Monday, December 20, 2010

Black Swans and White Squirrels

Driving home from work one evening last fall a white squirrel ran out of the woods, across the blacktop to rustle among the leaves there. A white squirrel.

If blending in was this guy’s goal he was a little early. He stood out on the road and amongst the copper leaves like a polar bear in a coal-mine. But come winter… when the snow flies and the world turns white, this little fellow will have the advantage. While his grey cousins would be risking life and limb leaving their nests, he could freely scamper out. And he looks pretty cool - if I were a young lady squirrel… just sayin’. Maybe generations from now there will be grey squirrels that turn white in the winter, taking the best of both adaptations.

As owner of a social enterprise, I can relate to the white squirrel. We stand out now, looking perhaps a little foolish to our grey-backed brethren. But the snow is coming. The leaves are falling, leaving bare the skeletons of traditional businesses we thought were evergreen. There’s a time coming soon when being a white squirrel may have its advantages.

I gave a silent thank you to my small white messenger, and felt my heart lifted by the idea that we’re doing something important.

I’ve read about Black Swan Events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests in his book, The Black Swan, that many historic events (Think World War, the rise of the Internet, September 11)are rare and unpredictable, but because we crave understanding, we create stories after the fact to explain what happened in a way that makes it seem predictable.

I’d like to suggest that there are also White Squirrel events. Both are rare and unpredictable, and they both result from our desire as human beings to understand through the creation of a story around that event. But while Black Swan Events have a large impact and cannot be ignored, White Squirrel Events are easily and often ignored at which point they sink back into the background of our lives and are easily forgotten. But if you are open to its message, a White Squirrel Event can help lead you somewhere new, and if you follow through, in hindsight it will all make sense and seem like the natural course of events.

I’m willing to accept The Black Swans, but I plan to be on the lookout for White Squirrels.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tax breaks for pharmaceuticals??? Here's a better idea

Offering financial incentives to pharmaceutical companies to encourage the development of vitally needed antibiotics, as suggested in an article in the New York Times last week, is like the battered wife trying to buy her alcoholic husband’s affection by pouring him another drink.

What’s next? Tax breaks to gun companies for installing trigger safety locks? To food companies for reducing the amount of corn syrup they dump into junk food? To oil companies for safer drilling rigs? How soon until we offer more tax breaks to the financial giants if they promise not to take advantage of us so badly the next time around.

Paying companies to act responsibly not only feels wrong, it won’t work. It encourages the poor behavior which created the problem and sets up a Pavlovian cycle that elicits yet more bad behavior in the expectation of yet more reward.

Unfettered, unfiltered capitalism commoditizes everything; you, me, our water, even the air we breathe. Everything is measured only by its financial value, its usefulness in making a profit. If it can’t make money, it doesn’t count, and any collateral damage caused in making the big dollars is beside the point. In the pharmaceutical industry one such externality is the buildup of drug-resistant bacteria in our industrial farms through the overuse of antibiotics.

As Einstein said, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. This short-sighted, bottom-line approach may have worked long ago, when natural resources were vast and the negative consequences of selfish behavior were small, but times have changed. We need a new approach to help solve some of the challenges facing us today.

Let’s support a whole new approach to business that willingly puts purpose before profit and that doesn’t need to be bribed to do so. We don’t have to reject the free market – on the contrary, if the market is free then it can be open to motivations-and metrics-- other than profit. After all, in any complicated system, no single metric is enough to ensure the best overall outcome. There’s no single metric for health. It’s a balancing act that requires many systems to act together in harmony for the greater good. Healthy blood pressure won’t prevent pancreatitis. Good cholesterol won’t prevent cavities. And just as you cannot cure obesity with Big Macs, you cannot effectively wean Big Pharma off its profit myopia by offering them more money to act responsibly.

We can no more afford to heed the siren song of the profit imperative than we can personally afford to give in to the fat and sugar imperative our bodies request. This vestige of our ancestors is no longer necessary to sustain us, and in fact now causes us harm. Most of us realize we should not eat as much as our bodies tell us to – that we need to make healthier choices even at the risk of affronting our ravenous id.

So too does business need to rethink old drives. A new business model, Social Enterprise, doesn’t preclude profit, but makes it one of many metrics of health, not the raison d’etre. The primary goal of social enterprise is its ability to make a contribution.

There are many companies currently operating under this model. Some, such as OneWorld Health and Medicines360, are non-profit pharmaceutical companies aiming to develop affordable medical solutions. They’re looking for cures to diseases which have been ignored by Big Pharma’s bean counters, who predict a lack of the requisite return on investment, either because there aren’t enough sufferers to make it worthwhile (i.e. highly profitable), or the sufferers are too poor to pay. Companies like OneWorld Health are going where the profit imperative will not.

What’s more, these socially conscious companies tend to be small, startups, which economists agree are the engines of future economic and job growth. So, investing in these kinds of companies will create more jobs, create more competition, and engage not just the pocketbooks, but the hearts and minds of those who want to make a difference.

Einstein’s warning that we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them has never been more relevant. Let’s think outside the box, and beyond the bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with contributing money, or even tax dollars, to help a company grow. But why invest in the bloated, exploitative system that brought us to this sorry pass? Let’s put some money toward our own evolution by giving social enterprise ventures a boost.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why Money is Like Beer

When he was 21, heir to the Baskin-Robbins throne John Robbins left the ice cream company and his fathers money, determined to find happiness and fulfillment on his own. After becoming a successful author and establishing an independent fortune, he lost everything in the Bernie Madoff scandal. Through tumultuous relationships with money, Robbins discovered that: "Money, it seems, is a little like beer. Most people like it, but more is not necessarily better. A beer might improve your mood, but drinking 10 beers not only won't increase your happiness tenfold, it might not increase it at all." In a reflective essay, Robbins talks about his relationship to money and the economics of happiness. more

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Social enterprise advances despite snags

Stephanie Strom’s article (NY Times October 5, 2010) headlines Hybrid Model for Nonprofits Hits Snags. Of course it has - It’s a relatively new business model, at least here in the United States, and it has hit snags. It’s cutting edge. If it were simple we’d be doing it already. And look where simple has gotten us.

Our traditional business model has one simple measure of success – profits to shareholders. This approach focuses on the bottom line to the detriment of us all. It creates externalities that are killing us but which have no place in the simple business model. Externalities such as depleted natural resources, diminished air quality, over fishing, and climate change. With this simplistic business mindset it makes sense to outsource and offshore work. In the name of profit companies have cut everything to the bone, and dispensed with loyalty, common sense and decency, all in the name of the clear mission that Mr. Hussy the “no-nonsense investor” speaks of. Clearly our traditional business model has hit some snags too.

Social Enterprise solutions are springing up everywhere from the nonprofit end of the spectrum to the market oriented domain. Social Enterprise, for those new to the term, is any organization structured to use the free market to make a social contribution. For the nonprofit sector social enterprise offers a path to become self-sustaining - an attractive alternative to any organization now relying on the dwindling beneficence of public and profit sectors. For the more tradition businesses it offers a way out of the soul numbing world of business as usual and offers an opportunity to use ones business to make a difference.

There are a lot of questions to be answered and a lot of problems to be ironed out for sure. But let’s not wave the white flag yet. Creating investment vehicles for these new structures is one of the key areas for development. Traditional investors are out to maximize their return. Social Investors are willing to take less of a monetary return in exchange for a larger social return. Involving traditional venture capital in a social enterprise is like asking a fox to manage a chicken orphanage. Chances are the fox sees a meal rather than an opportunity to contribute. No one should be surprised at the outcome.

Describing the hybrid as a pushmi-pullyu is a wonderful analogy but perhaps the more descriptive picture is that of the typical human being with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Everyday we’re faced with decisions of me versus we. Should you turn in the wallet you found on the sidewalk, should you lie on your expense report or cheat on the exam. Should you use the emergency lane to get around the traffic jam at rush hour. We make these complicated decisions daily, jumping over the mental hurdles of conflicting goals of maximize personal gain with something more beneficial to the whole. It’s what we do as human beings functioning in a society. We compromise and cooperate.

The news isn’t that we’ve hit snags. You don’t see the headline “Search for Cancer Cure Proves Difficult.” The news is that we’re trying brave new approaches and the intrepid explorers like the founders of GlobalGiving, Unitus, and Freelancer’s Union should be applauded for venturing out into this new terrain.

There will be failures and there will be setbacks. But progress is being made and will continue to be made until someday, like the hybrid car, the hybrid business becomes ubiquitous and we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. We’re inching forward, mistake by mistake, and that is how evolution works.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Jessica Jackley: Poverty, money -- and love | Video on

Listen to the co-founder of talk about how we can participate in community and help each other through micro loans and love. It's a beautiful and inspiring 18 minute talk.

Jessica Jackley: Poverty, money -- and love | Video on

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Flawed Logic Against Social Responsibility

In his Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility (Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2010), Aneel Karnani questions the efficacy of social responsibility, saying the idea that companies should act responsibly and will profit from it is fundamentally flawed. This is true, but the flaw is in his vision.

Today, as Karnani indicates, any officer of a publically traded company is legally bound to maximize shareholder profit. Given this mandate morals, ethics, and good conscience are (must be) shunted, unless of course they can be rationalized as being in the shareholders’ best interests. And it is often true that more profits can be gleaned, at least in the short term, if a company is willing to forgo the niceties of social responsibility.

Karnani goes on to explain that regulators, watchdogs, and advocates should play the role of pulling in the reins on companies that would otherwise run amok and destroy us all for the sake of quarterly returns. And if we could ensure that these roles were played by uncorrupt, impartial, and passionately just persons perhaps we wouldn’t be in the pickle we’ve found ourselves in today. But given what’s happened this solution seems a bit dated or na├»ve… been there, done that.

But where his logic and his vision really fails is when he says that “In the end, social responsibility is a financial calculation for executives,” because it assumes that we must always continue to based everything on financial calculations. I think the world is opening up to some other options.

Social Enterprise is one of those options and it’s catching on. A Social Enterprise is any venture that is structured to use market forces to make a net positive social impact. Social Enterprise, can be seen as a step back to a time when social responsibility was part of the nobles oblige pact that successful company founders made with the communities in which they lived, brought up their children and left their legacy. Or Social Enterprise could be seen as a step forward in our evolutionary development as a species beyond selfish greed and toward a more just and compassionate society.

Either way, it is enables businesses to form based on the premise that purpose, people, and planet come before profits, and that while profits are an important metric of health, they do not have to be the raison detre for a company. This is the free market at its best. Not only are all of us free to pursue happiness, but we can each determine what happiness means.

As a Social Enterprise, the company that I founded over 25 years ago is required to act in a Social Responsible way (in other words we are required to avoid doing harm whenever we can). We are required to be transparent, and engage in participative governance, and any profits that we distribute have to be split equally among employees, investors, and the community. To ensure that this pact isn’t undone at the whim of a future majority shareholder we’ve created a separate class of preferred shares that are held by a nonprofit reSET(Social Enterprise Trust) which has as its mission to “promote, preserve, and protect social enterprise.” This class of stock doesn’t give reSET any day to day control of our operations, but it does give a majority vote to reSET on any changes to the Social Enterprise status of the company. This protects and preserves our Social Enterprise structure and while it may reduce the sale value of the company, it makes it much more satisfying to me as the owner wanting to leave a legacy that’s greater than the sum of my balance sheet.

The main difference between a Social Enterprise and a traditional business is that the Social Enterprise exists to make a contribution, while the traditional business exists to make a profit for its shareholders. Two different games, two different sets of rules, and the great thing is we don’t have to choose one or the other. In a free market there’s room for both.

Can these Social Enterprise ventures scale? Ask Muhhamed Yunus, nobel prize winning father of micro finance who started Grameen Bank as a Social Enterprise, not to get rich of the backs of the poor, but to make a difference, which he has done in the lives of millions through the almost 9 billion dollars that have been loaned out. Yes they can scale, and as an investor it’s where I would put my money every time: One, because it feels better to me, and two, because in the long run I think that will be the better investment.

Karnani says social responsibility is “ an illusion, and a potentially dangerous one.” On the contrary, I think believing that we can continue to let GDP and other financial metrics define success for us a company or a country is an illusion and clearly a dangerous one.

The exciting thing is that what America has always stood for is initiative and creativity. We’re great at innovation. We got ourselves to the moon. We created the first PC and the rolling suitcase. It feels like we’re the crew of Apollo 13 and we’ve been handed a cardboard box of odds and ends and asked to cobble something together to save our butts. To stay on course is not an option. To freak out and dive for cover is an understandable but not particularly helpful response. Time is not on our side and we don’t have a lot to work with. But we have brains and hearts of many passionate people. I think we can do it.

Of course we also invented the Stop Sign and the Revolving Door. But I think Social Enterprise will prevail. I think we will prevail. Winston Churchill once said: “Americans always do the right thing, but only after exploring all the alternatives.” Our hearts are in the right place, but we’ve got to open our minds to other possibilities.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Running with bugs

I began my run of the first mild day of spring light of step and full of joy and was immediately welcomed by the season’s first black fly. Soon two, four, ten were buzzing around my face in tight formation, and by the time I reached to top of our driveway these first scouts were joined by the whole squadron of killjoy.

Happiness gave way to panic. My arms began to windmill. Shooing and swearing had no effect whatsoever, flapping and slapping worked to a degree. When the next wave of hungry bloodsuckers descended, I picked up my pace hoping to outrun them. Flailing while running is great exercise and within minutes I was taking deep heaving breaths - inhaling bugs by the battalion. Not up for the triathlon of running, flailing, and coughing, I came to a retching stop, which gave even the slowest recruits time to catch up. What started out as such a promising run was instead sucking the life from me (literally) and threatening my sanity.

Running a business is often like this. There are cold, harsh winters when it’s all you can do to keep it together, followed by spring and the promise of easier times. Then, when the halcyon days arrive, you barely have time to celebrate before the bugs show up. And in business, the bugs are everywhere: The client that refuses to pay, the unexpected bill, rising taxes, economic collapses. Some bugs are big and ugly, but even the little ones, when they come in clouds, can drive you crazy.

So here’s what I’ve learned from running with bugs:

Stay calm – running faster, and working up a sweat just makes you more attractive to their blood sucking ways. Instead, run calmly at a steady pace and you’ll outpace most of the rascals while maintaining your dignity and composure.

Practice restraint – there’s something deeply satisfying in crushing the carapace of a deerfly that’s been dive bombing you for miles, but showing restraint is a powerful feeling too. Buddhists are taught to honor all life, even the life of a bug and I respect this, but at the same time I also respect my instinct to swat. (I rationalize it this way: I’m doing the bug a favor - sending it sooner to its next and hopefully more elevated incarnation). So swat if you must, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re going to kill them all. And know there is power in choosing when to swat and when to let it be.

Practice patience. Bugs exist. This is life. They come and they will go. After the bugs of spring there will be the heat of summer, followed by the wonderful gift that is running through crisp falling leaves. This will naturally be followed by cold and ice and the dream of another spring.

Practice gratitude – Even bugs serve a purpose (no bugs, no birds for instance). In every season there are things to feel grateful for and things to annoy you. Whether you feel blessed or drained is often a matter of what you pay attention to.

Practice joy – With every annoyance challenge yourself to think of three things for which you are grateful. Celebrate these things and feel the joy.

Practice resilience -Don’t give up. The only way to avoid bugs is to stay inside and then the bugs win. So head out into the challenge. Pay attention to your form – head high, chin tucked, core engaged.

And don’t forget to smile… with your mouth closed of course.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

'Benefit' Corporations: the Future of Business

Spread the word! It's hugely exciting, and makes me feel optimistic even. The trick is getting the word out and getting the energy of all of us who are fed up with Business as Usual behind accelerating a change toward this model, it could move faster than the melting ice sheets (and I hear that's picking up speed too)!
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World's Most Peaceful Countries: Global Peace Index (PHOTOS)

Our GDP goes up with every gun sold and bomb built, but not when a parent stays home to raise a child or volunteers to help make the world a better place. Is it surprising then that wars and weapon sales are escalating, and our ranking on lists like this keeps slipping. You get what you measure!
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

It's not just oil we're addicted to

We've built an economy based on stuff, which means that to grow we have to keep making, buying, using, and discarding stuff. We know this is unsustainable, and so along with a shift to clean renewable energy we need to figure out a new way to measure the health of our country. Let's do like Bhutan and start measuring Gross National Happiness, and recognize that Stastis is the new Growth.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Lessons from the chickens and the fox

Chickens don’t seem to learn much from experience and sometimes I think we don’t either. My eleven year old son, Dave, raises bantams; a small, happy, egg-laying breed. He lets them free range in the daylight hours and at night they put themselves to bed. He heads out after sunset to shut and lock the coop door and in the morning let’s them out again. We lose a few over the course of the summer to hawks but we believe our chickens would subscribe to the New Hampshire motto of Live Free or Die.

Given Dave’s track record for remembering to bring home his trombone, or to practice, or to get his reading log signed, it is remarkable how diligent he is in remembering to shut them in at night. Even when he sleeps at a friend’s house he calls around dusk to remind us to put the chickens to bed.

It all seemed rather idyllic until the fox got wind of our bounty and one sad evening we heard a ruckus that became more familiar with time. The ducks and the goose began to honk mightily as they jumped into the pond. The roosters flew up to the coop roof to screech encouragement to the troops. The dog began to bark, and Dave leapt into action. But the hens mostly ran in circles and the two slowest members of the flock were taken before Dave and Hannah arrived on the scene.

It was the beginning of escalating ugliness. Having tasted both the chicken and the challenge, the fox grew greedy. Watching the pig fest on Wall Street I should have known what was coming. At least the fox had a reason: I knew she had a litter of hungry pups to feed and I’m sure our yard looked like a perfectly stocked pantry. Soon she was making regular pilgrimages. Dave reported seeing her on his way down to the coop almost every night. He, in return, was even more religious about getting them to bed before the sun went down. Then one fateful day while we were away and Hannah was off duty the fox came by in broad daylight and destroyed 19 birds in one gory swoop.

19 bantams! There is no reasonable explanation for this slaughter. It was as if the fox thought simply because she could, she therefore should, (as in “I’m entitled to”) take a 19 bantam bonus. It reduced our flock to one ornery rooster (who after that day was no longer so ornery, but followed the ducks around wishing he could swim), so not only was it a gross display of over-kill; the carnage left several chicken carcasses to rot, it was just plain short sighted: A little more restraint could have ensured generations of future meals from this flock. It was appalling, disgusting, discouraging, and just plain sad.

One might be tempted to blame the chickens; you’d think they’d learn. But a chicken has a small brain and an incredibly short attention span; within hours of an attack they are back to business as usual. In their defense, they’re used to four legged creatures like Hannah who mills about but never interferes with chicken business, and the cat who lurks but never lunges. Still, you’d think the harrowing experience of one or two fox attacks would drive home some semblance of wisdom. Chickens seem unable to learn – maybe it’s simple lack of brain power or the fact that they don’t usually live long enough to pass on whatever knowledge they’ve gained to future generations.

Dave was heartbroken. He couldn’t believe a fox would deviate from the rule book and strike mid day. As my Dad would say, “I guess she didn’t read the rule book!” Apparently unlike the guileless chickens, fox brains are better at adjusting to circumstance and bending the rules to take advantage of new opportunities. It was a hard lesson for Dave, but he too has learned. His current plan is to keep the new flock in the run during the ugly month of May.

If an eleven year old can learn so quickly, it’s curious to me why we grownups, have so much trouble catching on. Why, for instance, after experiencing the recent Wall Street massacre unleashed upon us by masters of unbridled greed, we are looking no smarter than chickens, venturing happily back out into the sunlight to peck around for scraps hours after the slaughter of flock mates, even as the Wall Street foxes with their billions in bonuses craft ever more wily plans for future mayhem.

Here’s what I’d like to say to the chickens: You need to learn the difference between a Labrador and a fox. There’s no point in trying to understand why or talking sense into them, just teach your friends and family to run like hell when you see one coming. Squawk all you want but do it while you run. Better yet, practice flying.

Here’s what I’d like to say to the fox: Shame on you. I understand the laws of nature, and I don’t begrudge your need to feed your family. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And a 19 bantam bonus should make you as sick to take as it does us to hear about. A 19-chickens kill is a disgrace. Even for a fox.

Here’s what I’ve said to David. You’re a good person. I like the determination and humility with which you shoulder your responsibility as protector of the chickens. Please stay in touch with your heart and your head and someday please help teach your children to be neither chickens, nor foxes, but evolved human beings with the potential to demonstrate through intelligence, compassion, and creative innovation that we can leave a positive legacy for future generations.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reclaiming our cities' public spaces

"That's public space. Nobody can us it." That was one Portland city official's response when Mark Lakeman and his neighbors first began building unauthorized gathering places in their neighborhood in 1996. To Lakeman, an urban designer, this seemed like a a fundamental misunderstanding of public space. Together with his neighbors, he formed the City Repair Project, a volunteer-run nonprofit that set out to change the way Portlanders think about the places where people come together. Starting by redesigning their own intersection, the group went on to organize neighbors, build benches, and paint streets throughout the city. Now, neighborhoods around the country are trying out City Repair's methods, and the city of Portland even passed an ordinance allowing neighborhoods to build gathering places in street in tersections! [ more ]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Spring Break!

A week without meetings! What could be more heavenly? Like taking vacation, it introduces a mini-mental-health break into the schedule.  At Walker we’ve been looking at ways to improve the balance in our lives at the office, and one of the things that get us all down is meetings. Especially those days where you’re scheduled for meetings all day long, and find yourself at 5:30pm wondering when you are going to possibly be able to follow-up on all the emails and phone calls that accumulated while you were in meetings, never mind when you’ll be able to address all the great ideas that came up during those meetings. As the days and the meetings pile up it can get suffocating.

Enter Spring Break. The rule is that there will be no meetings scheduled for the whole week and only critically important meetings should occur. Two weeks before Spring Break we had to set up a meeting for training that would only be offered once a quarter and I thought it might be the beginning of the end of the sanctity of that week, but it ended up being the only thing scheduled. There were some impromptu discussions, but for the most part everyone honored the Break, and the result was wonderful. Things got done. People unwound. A calmer atmosphere prevailed.

And like vacation, everyone came back feeling a little more relaxed and on top of things. It was a simple gift to each other. Needless to say, Summer, Fall, and Winter Breaks have already been put into the calendar. Try it and watch your company breathe.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When you need to reason to smile...

A sweet video to watch when you need a reason to smile...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Celebrating Business as Art

Running a business is as much art as it is science and we can learn from the masters. When you look at a beautiful painting you’ll find repeating patterns - shapes, lines, and tones that develop an underlying melody for your eye, setting the overall mood and pace and helping you move through the piece. And then there will be little surprises that delight you by momentarily breaking the pattern. These little surprises give the painting both depth and soul. The same is true in any art form whether it is gardening (look for repeating leaf shapes, and textures, with the occasional splash of an unexpected color), sculpture, music, poetry or dance. Too much repetition becomes monotony. Too little and you have chaos. The art is in the balance.
A painting teacher once told me that accidents happen to all artists - the genius is in knowing when to leave them be. The true artist can strike a beautiful balance between control and energy, form and freedom, perfection and surprise, and it is this balance that keeps us interested, entertained, and often deeply moved. Whether you see your business as a canvass, a garden, or an orchestra, you as the master craftsman must constantly search out this same balance.
With the industrial revolution we lost sight of one side of this equation. We fell in love with machines and the Siren song of perfection through control and precision. We developed a fantasy of the ultimate business machine, with perfectly predictable, repeatable processes churning out perfectly predictable, repeatable profits just like the new machines were churning out perfectly predictable, repeatable parts and products. Surprises and accidents (even happy ones) became the enemy. We came up with ways to crush them in their infancy with proactive, preventive maintenance. We automated and mechanized to eliminate the messy human factor and when the actual human being could not be eliminated, we worked to make them as machine like as possible. With each punch-card, policy manual and procedure we tried to codify everything. We compartmentalized jobs and people in an effort to remove any opportunity for improvisation. And we didn’t pay attention to the price we were paying.
With the age of technology we’ve been able to take this idea to a new level and today we find ourselves with our messy humanness getting increasingly squeezed out of the market place. We have come to accept this as natural, normal, and even reasonable. It started in the factories with automating the assembly lines. You see it today in the auto-attendant responding to your phone call which makes you talk like a machine to a machine and press endless commands while your blood pressure soars. You find it at the doctor’s office when the receptionist doesn’t even look up when she says “name and birth date” in that same machine like tone you heard on auto-attendant.
The last time I went to AAA to renew my driver’s license I still remember being bowled over by the woman who processed my renewal. I was second in queue at her station, but she acknowledged me with a smile and said she’d be right with me. I watched as she helped the man in front of me, making friendly eye contact and saying something funny about his photo. I thought maybe she was flirting with him, but then it was my turn and she gave me the same genuine warmth and attention. It made me feel like we were two human beings connecting. It felt wonderful - like getting a massage. I asked for her card and wrote her boss to say how impressed I was. Clearly part of what struck me was how very rare that type of exchange is today. But why? It costs nothing, and here I am two years later remembering it fondly and telling everyone about the exceptional service I received at AAA in West Hartford, CT. You can’t buy that kind of advertising. Why wouldn’t every company make this happen?
The Siren call of perfection has lured us to founder on this almost perfectly souless island of our own creation. In making machines act like people and people act like machines we may have gained efficiencies but we’ve lost our humanity and any sense of artistry along the way. So maybe it’s time to reintroduce the quirky edgy, funny, lovable human being back into the mix and celebrate the result.
Begin to pay attention to where you may have tipped the scales a little too far toward the machine model and think about how you can reintroduce the human being into your business. Make sure if a client presses zero they will talk to a human being. Realize the way you treat your staff will be the way they treat your customers. Have an Artistan’s Award to celebrate the people in your company who think out of the box in their passion for what they do, why they do it, and who they do it for. Think of it as the ultimate Diversity initiative. Make room for the human being in your company!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Run your business barefoot

Recent studies have shown that the more you spend on running shoes, the more likely you are to sustain injury. Apparently, the more you swaddle and coddle your feet the more they will eventually let you down. This Sneaker Paradox was uncovered by a few crazy runners who decided to listen to their feet rather than the marketing messages of large shoe companies, and found they ran further, faster, with fewer injuries when they ran with little or no support. Barefoot running is a growing movement.

Apparently over 25% of the bones in your body are found in your feet. They have been finely tuned over the millennia to accommodate, adjust, and alleviate stress on the rest of your body as you cruise over the earth’s challenging terrain. But when you pad and protect them it impedes these inherent abilities, like taking a finely tuned surgical tool and wrapping it in gauze. And not only does all this protection disable your feet and invite injury, it sets up a negative spiral: Like children, the more we protect them the weaker they become, which pushes us toward more support, greater likelihood of injury, and the cycle continues.

WOW! Think about this for a minute. The market has convinced millions of us to part with our hard earned dollars on a pair of shoes that do exactly opposite of what they claim.

Where else are we being deceived?

I’m thinking that the Sneaker Paradox applies to the Profit=Success=Happiness model in business as well. It’s the fundamental premise behind our Free Market economy. Yet it has delivered exactly the opposite of what it promises. This simple equation explains and justifies the greed that drives our traditional markets and makes it possible for a small group of fabulously wealthy to feel ok about earning multi-million dollar bonuses while destroying the lives of countless others.

And yet, if a group of die-hard marathoners can discover startling truths by simply listening to their feet, so too can we by simply listening to the wisdom of our hearts rather than the market rules which have led us to the heartache and disaster we find ourselves facing now.

With many of us cutting back on stuff, we're finding out, whether we like it or not, that less can sometimes be more and that by shedding stuff we get back in touch with what actually makes our hearts happy. When we let the market tell us what we want we buy into an endless cycle of greed, grab, and regret. We want the next gadget, bonus, raise, whatever, and then we’ll be happy. For a few minutes. And then it’s on to the next gadget, bonus, raise, whatever. There’s always someone out there earning more, some other company doing better. It’s an endless game that has sucked us all in from time to time.

Most of us took some kind of hit this past year. It was difficult to watch our growth, our investments, our dreams take a hit, sometimes a very big hit. We found ourselves at the bottom of a cliff, dusting ourselves off and looking back up to where we were just months ago and wondering if we have it in us to claw our way back to the top again. Especially knowing that when we were there it didn’t seem like the top, but just another step along the way to that ever elusive peak we were reaching for.

Now might be a good time to rethink the wisdom of the market and whether the ever present promise, and ever elusive goal, of true happiness can be found following the trail we were on.

Think back to the last time you were happy. Not even a big happy - but an hour that held laughter, love, or inspirational joy. Chances are it had nothing to do with stuff. Chances are it had to do with some other being, sharing laughter or pain, helping out or being helped, sharing, caring, contributing, connecting.

This isn’t to say that profits aren’t important – they are, but as a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s like food: If you’re starving, getting enough to eat becomes the primary focus and goal. But once sated, eating more and more will not make you more and more satisfied. Yet our fundamental business model operates as if there is no end to the happiness that gluttony will shower upon us. That’s how the Wall Street fat cats have been acting. The revolting excess we’ve seen in recent years is all too clearly the result of a market that doesn’t understand that profitability should be a metric of business health not the ultimate measure of its success.

If we can muster the courage to listen to the wisdom of our hearts we will come up with our own business formulae. Here are three possible examples:

  • Contribution=Success=Happiness.
  • Great Environment=Success=Happiness.
  • Excellence=Success=Happiness

Maybe you have another. Maybe a blend of multiple things creates the perfect mix for you. For your business. Try some out and see how they feel.

I started running recently. It’s too cold for barefoot running, but I found the thinnest soled $19 river runners I could find, and my feet are happier than they were in my big expensive running shoes. I plan to listen to my feet and my heart more this year.