Your Guru lied

One of the most pernicious, sanctimonious and unhelpful lies told on conference stages and in books is that you have to look after your people and customers to be a success. You’ve been told it many times – that if you don’t do these things then you are doomed to failure. It’s unhelpful and untrue. I know some of my friends buy into this lie. I know I spent a lot of my career doing so too. Apologies to anyone offended and also to those I have misled with my good intentions.

There are obvious and notable instances where we know that success being down to ‘doing all the right things’ is a lie. Conference speakers and writers don’t talk about them – or if they do they edit the story so it is more positive. Someone said to me recently that ‘people don’t buy products – they buy the purpose of the company’. I’m curious as to who is buying the purpose of Amazon, Sports Direct or even McDonald’s. Next time you fly Ryanair is it due to ‘values congruence’? These concepts come from marketeers and gurus trying to sell their services and telling you this as fact. It’s obvious bunkum. Just look at the world’s most successful organisations and ask who is ‘buying purpose’? The answer is patently ‘not enough people to make a difference’. It’s just a nicer thought.

To all of the people who say that success won’t be sustainable without a compelling purpose, just look at the average tenure of a CEO and reflect on to what extent that matters to them. I’m sure the vast majority would like to build sustainable organisations – but a bit like our political system – short term market popularity is overly rewarded compared to sustainable growth. It’s like the world’s biggest Skinner Box. So if you pop up and tell your CEO that doing x and y is the only way you will succeed then i) they probably know that isn’t true ii) their definition of success may be different to yours.

You could argue that more engaged/happier/purposeful/meaningful workplaces are more likely to outstrip the market over time, but reliable indicators for that are few and far between as we ignore survivor bias – how many well intentioned orgs aren’t there to report on because they never became successful. People have studies they’ll quote – but just reflect on the source, credibility and motivation for those studies. Then look at the world’s most profitable companies and see how well you can reconcile that list with what you’ve been told.

Now comes the important part…

I know all of the above. I know telling people that you can’t be a success without a great working environment and great people and great leadership and a wonderful social purpose is a lie. And yet I choose to work at an organisation that has an explicit purpose of ‘Championing Better Work and Working Lives’. We advocate good work – every single day.

Because I firmly believe that people deserve a great working environment, great people around them, great leaders and a sense of purpose in their work. I believe that is a broader social good and obligation. I believe in the right balance being struck between organisational commitment, commitment to employees and customer. I believe it doesn’t have to be a trade off.

I concede that I might not be able to tell a CEO that it’s this way or failure. But I believe that there are different ways to succeed. Some of them more likely. And that’s important. I believe the more people who have good work available to them the better ‘we’ will be as a community and society. And that matters very much to me.

So don’t pursue the goal of better work because it’s a commercial obligation. Embrace the fact that there are ways organisations can have an impact beyond the P&L. There’s a bigger net cost and benefit being played out here than shows in the accounts. Similar to Bobby Kennedy’s exceptional speech on GDP

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all

We have agency and influence – and maybe even obligation – but don’t start with the marketing.

On the future of work – a brief note

The brightest thinkers paint different views of our near to mid future. They describe alternate realities where automation and AI (often used interchangeably) come to rob us of our jobs or free us of our shackles. It’s possible that both camps might be right.

That we face an ever more divisive future, where vastly different fates and experiences will be enjoyed or endured by different segments of society. I believe that the future is still there to be shaped, but we need to pay heed to the less optimistic voices as well. The human race consistently shows an ability to prove its ability to reinvent itself and prosper – but also to sacrifice our long term benefit for short term gain. I understand those optimistic of a new era and also those who are fearful of what we will do with technology – technology which increasingly stretches the boundaries of credulity in terms of capability on a near a daily basis.

We already see exploration of emergent tech through shows like the brilliantly dark and prescient Black Mirror – stark provocations for us to explore the possible misuses to contrast with the benefits that we know we are sold. What happens when we are able to track people ever more effectively? To connect more effectively? To manipulate thinking more effectively? We can’t let the opportunities blind us to the risks, nor the risks blind us to the evident and profound opportunities.

It would be fair to say that we failed to heed the warnings from the Snowden revelations and we may be in danger of failing to heed a second warning from the Cambridge Analytica revelations. It would be reasonable to assume that we will get only so many warnings before our course is largely set. It would be a dangerously naive assumption that the profit motive will drive organisations to make the right choices about tech adoption and application. We’ve already seen examples of these lines being crossed from Facebook’s well documented, but poorly judged, attempts to attempt to see if emotions are contagious through to an online dating organisation deliberately setting up ‘bad dates’ to check the efficacy of their algorithms.

With regards to employment and the world of work we already hear of workers being tracked and even ‘progressive’ organisations experimenting with chipping employees. It does raise the question as to what progress really is. And who ‘progress’ is for. There is no doubt that we have questions to ask around motivations for these initiatives and about the impact on privacy. We also need to ensure that the employer/employee relationship does not become out of kilter as the years go by. At what point would a refusal to be chipped be a reason to decline someone for a role? At what point does opting out cease to be an option for us all? Freedoms so hard fought for by our ancestors being given up for convenience and productivity gains.

Or course there is an almost wonderous flipside of this technology and the contrast here is stark. For technology really does have the ability to free us. To free us of repetitive admin and what have been colourfully termed as ‘bullshit jobs’. To operate more efficiently and be better for the environment and free up our time to be more creative and connected. To allow us to take on jobs on the other side of the world without having to leave our friends and family behind. To allow work to be less dependent on physical mobility and more on output. To solve better for hiring decisons in terms of fairness and inclusion.

And that is at the heart of the problem. Our expectations of technology are all too often that it will represent perfection – a total solution – whereas it just needs to be better. It doesn’t need to be free of bias – it just needs to be less biased than us and a quick look at any relevant demographic breakdowns will tell you that we have set a low bar for fairness and equality. As a cautionary note the most dangerous thing we might do is rest on our laurels and assume our solutions are unbiased simply because the organisations providing them tell us so.

Technology can help us get ‘better’, but the challenge is to ensure that we define and agree ‘better’ in a socially cohesive and inclusive way. Because we need it to be better for us. Just in case better for me means worse for you. We wouldn’t design that so we shouldn’t enable that.

*not entirely sure how long this has just been sitting in drafts, I’m sure the future has moved on now*


Please note. This picture is dedicated to @robmccargow