Saturday, March 5, 2011

Have you ever gotten the Smile?

I get it sometimes, when I talk about social enterprise. I’ll be explaining the idea that business doesn’t have to be just about profits, that we can harness the power of the free market to solve world problems, and that we have to learn to measure success not just by the financial returns to shareholders, but by the sum net total return to society. Sometimes I get a look of confusion, often it is curiosity or excitement, and sometimes shared passion. And sometimes I get the Smile.

I’m not the only one who gets this look. I’ve seen the Smile leak out even in august reportage. Do you remember when Google was heading toward its IPO? How many paternalistic, condescending articles did you read about their creed, “do no harm.” The Smile was vivid in the reporters’ descriptions of their youthful optimism and this quaint idea, and how it would certainly need to be put up on some shelf along with other childhood notions if these youngsters wanted to play in the major leagues.

It’s a kindly patient smile and it ignites my inner teenager. It brings me back to middle school and arguments with my Dad. After listening with tolerance to some fervent argument I put forth he’d pull out the Smile and I knew the battle was lost. No amount of passion or logic would prevail because in his eyes I was just a silly idealistic, unrealistic child. I would then do what any normal teenager does in the face of great parental injustice and storm off to my room to sulk for days.

Well I’m not storming off to my room any more. Because today it is we, the passionate, idealistic, forward thinking, trail blazers who must take the reins. We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and sulk. We need a new business paradigm, with new metrics for success. We need to drive this buggy in a new direction.

And if anyone is deserving of the Smile these days it is the old guard - anyone who still thinks business as usual is sustainable. It’s time to wake up, smell the coffee and realize that a new day is coming. The old way (in case you hadn’t noticed) isn’t working. It is time to put away the simplistic childish fantasy that any single metric like quarterly profits can lead us to success. Social enterprise is not simplistic. It is complex and will require new and challenging tools to help us find our way and stay on track. But life is complicated. Naiveté is continuing to believe, against all proof to the contrary that the system is working.

It is time to grow up, to face reality, to get serious. Because it’s ok for children to live in a fantasy world, but the world today needs fact facing, hard working, purposeful, passionate people. Who’s with me?