"What are we going to do together to dramatically improve the world?"
I ask this of everyone I work with. I’ve reached a point in life where I can’t not ask. Leaders in giant multinationals, promising startups, and critical government agencies have the power to make inspiring planetary change, yet that’s often the last thing on their minds. It’s time to bring the world back into focus.
For nearly a decade I’ve been in the business of fixing organizational folly. Several assignments have had a James Bond feel. None have required fast cars. All of them have involved cool technology. Most messes stem from leaders treating people (employees and customers) like disposable commodities, rather than ingenious assets.
Applying the principles of complexity and neuroscience to organizations that look more like octopuses than pyramids, I get the job. By rigorously removing friction, systematizing distributed networks, and refining corporate culture, I improved the work-lives of several million people and the bottom lines of some of the world’s biggest brands. Then I jumped off the cliff.
For all the time I’ve spent on making workplaces more humane, I’ve overlooked the monsters in our midst. Large companies increasingly employ destructive practices in the name of corporate profit. Very few executive strategies look at the total cost of business impact and commit to restoring the natural and human resources spent along the way. Many leaders feel powerless (or too busy) to think about what they should do. What they will do. And that won’t do.
After spending my summer with scientists, business leaders, artists, technologists, and philosophers considering if there might be a fundamentally different way to be in the world, I began a reconnaissance mission on saving the world.
I wondered if asking leaders to re-imagine their part in creating a healthful world would elicit defensiveness or blank stares. Could the finite game, where a few win at the cost of everyone else, be reworked to be an infinite game where we all can keep playing? I discovered people across industries, demographics and incomes relaxed their shoulders and looked relieved that someone finally asked. It seems many of us are ready to work on the long play. Are you?
Few people view their work as directly leading to a tumbling world, yet amid such disrepair can all of us be blameless? Even I’d thought "not me" until a friend said he wished I wasn’t so good at my job. He blew my cover and exposed me as potentially prolonging the death of some large corporations who we might be better off without. There’s plenty of opportunity for all of us to acknowledge our part. This is me owning mine.
So how will you answer the question? As a business leader or a concerned citizen, what will you do? Here are three big ideas.
If the benefit of working for a company with less-than-stellar ambitions is that paychecks don't bounce, you have opportunities to advance, amassing power and good health insurance, would you please at least offset the karmic cost? Recycle your skills to level up the planet. Find ways to supplant your vocation with your avocation whenever you can. If you’re a data scientist, join DataKind to connect with non-profits in need of data analysis and visualization. If you’re a wiz at creating marketing plans, find your local timebank and offer your services to your neighbors. What comes easy to you could be game changing to someone else.
Many of the roadblocks in our path to doing world-changing work are between our ears. Sometimes they’re in the behaviors of the crazy or lazy people around you. No matter whose mental model you battle, you’re in charge of your thoughts. Learn to meditate and lead calm amid chaos. Remind yourself you’re resilient and that people are wired to thrive. Rather than join in, find ways to hack the system or play along well enough to stay employed until you find something significant—because you will.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle shows that change creates change. When I ask large consumer suppliers, blissfully aware of their dirty deeds, when they will improve the world, they point to the good they think they are doing which they judge is enough. Besides, they say, nutrition doesn’t sell as well candy and caffeine. The American people, they believe, want to live dangerously. But you don’t have to. Stop dinking around the edges. Make educated choices about what goes into your body and habits control your life. You can’t change everything, but each of us together can change the world.
Dave Duffield, CEO of Workday, guided PeopleSoft with eight rules of business behavior. The first rule was "Keep the Restrooms Clean." It was his nonstop reminder that we’re all in this together. If any of us walked away from the sink with a water line across the front of our clothes we were annoyed. Our coworkers had been sloppy at your expense. Take care of the little things and people will begin trusting you are capable of taking care of the big things.
As the socioeconomic epoch we’ve lived in for over a hundred years draws to a close, cracks in our systems widen and we're presented with an opportunity, and perhaps a necessity, to do something profound. We now have the technology and connections to come together in new and powerful ways. As Hillel the Elder wrote in Babylon, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"