A Forum for Innovation
I was pleased to see Malcolm Gladwell take a nuanced hammer to the myth of the entrepreneur, a viral notion that brave risk taker = successful captain of industry, in The New Yorker’s Jan 18th issue. Gladwell demonstrates how Ted Turner and other representatives of entrepreneurial success in fact practice fiscal conservatism. Apparently, instead of being more courageous than you or me, these supposed captains of risk are simply less emotional, more analytical and much (much) better capitalized. Richard Sennett holds a similar if harsher spotlight onto the “Davos elite” in his book Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism in which he echoes Gladwell’s view that the risk narrative comes easily to those who have large stores of capital and the ability to mitigate risk. Sennett adds that for the current business elite, corporate success depends upon an unacceptable and destructive level of risk for the majority in the form of the new and “flexible corporation” an institution that operates more like a network or “archipelago of related activities.” This flexible ecosystem, while lighter on its feet (and more profitable) morphs careers into projects and roles into decomposable or re-definable functions and assets. It is a place where people lose their jobs, career narratives, social and financial capital and in the worst-case scenario, lose their moral identity.
I share Gladwell’s curiosity about “what would happen if we realized that the people who are supposedly taking bold risks in the cause of entrepreneurship are actually doing no such thing?” Sennett elaborates on a myriad of historical, cultural and philosophical causes for our current reverence for individual risk including Hesiod’s injunction to the farmer “not to delay”, Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism, Michael Young’s essay, Meritocracy, and psychological research showing “that in talking about risk” we use the locution of ‘being at risk’.”
So even if we awoke one morning to a pot of gold (in place of coffee) and the wisdom to invest with minimal risk and tremendous upside, we remain unlikely to succeed because of how business is reconstituting itself. As organizations and roles dissolve and reconstitute, the myth of the entrepreneur is strengthened because of the individual’s need to assert “the sheer strength of his will as the essence of his own ethical character” even as the likelihood of his success diminishes. According to Sennett, the problem becomes “how to organize our life histories in a capitalism which disposes us to drift.”
I often lapse into despair while reading Sennett but he inevitably revitalizes me. Here are a few tips for companies and individuals on how to survive and thrive in the floating morass of work despite the real risks we face:
Social Networking is not just a fad but like Oatmeal it is extremely good for you. What better way to sustain and leverage a work narrative and career than through those we have worked with in the past, confer with in the present and will work with in the future? Herein lies a jollier definition of the new corporation.
As for corporate narratives, that transparent, permeable layer currently in the shape of a corporate blog and/or ad campaign will begin to influence new products, services and customers. Disarming perhaps but worth pursuing.
Data is not just for social scientists, user experience designers, database gurus, Google, financial and marketing executives. By breaking down the his subjects’ analytical processes, Gladwell reveals the consistently unpopular but necessary fact that research, data design (asking the right questions), objective research and validation is something we all must excel in and design into our organizations. This observation applies to the Operation and HR functions, where design, development and iteration of domain expertise criteria, cross-functional processes, technology platforms, performance criteria, customer experience, internal and external marketing factors and profitability warrant investigation and innovation.
Redesign HR so that it is not an island. In his article for Fast Company, Keith Hammonds suggests that “making exceptions should be exactly what HR does,” an idea that might help us address the pitfalls in a culture of risk and change. Why not design more sustainable work cultures and narratives which resonate with human-centered requirements?
Biomimicry author Janine Benyus writes about how to sustainably reshape how we work and live, including how we store our information, heal ourselves, eat, conduct businesses and economies, make things, store energy and learn. More on this later in the week, including designing your business like a rainforest, pre-competitive collaboration, decomposable design and asset recovery.