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“What’s next for Business?”

Posted by in blog November 21, 2014

We’re living through interesting but challenging times. Old institutional certainties are dying. Our organisations are stretched. The systems we depend on are unravelling. Of the 500 companies listed on the US Standard & Poor Index in 1950 only 74 remain. We’ve destroyed 50% of the world’s biodiversity in just the last 40 years. The climate is warming at an accelerating and as yet unchecked rate. We know this non-linear world needs new, smarter and better solutions.

And yet there is also enormous hope. New business models on shared ownership, collaborative consumption and the circular economy. Crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding and inclusive participatory mechanisms. Businesses led by people with a much more profound sense of planetary purpose.

This was the provocative preamble we used to frame our discussions at our Futerra ‘Creative Disruption’ dinner on Thursday 20th November. We set the context by describing Futerra’s own thirteen and a half year journey, in which our work has rapidly evolved from good green house-keeping, efficiency and internal employee engagement through to purpose-led transformative business strategy and ambitious public behaviour change campaigns.

During this time it has become clear that standing still as a business doesn’t work (we’ve dramatically transmogrified our own model and approach several times over), especially in the ‘Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous’ (VUCA) world of today that the Pentagon describes.

The Chinese have a saying that when the wind blows, some build walls, others build windmills, and it is clear that a wind of change is blowing. But business is struggling to adapt. Without purpose ‘bigger than self’, business tends to serve only itself, which is one reason why disruption doesn’t tend to come from incumbents.

Our high street banks did not create PayPal (and are still failing to support a peer-to-peer lending platform), Kodak couldn’t imagine Instagram, the music industry didn’t invent Spotify and we’re all unsurprised that the London Public Carriage Office didn’t conjure up Uber.

By truly living the right purpose e.g. ‘capturing that Kodak moment’, Kodak might have successfully transitioned from celluloid to digital, instead of resisting the inevitable until the brink of bankruptcy. These failures of innovation echo Darwinian theory, where it’s not so much about the oft-misquoted ‘survival of the fittest’ as it is ‘survival of the best adapted’.

What many businesses fail to recognize is that you do not get to decide whether or not to disrupt your own business model, you either do it to yourself…or someone else does it to you. The fear of this and the paranoia of the VUCA world leads to what ‘Optimist on Tour’ Mark Stevenson calls ‘Institutional Bewilderment’ – the complete inability to act decisively in the face of the challenges ahead.

As our fantastic guest speaker, provocateur and partner Alan Moore put it, citing Bilbo Baggins; “The problem with a quest is that you don’t know you are on one until it is too late to turn back”.

His quest was in seeking designs for business, society and the organisations that would deliver better outcomes. In short, high performance organisations and transformational businesses that serve us all, better, without it costing the earth. This was his 7 years quest in writing his seminal book No Straight Lines. The following text is an edited version of Alan’s own words on the night.

No Straight Lines acts as a navigational guide of six principles to aid companies in navigating the capricious oceans of our current economic climate.

The 1st principle – Ambiguity. When we face monumental change, when we are being disrupted organisations find it difficult to understand the true nature of disruption. And there is a saying that “what happens in vagueness stays in vagueness”. This principle asks us to look at these disruptive forces systemically to gain deeper insight so that one can see emergent possibilities of how one might adapt. Too rarely do we step back to look at the hole spelt with a W.

Alan offered up the example of YEO VALLEY FARMS as a company that had been able to think and see its challenges systemically and then to pioneer an extensive, organic, reduced input model of farming against the accepted conventional wisdom of fossil-fuel intensive agriculture.

The 2nd principle – Adaptiveness. Adaptiveness is having the capacity to create a language that can describe entirely new designs for business and its organisational capacity – the limits of our language are the limits to our world.

Alan used the example of LOCAL MOTORS, which is an automotive company that can design and build cars 5X faster at 100X less the capital costs, as genuinely living up to the literal meaning of its name. Plus the idea of VERTICAL FARMING a new urban agri-economy that is beginning to transform how we will feed our growing urban populations. For example ‘Grow Up’.

The 3rd principle – Openness. Nature thrives because she is open, encouraging the rapid transfer of energy and information. We have a great deal to learn from Natures design principles. Open is cultural, it is a process, it is a tool that delivers to create entirely new businesses.

For example Air b’nb which is designed as a global open platform is now valued at $1bn. Or MIT offering its entire curriculum for free download, or Elon Musk making available all Tesla’s patents on its battery technology to accelerate innovation and investment in electric vehicles.

The 4th principle – participatory cultures and tools. The human capacity to collaborate is not quaintly folksy – it is in fact the reason why we as a species have progressed from the savannahs of Africa to build the civilisations and economies we have today. Ignored by business and the management consultants collaborative endeavour is a powerful design tool.

Massive multiplayer Games such as Minecraft or World of Warcraft – demonstrate the attraction of socially orientated games. Local Motors collaborated with 44,000 designers and 3,600 engineering innovators in one year. LEGO works highly effectively with collaborative cultures for commercial benefit. The rise of the open software movement demonstrates the power and robustness of collaborative cultures. Communities of interest are derived from passion and purpose.

The 5th principle – Craftsmanship. To envision and create this transformational world we call on the almost forgotten art of the craftsman. The Craftsman represents the holy trinity of creativity – the seamless blending of the hand the heart and the mind. Craftsmanship is a constant process of learning, it is iterative the craftsman is always curious and always asks what did I learn from that – rather than working in a culture of blame and failure. The engaged craftsman is the committed craftsman – ergo the engaged organization is the committed organization. And, the craftsman asks “is what I create for the collective good?”

The 6th principle is EPIC – the gamer seeks an ‘epic win’ and all the stories in No Straight Lines are about an uncompromising creative approach to transformational change.

Alan’s provocation to the room was then; “Is it a slightly different flavour of what you already have or could you create transformational change in your business?”

Following this a lively and roving conversation ensued. How do we think big and different when existing business models are creaking? How do we create the confidence to embark on journeys of transformation for which the destination is not always clear? How do we begin to build bridges that take us from where we are today to the idealised, far-off sustainable solutions of tomorrow? How do we foment ‘noble conspiracies’ of change?

It was a unique opportunity to engage with like minded senior peers from a range of sectors and share insights, expertise and experience. The power of an informal dinner, held under the Chatham House rule, which allows a few hours of connection rather than grabbed conversation, cannot be underestimated. It was an inspiring night of candid, open honesty and frank opinion. If you would like to be invited to the next one please drop me a line via ed@futerra.co.uk

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  • November 24, 2014

    Sounds inspired. Maybe we come to London for the next creative disruption.