The Shape of the Meaning Organization
from Umair Haque by Umair Haque
New Year's resolutions: what are they really about? I'd say that they're about habits — and especially about breaking the less than beneficial ones. So here's a thought. As I've argued here and in my book (officially published today!), it's the behavior of industrial age institutions — corporations, banks, governments — that's the invisible fist of this great crisis. Instead of creating enduring, authentic value for people, they're consistently, systematically, one might say habitually extracting wealth from them — and the result is the game of musical chairs writ large that is this crisis.
What are the habits of this whirling machine? Roughly, I'd suggest that they're strategy, marketing, finance, and the rest of the drear, dismal, passionless stuff that makes most of us snooze through meetings and dread the arrival of Monday morning, dilberting our joint prosperity, perpetually disappointing our ever-more apathetic customers, and gleefully embezzling from the future.
I'd suggest that the economic historians of the 23rd century are going to look back on the economies, markets, and organizations of the 20th the way we look back on the debtors' prisons, indentured servitude, and mercantile colonialism of the 18th. "How," I bet they'll ask themselves, "could they spend their time, energy, and resources — their very lives — in pursuit of the trivial and the inconsequential, the pedestrian and the pointless, the predatory and the predictable? Especially when confronted by a Great Stagnation, why didn't they rethink their suffocatingly, stultifyingly self-destructive habits?"
It's well past time to begin imagining an organization of a radically different kind — one that takes a quantum leap beyond strategy, marketing, and finance into a novel galaxy of unexplored, untapped economic possibilities.
Here's what I think that organization — call it the Meaning Organization — might look it. It's a nod to — but a step beyond — Peter Senge's learning organization. It's built not just to learn (and then do "business") but, more deeply, to redraw the boundaries of prosperity, by doing meaningful stuff that matters the most.
First, its brain wouldn't be the strategy group, but the wisdom group. The strategy group's job is to ensure that the organization is maximizing its payoffs, thus creating value for shareholders — so industrial age, so selfish, so myopic, so boring. The reason most organizations can't create thick, authentic (or shared) value is because they're not really interested in it: you can't argue that you're taking it seriously when the only person thinking about it is shunted off to some "CSR" ghetto that reports to three middle managers, whose harried, rumpled boss reports to the baby-faced junior associate intern of the strategy group — whose only job is to put near-term profit first. That's how the vast majority of organizations still, literally, work — and until it isn't, well, they simply won't be able to compete in 21st century terms.
Hence, the wisdom group. The wisdom group's job would be, first and foremost, to ensure that the organization is creating value that's enjoyed by all its key stakeholders — people, nature, the future, society. The group's responsibilities would begin with measuring, monitoring, and managing that value — but end up with shepherding, guiding, and nurturing it. The wisdom group would make sure the company was doing stuff that matters to our great-great-great-grandkids, that ennobles us, that develops our better selves, and that honors the firm's bigger purpose.
And the wisdom group's lifeblood wouldn't be in the hands of a finance team — but in the hands of what you might call a significance team. Because it's concerned with thick value, shared among and between all of an organization's stakeholders, the next-generation organization's got to think bigger — and better — than purely debt and equity, and what they're worth to today's myopic investors.
Instead, companies are going to have to get lethally serious about having an enduring, meaningful, resonant, multiplying, positive, proliferating set of impacts — of all types, whether social, human, intellectual, spiritual, creative, or relational. An isolated notion of "profit" is obsolete: it's an arid industrial-age conception of a currency-focused construct that's built to trivialize everything but what a firm owes its "owners" (its employees, society, community, environment, the future, even its own bigger purpose can all go to blazes). In the 21st century we're discovering the hard way just how threadbare and barren a prosperity that tired, lame, stale idea led to. Hence, the significance team, concerned foremost with creating and delivering benefits that matter in human terms. Outcomes, not income — that's the difference between industrial age "finance" and the nascent art of significance.
In the Meaning Organization, the nerve center wouldn't be marketing — but what you might call humanizing. In too many boardrooms, marketroids are minions, flunkies, and sidekicks, yes-men who refuse to stand up to the CEO, CFO, or board and say "No!! In the long-run, it's really not a good idea for us to push a lowest-common-denominator product that sucks." Heck, let's admit it — when they're not toadying up to the CEO and board, telling 'em exactly what they want to hear, most of the time, it's marketing that gleefully dreams such stuff up.
Hence, marketing's role has become simply to find slightly cleverer ways to convince "consumers" to buy more, more, more of the industrial age's rapidly depreciating, mass-produced, joyless, drab clutter. By contrast, "humanizing" is about helping people stop mutely, rotely (over)consuming, and start enjoying, improving, bettering; to help them maximize the authentic, long-run value they realize from a product or service; and to stop organizations from hard-selling the overconsumption of toxic, socially and personally self-destructive junk. Where marketing's about making markets, humanizing's about helping people blossom, flourish, and grow.
Hopelessly naïve, thoroughly idealistic, offensively simple-minded? Sure — I'll be the first to admit that the habits I've discussed with you here are far from the only ones, or even the "best" ones.
They're just a starting point — and that's the real point: the habits we live and breathe (the tired, toxic practices known as marketing, strategy, finance, and more) are about as useful when it comes to igniting the spark of authentic, enduring prosperity as a Hummer the size of Krakatoa is to the atmosphere.
And if you're thinking about changing your habits this year, perhaps this isn't a bad place to begin.