Enduring Principles - For the Common Good
“A principle is a marvellous thing. It never changes.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
We live in uncertain times. Society is changing fast and in unpredictable ways. Technology is pervasive; some would say technology has become invasive, overpowering. Many of us are running parts of a business and many are setting up new ventures. We follow the latest methods to understand the customer, to entice the client, to refine the value proposition and we try to take our teams on the journey with us.
Our competitors are on similar journeys. We all try to be innovative - meeting the visible and often implied needs and wants of potential users of our products and services.
Over the past decade or so I have had ample opportunity to work on complex environmental and social problems, the so-called Wicked Problems. These problems, according to Rittel and Weber (Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Policy Sciences 4: 155-169) defy being described in ways that allow us to find optimal solutions. They tend to shift as we discover more details about them. In short, we can move them along and find ways to deal with them that are better than what we have had in the past, but we cannot seem to solve them. They adapt. This behaviour does not help us when we are developing a Busines Model Canvas!
However, what if we could design our business value proposition along the lines of some sound principles? What if we could use ethical norms that would make us agile and would also allow us to address the Wicked Problems in ways that would leave us and many of the people that are touched by the problem, better off? What if the resolutions we derive and the services we offer are simply for "The Common Good"?
Surprisingly, working towards outcomes for "The Common Good" relies mostly on personal and organisational values (or ethics). It is more about how we do things and how we make decisions than what tools we use. From the literature and real-world experience, it is clear that some pre-requisites or conditions must be met in an organisation for it to function well (1).
Individuals and teams need a clear identity and intent to help them make sense of events in daily operational life. They are supported by the open sharing of information, knowledge and experience. Moreover, they need to be trusted and trust others.
Individuals must be allowed to question the rules and regulations in the modern enterprise. Only then can they consider the outcomes of decisions and actions (their own as well as that of others) in a tolerant way. It pays too to remain humble when things are always in the open. Nobody can claim to know everything, and if we make decisions in smaller cycles, based on a broader common understanding, any adverse outcomes can be addressed quickly and efficiently. Telling the stories of success and failure remains a valuable tool to keep the environment open to progress.
Unfortunately, the modern enterprise often suffers from lack of communication, restricted responsibility and limited clarity of intent. There is usually a clear divide between the all-knowing 'leadership team' and the workers. Big decisions are taken behind closed doors, with lip service being paid to everybody having a say about things that have already been decided.
The feel and value of culture in an organisation spread quickly through the delivery channels (services and products) to impact positively or negatively on the clients. If we are all thinking about the best outcome for our different customers, or teammates and our organisation and if we try to make sense of what would be a better outcome for all at every step of decision making while being courageous and humble at the same time, we stand a good chance of dealing well with Wicked Problems and the rapid changes in society.
There is enough evidence out there that says that getting it right makes a business robust. There are ample case studies about enterprises failing because they did not have a set of known and enduring principles. As we rapidly move into the turmoil of Industry 4.0 and its effects, I would say that we can win more than half the battle by having a close look at our organisational culture and trusting our people and ourselves to do the best for "The Common Good".
(1) I discuss the details of these principles in the chapter "Racing Ahead With Innovation: The Case for Hybrid Models and Ethical Decisions." in the Handbook of Research on Industrial Advancement in Scientific Knowledge, published in 2019.