In his brilliant book, Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives, Oxford University professor Theodore Zeldin (who was featured in FC 41) writes about the power of words: "When problems have appeared insoluble, when life has seemed to be meaningless, when governments have been powerless, people have sometimes found a way out by changing the subject of their conversation, or the way they talked, or the persons they talked to. In the past that gave us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, modernity, and postmodernity. Now it's time for the New Conversation."
One of the animating ideas behind Fast Company was a new conversation about business. In our very first letter from the founders, we vowed to start a conversation with our readers about strategy, technology, work, and success. There was so much to talk — about the emergence of new business models from around the world; the power of small teams to reshape huge organizations; the transforming impact of open systems, instant communications, and global networks.
As the context of business changes, so must the conversation. These days, most of the talk is about diminished expectations for growth, a loss of confidence in leaders, and a gnawing sense that it's easier to promise digital transformation than to achieve it.
We've decided to try to reverse that relationship, to see if a new conversation can change the context of business. In that spirit, we've spent the past few months sponsoring, participating in, and capturing a variety of new conversations from coast to coast. The good news: There are all kinds of urgent questions being asked about the future of strategy, technology, and work — and just as many new voices offering exciting answers. Many of those fresh insights are in this issue, and many more will find their place in these pages in future issues. Here are just a few of the places we've been and the voices we've heard.
At a gathering in Boston at the offices of Chris Meyer and the Cap Gemini Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation, the conversation was a weave of robotics, economics, anthropology, and business. The most compelling (and disturbing) offering was that "The future is not fashionable." After a decade of sprinting toward a future of limitless fascination buoyed by a mix of innovation and boundless enthusiasm, business is badly in need of a fresh jolt of optimism, a new sense of possibility, and another round of invention. The prescription: Forget about lowering the stakes. Instead, now's the time to raise the bar, to amp up the energy.
At a panel in San Francisco cosponsored by Fast Company and the city's chamber of commerce, the conversation focused on the emotions of business — a welcome break from the important but too-often deadening demands of financial metrics. Business today is marked by a sobriety bordering on somberness. Which is why Mattel's Ivy Ross, a determined innovator inside her company, and a participant on the panel, looks to outside speakers, such as a Jungian analyst, and space rearrangements, such as kid-sized desks, to spur her group. It's also why strategist and panelist Keith Yamashita sets up warehouse-sized simulations to help his clients imagine the worlds that their customers inhabit. And why supersalesman Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com, looks to the hypercompetitive world of rap music for ideas about strategy.
Back on the East Coast, a conversation at Harvard Business School about the future of marketing featured a panel on the value of cult marketing with the likes of Apple, ESPN, and Mountain Dew. The topic was brands, but the real conversation was about faith. How much responsibility rests with a brand — or a company, or a leadership team — to keep faith with the people who believe in it, invest in it, and choose to engage with it? At a time when too many companies are either reeling from the blows of bad faith from the top or are dead in the water from the doubts of the market, a conversation about keeping the faith, meeting your promises, and staying true to the brand is a healthy reminder of the importance of values when creating value.
And those are just the opening notes of new conversations for the year ahead. There's a simple choice for us all. We can accept slower times as a given and slog it out with little sense of renewed possibility. Or we can change the conversation — and in so doing, find the future that we want to create.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.