yet, all over this planet and all through history, people have found ways to peacefully live together, to collaborate and support each other. We find evidence from before the dawn of history of injured or old individuals being cared for. We find ancient myths proclaiming the virtues of compassion, kindness and social responsibility. Ancient laws talk about justice and fairness and social responsibility as if that is the natural state of our being, and those who deviate from it are the harmful exception society needs to be protected from.
I think the simplest explanation for this very human tendency to form complex, regulated and collaborative societies is that we are at heart a complex, regulated and collaborative species. We are NOT ruthless individuals only limited in the harm we do to other by the force of law and the fear of retribution. We WANT to live in peace. We LOVE to help each other. We THRIVE on collaboration. The rules and structures are there because we know societies are fragile things and can easily be twisted and broken by the few individuals that ignore their social side in favour of their individual desires. Precisely because we value a just, fair and functioning society so much we keep building them. Since we are far from perfect, our attempts to create the perfect society are bound to be imperfect, too. But we keep trying. Because what we really want is to live in peace.
Which brings me back to business. Businesses are human organisations and the people that come together to form a business bring all their human characteristics with them. That means that next to their individual needs and fears and insecurities, they bring their very human social instincts. They bring their desire for collaboration, for contribution, for attention, appreciation, affection, and acceptance, for fairness, for meaning and purpose.
Yes, they want money, too. They need to earn at least a living wage and most of us would love to earn a comfortable income, enough to put a rest to our – also very human – worry of not having enough in the future. But that is hardly ever the sum total of what we are after. Once our basic needs are met, most of us want more from work than just an income. We want to feel part of our organisations. We want to be proud of the work we do. We want to feel proud of the organisations we work for. We want to feel we’re making a positive contribution to our work and to the world.
With all the evidence we have that human beings are more, much more, than purely self-centred egoists, isn’t it sad that our corporate methods are so focused on bringing everything down to the lowest and meanest common denominator? More than sad, even. I have a strong suspicion that because the accepted business narrative has become so devoid of social and human considerations, the people working for them also lose touch with that side of their own socio-emotional needs and desires. By leaving no room for human needs other than money, status and power – by denying even that such needs exist – our organisations push people into a state of almost pure survival mode, where everything becomes a win-lose transaction, and every relationship and collaboration only exists for its utilitarian function.
The sad thing is that our society seems to have fallen for this false narrative of human nature. Business has become the dominant force in shaping our culture and with that its portrayal of humans as ‘homo economicus’ – the individual always out to maximise personal gain – has become the standard we measure everything by.
So, does that mean business has won and this is what we have to learn to live with?
As I said, I don’t believe that this model and its way of thinking is ultimately sustainable. We all get pressured on a daily basis to believe in this model. We all are forced to obey its rules even if we don’t believe in it. Yet, humans will be humans, and when a part of us remains unfulfilled and unexpressed, this will, sooner or later, create a reaction. When we can’t express our social nature, we will get stressed, uncomfortable, dysfunctional and sick. When we can’t satisfy our need to be a good person, we feel unfulfilled and unhappy. We know there is something missing, even if we can’t exactly put our finger on it. Even if we belong to the lucky minority that succeeds in the material race for money, status and power, if we can’t express our essential social character, we will not be satisfied.
By ignoring the social nature of the people that make up their organisations, businesses are pushing them to a breaking point. In this time of change and uncertainty, just when businesses need their people to be at their best, their most creative and most daring, they are reducing their people to the most basic state of survival. This makes it harder, almost impossible, for people to live up to what is expected of them, which only increases their stress and fear of failure, making things even worse. Something will have to give. Something will give.
I think we are close to breaking-point right now. The very success of the current way of thinking is creating the conditions for its own downfall. By taking over all aspects of our lives, the cold, self-centred homo-economicus we are made to believe we are has driven the altruistic, caring homo-socialis1almost completely underground. But there, with its back to the wall, it will become stronger. Like all suppressed emotions, our social needs and desires have not disappeared, they are just gathering strength. They are collecting the tension, the sadness, the disappointment and the longing and turning it into energy, like tightening a spring. And when the right moment comes, the spring will be released. All that stored energy will come out with an unstoppable force when the breaking point is reached.
I don’t know how this is going to end. I am not a prophet. I am not even a futurist2. But I do know we are facing a fundamental choice here. When the breaking point comes, what are we going to break? Are we letting it break society and all the people in it, or will we break the business model causing all this pain and dysfunction?
The forest floor is covered in ankle-high layers of dead, brown leaves. It could easily be mistaken for an Autumn scene somewhere in Europe. Yet this is a rainforest in sub-tropical Australia, a country where the trees are always green and shed their bark, not their leaves.
There still is some green around, as the hardier plants and trees stubbornly hold on to the preciously little water they can still access. There are patches of colour even, from flowering trees and shrubs that feel they are dying and push out a last abundance of flowers in a last attempt to produce enough seeds to preserve the species for after the drought.
But most of the trees are bare. The once dense jungle is visibly thinning out. It is like the forest is slowly fading away and becoming transparent, like a ghost of its former impenetrable self. Where walls of green once blocked all views, dark outlines of trees in charcoal black and burnt-earth browns are no more than shadows between here and the now starkly visible horizon.
Is this what the death of an eco-system looks like? Is this how life fades away, one species at a time, until only the translucent outlines of that abundance remain? Will we all become pale, lifeless, shimmering ghosts, aimlessly wandering through a desert of dead and dying dreams, vainly grasping at the mirages of the lush and vibrant riches we failed to value when it was all still alive around us?
More information automatically leads to better decisions
The more I know about something the better I can weigh my decisions: instead of having to guess and assume, with enough information I can simply reason my way to the best decision. With all the information at my disposal I will always make the right decision.
But is this true for all decisions? When there is only one choice, the decision is obvious. When there are two options, one of the two usually stands out as the better choice. When there are five choices, however, making a decision becomes difficult and I need information to work out what is best. When there are dozens of choices, the decision is complicated, and I need a lot of information to work things out. When there are a hundred choices or more, the choice is now complex, and even a single new bit of information can completely change the outcome. What exactly is the best decision when the outcome changes with every new bit of information and the information available is never complete?
Is the constant demand for more information an example of believing you can never have enough of a good thing? Sure, without any information at all, your guess is as good as mine – or as random. So a bit of information can be helpful. But piling up information from different sources, of varying quality, of variable levels of relevance, does that clarify things for us, or does it merely confuse us?
Maybe we need to come to terms with the limits of our decision-making abilities, and the limits of what information can do to improve them? Maybe we live in a world that is too complex to fully fathom and all we can hope for is on average to get things more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’, trusting that we have more than just our rational thought processes to guide us; and trusting that in a complex, highly dynamic, and never fully understood reality even our ‘wrong’ decisions can be portals of discovery leading to completely new and unimagined opportunities?
When the total sum of wealth in the world increases, should we care about its distribution? We are all related, and everything is connected, so when the wealth of the world increases, the whole world is better off, even when only a lucky few benefit directly. Feeling left out and disadvantaged is just a narrow-minded, selfish reaction of the misguided ego that fails to see the bigger picture. A rising tide floats all boats, they say. And the trickle down principle works better when there’s more at the top to trickle down from. So let’s just keep slaving away at increasing the size of the pie, and not look too closely at how the slices are divided.
But if all the food of the world ends up on one table and the rest of the world is starving, does it really matter how richly stacked that table is? Does it matter how big the pie gets, when its parts are shared more and more inequitably? Does it benefit the world that a lucky minority can waste water on pools, parks, and fountains while the masses are dying of thirst? Is it right to boast of our fabulous cities and technological marvels while the rest of the world is turned into a wasteland to make those wonders possible? Does concentrated wealth really count as wealth, or it just another name for distributed poverty?
There is something deeply flawed about our current economic models. It all sounds really good in theory: in a free market, with all players having equal access and the freedom to choose, supply and demand, surplus and shortage, production and consumption will all balance themselves out in a dynamic equilibrium. The most deserving will get a bit more, the most productive will make the most profit, while the least productive and least deserving will get a bit less. But that is only fair, and much more fair than any centrally led economy or government-regulated system could ever be.
For a long time I have tried to believe this narrative, in spite of the plenty of evidence to the contrary. I wanted to believe the fundamental theory was sound and that a free market was – in theory – the best solution to our economic needs. I tried to explain the obvious failings of the system – the rising income inequality, the massive environmental damage, the overwhelming power of the wealthy elite over the poor majority of humanity – not as a flaw of the system but of the people running it. It had to be because of bad people, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and criminal governments that the system refused to balance out. Surely, if we could find a way of weeding out the bad apples that were ruining the beauty of the free market, everything would work out OK?
An article in this month’s Scientific American, titled “The Inescapable Casino”, changed my mind. What the article claims, using fairly simple mathematics, is that the free market theory is fundamentally flawed. Even a truly free market, untainted by the distortions and machinations imposed by bad and greedy influences, will not move towards a balanced distribution of goods and value. Instead, small ‘errors’ of value exchange – where one party receives slightly more value than they should – build up over time. Once the value distribution is skewed, the unfair advantage of having received slightly more builds up over time, invariably leading to a lucky few owning almost everything, with only a few scraps left over for the rest. Instead of trickling down, the authors state, a free market tends to trickle up: shaving off value from the poorest to add to the increasingly disproportionate abundance of the rich.
For me, this insight changes a core part of my own thinking about our economic future. The flaws in our system have always been obvious to me, but I kept thinking we could correct these by limiting the damaging influence of the bad people involved. I was hoping that a free market without their distorting influences would be possible, so we did not have to rethink the entire foundation of our current economy. But I am coming to the conclusion this was a naive and idle hope. The system itself is fundamentally flawed. Even without ‘evil’ influences in it, it will never lead to a just and fair distribution of wealth and power.
But hidden inside this realisation is some (perhaps unexpected) good news.
It means we can change our focus. Instead of fighting the bad people and thinking up ways to limit their evil ways, we can turn our minds and energy to solving the real problem. Fighting evil people may give us the satisfaction of righteous indignation and moral superiority, it will not, however, solve our current problem of income inequality and massive over-concentration of wealth. It may smoothen the curve a bit, and soften some of the edges, but it cannot ‘cure’ a system that is so fundamentally flawed. We need to find a better system if we want to have a sustainable future. We need a system that is fair, balanced and equitable at its core.
So, let’s keep calling out bad behaviour and abuse of power where we see it. But let’s stop blaming bad people for all the problems in our world. They may be taking advantage of it but they are not the cause of our economy’s failings. The root cause is our economic system itself. Finding a better system should have our full attention and complete devotion. This is not a matter of winning a battle between good and evil. It’s a matter of finding a way of life that offers us a future.
If growth is good, continuous growth is better, slow growth is bad, no growth is a disaster
When things grow it means they are getting bigger, stronger, more. The faster they do so, the better it is. Failing to get bigger, stronger, more – even for a moment – must mean falling behind in the race towards dominance. Losing that race means death. When we look at Nature, growth is a sign of health and vigour; of youth and potential. As long as things grow they thrive. So, with Nature showing us the way, isn’t it logical – natural even – that we humans strive for perpetual, ever accelerating growth?
Or is it? Most things in Nature do not grow all the time, but slow down, decline, and die. In Nature things have a natural limit to their growth, to keep the eco-system diverse and balanced. Only pests, diseases, and cancers don’t seem to obey this rule, and end up destroying the very environment that gave them life. Maybe ours is the choice between growing up or growing on: finding peace with our world or finding ourselves without a world at all?
What if bigger, stronger, more are not the dimensions we should focus our efforts on? What if there are other forms of growth we overlook? Growth in complexity, variety, experience, wisdom… Could it be that our obsession with material growth is blinding us to the real growth opportunities around us?
An enterprise is like a machine we design, build, and operate
An enterprise is very much like a machine. It is engineered to perfection. Powerful and unstoppable, if properly constructed if will fulfill the function it was designed for without hesitation or deviation. Like a train it will thunder down the track its masters lay down for it, squashing all that comes in its path.
If this were true, why do Enterprises so often surprise us? Why is there no guaranteed best formula for creating and running an Enterprise? Why can good companies turn bad? Why do winning Enterprises stop being successful?
Is it because the machine of Enterprise is being operated by humans and those humans are fallible, unpredictable, flawed? If that were true, the less human interference we need, the better our Enterprises would become. The perfect Enterprise would not need any human operators at all. The perfect Enterprise would be perfectly engineered to perfectly run without human intervention.
Or could it be that the reality our Enterprises operate in is not a mechanical reality? Could it be that the complexity of the Enterprise’s environment defies a full analysis, complete enough to robustly design the Enterprise for all the variables and variations it has to deal with in its existence? If that is the case, no purely mechanical approach will yield a workable Enterprise. Resilient, intuitive, intelligent, unpredictable people will always be needed to steer the Enterprise through the frothy waves of complex reality. The perfect Enterprise would be approximated but never complete. No design, however detailed and well-thought-out can capture all the possible variations branching out at every future moment. Without humans to give it life, purpose, awareness, and responsiveness it would remain a perfectly lifeless abstraction, incapable of sustaining itself in the real world.
There is plenty of reason to believe reality is too complex, chaotic even, to be fully predictable. Why then are we still trying to refine human action and human agency out of our Enterprises’ design and operation? Why do we keep thinking that less human control and influence equals more effective operations?
Isn’t it time to stop that train before it takes us over the edge of the abyss?
This is going to be a series of assumptions I believe we should not always take for granted. They may be true sometimes, they may sound quite obvious, but are they always right? I am not claiming they are never true or useful, just arguing we should occasionally stop and question them. If we never critically examine what we assume about the world, how will we ever correct the flaws in our thinking?
1: Unlimited Wealth
If wealth is good, limitless wealth is infinitely better
Can you ever have too much of a good thing? If wealth enables people to do great and good things, limitless wealth should enable them to do an unlimited number of even greater and better things. But many great and good things are not happening in the world right now, whilst many deplorable and bad things are.
Why is that?
Is it because the wealthy are not wealthy enough? Are we limiting their ability to do all the great and good things they would do if only we let them grow even wealthier?
Or maybe wealth itself is not enough. Maybe wealth needs the human spirit to turn its potential into good. Maybe strong spirits with limited wealth can do great things, where weak spirits with great wealth do little good at all.
Maybe, when focusing on growing wealth, we are focusing on the wrong side of the equation? What would happen if we focus on developing the human spirit? If we encourage our children to be compassionate, fearless, strong, kind and caring before we teach them to be selfish, afraid, needy, greedy and aggressive? What would happen if we change the rules of the games our society plays by, so that wealth is not automatically equated with success, and money is not automatically equated with power over others?
Have you ever wondered why so many people in your organisation are constantly stressed-out and on the edge of a burnout or fundamentally disengaged? Have you ever asked yourself if that is normal?
Is it really the case that work is by its very nature hard, mostly unpleasant and a sacrifice we all have to make in order to make a living? Is work really no more than a sad fact of life we put up with because it pays the bills?
I believe there is more to work than that.
As long as we have existed, humans have come together to achieve things we could not achieve alone. Throughout the ages, we have tackled difficult, dangerous and unpleasant tasks together in groups, tribes and all kinds of organisations. We did not just do that for the reward. In fact, a lot of extraordinary work was done not for extrinsic motivators such as money, titles, status or power, but for intrinsic motivators such as being part of something bigger than ourselves, doing something meaningful, making a contribution, or in the words of President Kennedy: we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Humans like to work, and love to work together. It’s a deeply ingrained social drive. It’s part of what makes our lives meaningful and worth living.
Yet, that’s not what most workplaces feel like.
Because of our obsession with the economic aspects of work: money, value chains, productivity, etc. and how that makes us organise and manage the work we do, we are actually working against the natural drivers that engage and inspire people to do great work. Instead of helping people achieve their best and wanting more we make it harder.
But we can change this. If we recognise and embrace the natural drive that people have to get together and do great work we can tap into much more energy, creativity and willingness to explore and innovate than we do at the moment.
To do so we need to add a social perspective to our approach. We need to realise that organisations are not just there to produce economic value. Organisations are social structures, full of people with a need to participate, to feel proud, to have a purpose, to grow their potential and to contribute.
It’s my mission to help bring this social perspective to organisations and show them how they can inspire and support their people to do great work and enjoy doing it.