August 2013 Archives

My First Commencement Address

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Marlboro On August 24th, I delivered my first (and probably only) commencement address to the graduates of the Marlboro College Graduate School in Brattleboro, VT. I had been teaching in their MBA for Managing Sustainability until last January. I had a chance to watch with great pride a handful of those I taught among the graduates from other programs. I am attaching my address should anyone be interested in reading it. It was very well received.

2013 Commencement Address.pdf

Taking a Break

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I am off the grid under about Labor Day. Please come back later. In the meaantime buy and read my new book.

Misery Loves Company

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misery

I read an interesting piece (subscription only) in the Sunday Globe Ideas section yesterday. With a headline of “The Triumph of Coping,” the article is a conversation with Jennifer Silva, who finds that, “the American Dream is being replaced by a new kind of story.” In a series of 100 interviews with working class people, she found that, in place of the old story of unlimited opportunity for upward mobility (The American Dream), a new tale of struggle against “emotional problems, mental illness, family chaos, and addiction… To her surprise, hard-won emotional self-management was often viewed with as much pride as diplomas or marriage certificates.” The context for this finding is that current employment situation, on the whole, has replaced well-paying, relatively stable jobs with uncertain, low-paid jobs in the retail and food service industry, resulting in “financial instability that hurts community and personal relationships.”

I interpret this finding, based only on the scant information in the article, that success (or finding happiness) in life comes from a sense of having faced the hardships out there today and managed to come through on one’s own. The mythic American dream has been replaced by what I would consider a pathological variant. The positive individualism characteristic of America of old has become a new sort of individualism finding happiness by discovering what’s “wrong with you … and make it your job to fix it yourself.” She calls this process “privatizing happiness.” Wow! I hope she is not right but her work looks to be well-done.

She slips in a paragraph near the end about those in her survey that were “emotionally or economically successful.” Here’s her response.

The few people I interviewed who objectively achieved upward mobility by getting college degrees and then using them to get good jobs, what really struck me about them is that they had good networks. They had people in their community who could help them figure out what kind of jobs and then how to go to school. They have someone translating the tools and knowledge and skills they needed to work their way up. Otherwise people are trying really hard, but without knowing the system they often make choices that set them even further back.

I don’t think it takes a lot of sociological research to come up with her findings. Silva, with a Ph.D. in sociology, is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Humans are social animals. We evolved in families, then tribes, then communities of many tribes and now a global, highly interconnected world. Humans have always coped; happiness and other measures of success in life, except for a very few privileged people, have always come only through human efforts, both toilsome and innovative. The headline writer for the Globe article has little or no sense of our species’ history. Coping is a natural human capability, not something to see as a triumph. I might have written “The Sadness of Coping Today.”

The focus is better placed on the isolated context for those finding happiness through their battles with loneliness, mental dysfunction, family breakdown, and other abnormalities of life for many today. Abnormal because a sense of the normal lurks in the background in the myth of the American Dream: happily married with 2 or 3 kids in a lovely house on a lot with a beautiful lawn and a diploma on the wall, coming home from a great job to dinner prepared by Mom, and so on. I must admit that my own early adult life was a bit like that for a time. But was that ever normal? There’s no such dinner waiting when Mom now is the breadwinner or the only source of money in many homes. For many, there is not even a home nor job.

I’m a child of the Great Depression era that had many of the same features as today, but also some critical differences. Life’s hard circumstances, created by the basic workings of an unstable economic system, were mitigated by relationships. Some were created by the great government programs that put people to work, but in the company of others. In my own case, my parents lived in an apartment that they could not always pay the rent for. The landlord let them stay saying he kne`w that ultimately they would be able to, and they did. There was a sense of care both in the big picture and the small.

Silva’s data show the importance of care. Those in a network of caring relationships found themselves in happier places that those, either by choice or necessity, coped with life all on their own. Taking a leap, I suspect that whatever positive feelings of success or happiness ensue from an isolated, individualistic encounter with life are empty feelings, empty of the satisfaction coming from successful, empathic relations. I hope Silva is wrong in finding that this new story of winning against all odds without help from others is becoming the new normal. The need for and difficulty of coping in the present economic and special conditions of the US is different from that of the past, but it is not necessary to go it alone. A long time ago, people understood that, “Misery loves company.”

The Timeless Wisdom of Confucius

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I was reading a review of a set of essays by Simon Leys in the New York Review of Books (August 15, 2013) when Confucius jumped right out of the page. Leys is an expert on Chinese history among other interests. Here’s what caught my eye.

When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,’ that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained (in Leys’s translation):

If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language has no object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.

Confucius

He, Confucius, would have had a field day rectifying the meaning of sustainability. As used everywhere today, the word has nothing to do with reality. Our affairs are disintegrating as measured by the ever increasing unsustainable conditions all around us. And further, it is pointless to attempt to coordinate or manage what goes for sustainability today. The very idea that we can sustain our life style and associated economy that provides it is about as far from reality as one can get. The Earth has limits no matter how hard the technocrats and no-nothings keep trying to deny it. Their call for sustainability isn’t even about keeping things the same; it calls for sustaining growth indefinitely. Growth, they say, is the answer to human suffering and inequality. Even this is far from reality. Growth does lift some out of poverty but impoverishes others simultaneously. Who wins and who loses in still a question. This loosely hidden connection of sustainability to unrealistic growth would be at or near the top of Confucius’s list of words to rectify.

Confucius and many other wise men understood what qualities should be maintained and what words should be used to guide the management of people. All had quite similar views of what constituted a good life, that is, a life that exposed the full potential of human being (gerund, singular). Not of human beings (noun, plural), but about the process of living. He might also rectify the word “being.” It does not rightfully refer to an object, a person. It refers to the action of existing, of living. These two words, sustainability and being, are closely connected. All living creatures exist, but only humans be. Being is the act of intentional living, existing but within a meaningful life, and in the case of sustainability, a particular meaningful life, one of caring. Caring is what makes humans distinct from other creatures, except, perhaps, for our primate forebears. Confucius would correct the current sense of being as fulfilling our insatiable needs that has followed our historical trajectory especially since the Age of Enlightenment.

I have been reading the books of Antonio Damasio this summer to learn more about how the brain works. Damasio writes about the connections among, emotions, feelings, consciousness, and bodily actions (behavior). He calls out attention as the primary driver of cognition. It follows that behavioral patterns or routines arise out of whatever most occupies the attention of a human actor over time. Such routines are either instinctive, that is, operating without consciousness, or intentional, the result of some some conscious rational process, that is, the end of a series of linked cognitive acts. An observer looking down on early humans might say that they exhibited care, that is, intentional behavior directed at the various worldly objects that routinely came to their attention. To survive, they needed to care for—interact effectively with—these everyday situations. I can imagine how these cares began to be called simply needs, and over millennia became taken to be part of human nature (another concept needing Confucius’s attention).

The Master’s mentioning the pointlessness of trying to manage the affairs of men and women when the words being used to guide that effort fail to match reality is also relevant today. The primary coordinating mechanism today is the market, which is supposed to magically maximize well-being, another unrealistic term, based on the combined results of everyone acting to fulfill their needs, another way of saying acting in their own interests. But we know that it really doesn’t work that way; there are too many imperfection in both the humans and the system itself. The other primary mechanism comes at the hands of the state, which for us in the United States, operates even farther from the way it is supposed in theory.

As I write, I see that my list of words that need rectification keeps growing. There are many more I haven’t got time or space to add. I try my best to make the words connected with sustainability right so that maybe those who are concerned both about the way we live today and the possibility that we can flourish in the future can try to manage our worldly affairs. After reading the quote above, I will continue to emulate Confucius and his understanding that without the right words, our affairs will disintegrate and we will have little to do about that situation. If you will join me in rectifying our vocabulary, then perhaps we will start to pull our collective lives back together.

Nature Isn't Such a Good Model

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mother Earth

CSRwire has always been a good source for information on what is happening in this domain. It has gone from a seemingly random reporting style to a well-designed and clearly displayed format. One added feature is the Talkback columns, presenting the ideas of a wide range of business, academic, and other interested parties. My comments today are directed to a recent article by Giles Hutchins, entitled, “Order Within Chaos: A New Business Paradigm Inspired by Nature.” His principles seemed reasonable, if not a bit generic, but I did not see their connections to nature as clearly as the article suggested.

The context for his work is what he deemed the chaotic state of the world as a more apt descriptor for the broad business environment than the historic machinelike models driving almost all strategic frameworks today. He proposes six principles to enable businesses to create “order within chaos.”

Paradoxically, inspiration for our pressing challenges is all around us in nature. Nature has been dealing with dynamic change for over 3.8 billion years; the more we explore nature’s ways the more we find inspiration for operating in a dynamically changing business environment… Our understanding of nature has evolved over the last few decades, from viewing it as a battleground of competition to one of dynamic non-equilibrium, where an order within chaos prevails due to unwritten natural patterns, feedback loops, behavioral qualities, interdependencies and collaboration within and throughout ecosystems. The more we grapple with the challenges our businesses now face, the more we realize that nature’s patterns and qualities inspire approaches and qualities for our own evolutionary success in business and beyond… Organizations inspired by nature are resilient, optimizing, adaptive, systems-based, values-based, and life-supporting.

Let me take these six items, in turn.

• Resilient-no argument here. In fact, this statement is more or less a bromide or a self evident truth. Resilience is the capability to withstand perturbations without disintegrating. One characteristic of long-lived robust living systems is always resiliency. There is a circularity here. If we observe such long-lived, relatively stable systems, we often define them as resilient, by virtue simply of the longevity. What makes them resilient is a more challenging question and has been the subject of debate among ecologists for a long time. Some argue, for example, for a high degree of internal diversity of the species that comprise the system. The analogy to a company is not helpful in informing us of what makes a firm resilient. Diversity in the market place, as Hutchins writes, has been a strategy that has helped firms survive in the face of changing customer preferences. Diversity may not, however, enable firms to survive shocks from major internal or external disruptions, say the sudden death of a founder or a new piece of legislation.

• Optimizing-Nature does not optimize. That process is entirely man-made. To optimize one has to first designate a set of values. There are no values in the natural world. Some species come and some go, but even Mother Earth does not predetermine the outcomes by applying some optimizing algorithm. Unless a firm includes the entire set of variables that shape its present and future performance, optimizing is always going to be iffy. This may be a useful strategic concept, but it is not derived from nature.

• Adaptive-Another good one coming from nature, and similar to resilient. Adaptive systems or organizations try out responses to changes in the inner or outer context until the new structure provides stability. Natural systems adapt without any intentionality ascribed to the changes. The process of change is simply evolutionary. The situation in human organizations is very different. Responses to perturbations are intentional. Leaving responses to some, more or less, random natural process is usually fatal. Adaptive management might be better called pragmatic and/or nimble.

• Systems-based-This principle reflects the reality of natural systems. They are systems of interconnected living nodes. Their behavior depends not only on the workings of the nodes, but also strongly on the way they are interconnected. “Systems-based” doesn’t tell us very much about the nature of the systems. Everything exists within some sort of systems context. This principle would be much stronger if the descriptor, complex, were added. Nature is complex and fundamentally unpredictable. Except for small isolated chunks, we cannot write down the rules that govern these systems. This means that the analytic, mechanistic models conventionally applied to design and manage business organizations will always fall short. Pragmatic, adaptive schemes must then be used in place of rule-based strategies. Responses to change must be considered contingent and retained only as long as they seem to work, that is, allow the enterprise to continue on the path it set out for itself. The firm must be prepared to change the strategy whenever the outcomes are not satisfactory. This is not an excuse for trying anything under the sun. Pragmatism requires prudent, wise managers, and inputs from the entire community with an interest in the outcomes. Participatory management and design flow from this fact about the nature of the systems firms are embedded within.

• Values-based-Nature has no values so this is entirely a man-made idea. Firms being constituted by human beings always have values, so to itemize this notion is oxymoronic. What matters, however, are the particular values that underlie its activities. Hutchins writes

As the need to continuously change, let go of old ways, seek out opportunities and embrace the new increases, values become the core in which consistent good business behavior is rooted. Hierarchies of management and control slow down organizations’ ability to adapt… Rather than controlling the workforce, a firm of the future empowers the stakeholder community to take decisions locally, based on core business behaviors set down by the values and culture of the organization. Hence, values-based leadership becomes a differentiator for these organizations.

I would and do argue for values based on caring. For firms, this means providing the means for all individuals that comprise a society to take responsibility for the well-being of themselves, other humans, and the entire non-human world. In a word to care. More follows below.

• Life-supporting-This sounds like something nature-related, but here too I would call this another self-evident principle. For natural systems, this could be simply another way of defining resilient. For managers, it means much more than maintaining autopoiesis because human life is more than eating, respiring and excreting. Cultural life is full of activities besides these basic life processes. I think this is a good principle, but what kind of human life is to be supported must be clearly defined

I would add a few principles to this list, after subtracting the ones that appear self-evident. My vision of businesses has them contributing to a flourishing world, one in which nature and human beings live together and flourish. The image of flourishing presumes a world that is autopoietic (self-creating), that is, maintains the structure that supports life while adapting to changes. My favorite biologist, Humberto Maturana defines stable, living systems by this term. Certainly adaptive and resilient are essential characteristics, but are outcome of other processes. Systems thinking, not merely systems-based, is critical, as it is generally impossible to be resilient or adaptive unless you are aware of the whole system in which you operate. It is patently obvious that no one can take in the whole world, but the consciousness that now drives all human activities must expand far beyond the bounds of the models managers use today. Whatever system is identified must be recognized as complex, requiring as I noted above, a pragmatic mindset.

The second principle is that firms have to take responsibility for the system they live inside of. Together this means that business as an institution must be responsible for the whole Planet. They are certainly not the only institution with such responsibility, but must care for the world that they affect, a very large part of it. The market as a place where needs are matched by exchange transactions is fundamentally amoral. A different way of doing business is essential, as without it, the changes that Hutchins sees coming will likely toll a death knell for business firms, along with the ancillary damages their collapse would create.

(Image: “Mother Earth”, the nourisher of all things, from the alchemistic work “Atalanta fugiens” (1618) by Michael Maier. Thanks to Scientific American blogs.)