Flourishing Enterprise

FE cover

The title of this blog is also the title of a new book of which I am one of eight authors. We were a project team assembled by the Fowler Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit. The Center is part of the Case Western Weatherhead School of Management. Our assignment was to examine the potential roles of spirituality in business firms. You might imagine that we undertook it with some serious trepidation. We sent out a survey early in the project’s life to managers and consultants asking what they thought about our mission. We got back widely divergent responses. A few managers thought we were completely crazy; a few were very strongly positive.

Our group struggled for several months over the meaning of spirituality and arguments for why it should be important. Taking the last issue first, we settled, after much discussion, of flourishing as the objective, the condition that we thought would characterize a health, robust, resilient, thriving enterprise. Going in, we were using sustainability as the endpoint, but moved away from it for all the reasons I have been writing about in this blog and elsewhere (see my August 11, 2014 post, for example). In a word, sustainability has become little more than jargon, lacking any coherent meaning. I rediscovered this cartoon recently that makes the point much better than my words do.

sustainability cartoon.jpg

When you read the book, you will see how we managed to find agreement about the first of these issues, spirituality. The eight of us plus a few doctoral students that were working with us offered probably a dozen different ways to think about and act toward spirituality. In the end, it didn’t really matter. What did were the implications of all of our senses for an enterprise. The book is a compilation of all these threads, tied together by Chris Laszlo and Judy Brown, two of our team.

The rest of this post is directed to my own thoughts about the topic. The idea of a flourishing enterprise as the goal makes complete sense to me, where sustainable business does not. People will argue forever about ways to measure flourishing, but that’s not the point. Flourishing is an emergent property of the enterprise as a system. It is no different from any other emergent property created by a complex system. It can be observed when the system is functioning in such a way that all the parts are working together, much like life itself. Life emerges when the organism retains its structure as it interacts with the outside world. Humberto Maturana calls this autopoiesis, from the Greek for self creation. Flourishing is a metaphor for life. A flourishing enterprise is one that continuously recreates its self (another metaphor for a living person).

Corporations have been defined as people for various legal purposes, but not in the sense that they are living organisms. Some management theories that use this metaphor have been around for a long time (see Gareth Morgan’s, Images of Organizations). But I am using it differently. When I say an organization has a self, I am delving into the philosophical domain. I have been writing about Being for many years; more recently I have using concepts I find in the existentialist field. I start from the premise than human beings create their selfs as they exist/live. Self here is the identity that an observer would ascribe to the person or, in the metaphoric sense, to an enterprise. Self is a conglomerate of the kind of work one will do, that is, one’s intentions; a set of values; and a vision of where the values and actions are headed. As long as one is living such that the vision, values, and identity are continuously recreated, they are flourishing, in my definition. Flourishing is independent of the exterior circumstances, but it is obviously more difficult is some instances than other. It comes from the free choices one makes and maintains.

A flourishing enterprise, for me, is analogously the same. It is an organization that has chosen a particular mission that constitutes its activities, a set of values, and a vision of what will show up as a result of its actions; and is operating on top of these day by day. I use the word particular intentionally; not any mission will do. Human beings flourish by successfully taking care of a set of worldly concerns: themselves, other human beings, and the non-human world, including the transcendent. Care is the operative word. For organizations to flourish, first, they must, like individuals, explicitly and freely create their mission from a set of these care domains. Their values will guide their choice. The vision must be that of a flourishing world. The world is just one very big, interconnected system; one part of it cannot flourish unless the whole system is. As an aside, this is one reason why the idea of sustainable businesses fails. There is little or no understanding that they are interconnected to the whole.

There are no numbers involved in the process of choice or in the creation of flourishing. It is a quality of the whole system in operation. A flourishing enterprise is more than a machine whose output can be and is usually quantified. It may be producing so many widgets a day and so much gross income, but that is never a indicator that it is flourishing. Flourishing is always only a judgment by some observer.

Spirituality, in my mind, is one of the basic domains of care. People need it to flourish. It is not some inner presence; it is a set of activities directed towards the mysteries of life itself and the awesomeness of the world. When done right, these practices can produce a sense of both presence and interconnectedness. Presence helps make the immediate world clearer and that, in turn, enables one’s actions to be more effective. Some define truth as that which shows up through presence. However you define it, a more concrete perception of the world will enable actions most fitted to it. A sense of interconnectedness is critical in overcoming the ubiquitous individualism, narcissism, and extrinsic values of our culture. Without it, one’s actions are only focused inwardly. Care in the sense I write, that is, directed outwardly to serving the existential needs of the other, is virtually impossible.

It should be clear why spirituality is important to a flourishing firm. Every manager knows that clarity about the moment gives one an edge, and avoids mistakes or unintended consequences. Companies spend a fortune on all sorts of information or data gathering, but frequently do not make the right sense of it and march off in the wrong direction. Presence and the clarity it brings can cut through the mire of too much data and find the right path forward. The notions of sustainability and corporate social responsibility are, in theory, about taking care, but have become much too formulaic and meaningless to be effective in caring. One must come to understand that caring has two explicit ends, the carer and that toward which the actions are directed. A clearer consciousness of the interconnections of the corporate body (again a metaphor) and those targets of its business will enable it to execute its strategy most effectively.

While an organizations may choose from a diverse number of possibilities, one domain of care that is critical in every case is the people who work there. If the people that constitute any organization do not flourish, the collective cannot. This means that those who come to work every day must be seen as living individuals, not just part of some impersonal labor force or other economic abstraction. The recent brouhaha over the Market Basket supermarket chain centered in Boston demonstrates the power of treating employees and customers as individuals. When a family quarrel threatened to displace the beloved CEO, the employees and many customers stopped working or buying until he was restored. Many described the company as a family, but in a practical down-to-earth interpretation, not just the idle words of a PR agent.

I can’t possibly condense the book into a few paragraphs but I have tried anyway. I will be writing more about it in the future. You can purchase Flourishing Enterprise at your nearby bookstore or online. The book will be showcased at an upcoming conference, Flourish & Prosper: Third Global Forum for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, October 15-17, at The Weatherhead School in Cleveland. Click here for more information.