A humble confession: I'm bored. As mind-implodingly, soul-suckingly, spirit-munchingly bored of business as Jason Voorhees probably is of Friday the 13th.
Let me explain why, via a tiny theory. Porter's five forces, the 5 "C"s of marketing? Forget it. I'd suggest that today, nothing characterizes industrial age business like the Five P's. Business is Pedestrian (in its vanishing smallness of ambition), Predictable (in its furious obsession with the trivial), Predatory (in it's hyperaggressive selfishness), Pompous (in its unvarnished self-importance), and Pointless (in its lack of usefulness to people and society). What it really excels at is pumping out inauthentic, unsustainable, illusory value--instead of the real thing.
Does this sound harsh? Consider some recent, everyday, humdrum headlines.
- GM using bailout money to fight higher fuel standards
- Banks having destroyed the mortgage title process perhaps irrecoverably
- Cigarette makers fighting global regulation
- Marketing by almost literally brainwashing
You might, then, begin see my point. Predictable, pedestrian, predatory, slightly pompous, and, effectively pointless. Argue with me if you like, add a nuance here and there, bring the hoary B-school 101 defensive arsenal to bear if you want, but I'd suggest that the institutions of business as we know them might just have outlived their faded triumphs. In fact, I dare you: pick up the business section--and ask yourself how many articles don't meet most, if not all, of the five P's.
Of course, I'm not the only one who finds himself brain-crushingly bored of predictable, pedestrian, predatory, pompous, pointless business as usual. The people formerly known as "consumers," once easy-to-placate investors, legions of snoring managers, tuned out "human resources," scores of low-cost global competitors, thousands of fed-up startups--they are too. Apathy is skyrocketing. Activist investors are doing less fist-pumping with boardrooms--and more fist-punching at them. Entire new categories of insurgents (think social entrepreneurs), hell-bent on revolutionizing capitalism as we know it, are starting to succeed.
I suspect that, like me, they've all come to expect the worst--because that's what they usually get. Lowest common denominators, customer service hell, fake profits, zero contribution to society, ripping off the future, trampling the natural world, giving with one hand but taking with the other. Here's what they're all beginning to say: "the 21st century needs big, fat, wheezing industrial age business like a baby needs a Big Mac. What can you really do for me?" In other words, if business wants to matter--it's got to do better.
While the 5 P's might have sufficed to create 20th century advantage, if creating 21st century advantage is your goal, then being predictable, pedestrian, predatory, pompous, and pointless are incompetencies.
So here's my manifesto. It's about transcending the industrial age's slyly abusive relationship between the boardroom and the living room, between corporate "people" and human people, between "shareholder value" and enduring worth, between the bottom line and the bigger picture--and taking a giant leap to a higher level of advantage, one that's created through significance, the art of doing meaningful stuff that matters the most.
Educate, elevate, and enlighten. I'm bored that most boardrooms see me as a "consumer," not a person. Business as usual shouts relentlessly at me to buy, buy, buy--to run faster and faster on a treadmill of hyper-consumption. But most--if not all--of it fails to make me healthier, wealthier, happier--or even slightly more interesting. Listen, C-suite: I don't want to spend my life the slightly overweight, rather boring guy with bad taste that I am. But most C-suites don't want to better me. In fact, the signals I'm getting tell me they'd prefer me to be a morbidly obese, totally brain-dead, clueless robo-consumer. It's a sucker's game--no matter how much you win, you lose. And there's nothing more insignificant than a business that can't transcend that game to educate, enlighten, and elevate people instead.
Amaze, delight, and inspire. I'm too predictably uninspired and unmoved by each new product and service that rolls out (and too many of the organizations they roll out of). There's nothing more insignificant than a company incrementally "innovating" (translation: yet another razor, a different color, a faster processor, a bigger biggie-size, a clangier bell, a shriekier whistle). So here's a question: can you remember the last product (that wasn't made by Steve Jobs) that amazed, delighted, and genuinely inspired you? I can't. It's the exception that proves the rule. The worst part of the parlous state of business today is that being pedestrian and pointless is itself mind-numbingly predictable. 21st century advantage starts with amazing, delighting, and inspiring.
Resonance of purpose. I'm bored (when I'm not horrified) by the fact that most boardrooms seem to be on a quest to win the gold medal in this year's Sociopathy Olympics. And I'm bored of excuses that are instantly, constantly cooked up about it. "The market demands it." "Our investors made us do it." What is this, first grade? If people demand stuff that's self-destructive, here's a thought: educate them about it. If your investors are that near-sighted, press on--and teach them a lesson. No more excuses. 21st century businesses are going to have to learn to stop being apologetically clueless--and start being unapologetically humane. If you want to matter, you're going to have get serious about doing stuff that counts, endures, and resonates. And that means sticking up for an ideal or two--whether beauty, truth, justice, passion, honor, integrity, joy or more--and never, ever apologizing for it.
Prosperity, not just profit. Nothing's more mind-numbingly boring than a boardroom whose definition of success begins with profit, and ends with bonuses--because, as we're discovering the hard way, that's a great recipe for a Ponziconomy. Profit is an effect, not a cause; it's the reward, not the accomplishment. So I'd gently suggest: creating 21st century advantage is going to require a bigger, deeper, broader, radically more significant definition of success--one that begins with shared prosperity, and ends with enduring, authentic gains that matter to humans, nature, and the future.
These aren't the only paths to significance. There are a lot more on my list (and probably some on yours). I look forward to discussing those with you in the weeks to come.
Maybe it's just me, but I'd suggest: industrial age business is to human achievement, the human psyche, and human purpose what a box of instant ramen is to a Michelin starred meal. Paltry, slightly depressing, a malnourishing--and, if consumed on a regular basis, maybe even permanently debilitating.
We can do better. In fact, to send this Great Stagnation packing, we have to. Let's roll up our sleeves, toss yesterday's tired, toxic assumptions aside--and get started. True prosperity is a product of significance.