Enough of MORE: Better is better9 November 2017
Mostly I blog about managing organizations and rebalancing societies. This time I connect the two, to appreciate how both are brought down by MORE, or else lifted up by better.
Enough of MORE: of all our excessive production and consumption, with its destructive waste and warming. MORE is ravaging our enterprises, our societies, our planet, and ourselves. We can do better.
Creating an Enterprise
You have a compelling idea and lots of energy, so you create an enterprise. You may not have much money, but with the help of an understanding banker, alongside your own sweat capital—those 15 hour days—you succeed! Your customers are delighted, your employees are engaged, you feel great, and the economy benefits. Everybody wins.
OK, maybe you did this this to make a lot of money, or become celebrated, or avoid having a boss. But if you are a real entrepreneur, your incentive went further, to building something special: an engaging enterprise with its own sense of communityship, beyond your leadership.
As the enterprise grows, however, you become concerned. What if you get hit by a truck? Or you wish to retire in the manner to which you have become accustomed. Or you want to grow faster than your existing resources will allow. Your financial friends tell you to do an IPO, an Initial Public Offering: cash out, or get the cash in. Let new shareholders fund faster growth. It sounds good, so you agree. This becomes the turning point.
The first sign of trouble is the realization that, while you wanted more, the stock market is intent on grabbing MORE. It doesn’t care about your ideas or your customers or your workers, except as a means to relentless, one-dimensional growth, for the sake of “Shareholder Value”. You discover that this has nothing to do with decent values, your own included. You are running a publicly-traded company now, so you must keep feeding the beast. ¹
As a consequence, a different feeling is enveloping your enterprise, replacing its sense of communityship. The market analysts are analyzing, the day traders are trading, the financial sharks are circling, the stock market is demanding—a performance report every three months. Every three months! How can anybody manage a company this way? Was that IPO really worth it?
But it’s too late. Anyway, you are getting greater growth, albeit accompanied by greater pressure. Eventually you find yourself running out of the usual customers, and it’s tough to get new ones with the old ideas, or new ideas with this new Value. And so comes the key question: How to get MORE when there is no more to be had, at least not in the way that you built the enterprise?
Ravaging the Enterprise
The answers are all too easy: just look at other IPOs. (1) Exploit the existing customers. Bamboozle pricing is a good idea—customers can’t figure it out. Or how about reducing quality, to get MORE by giving less? You can also charge excessively for servicing the products that your customers are stuck with. (2) There is one old idea you can use to bring in new customers: Trash the brand. Sell to those who were not willing to pay for the high-end products of which you used to be so proud. In other words, cash in your legacy, quick! (3) If you can’t increase the revenues, then you can certainly cut the costs: cut maintenance, cut research, cut everything out of sight, except the executive perks. (4) And don’t forget to squeeze the workers, by putting them on short-term contracts at lower pay, without benefits. Better still, fire the whole lot of them and produce off-shore. (5) And when all else fails: Diversify. Get into all kinds of new businesses you don’t understand. So what: you’re big now, with lots of money to throw at them.
Ravaging Society and Self
Your enterprise has now become a global corporation, with obligation to no country, least of all your own, where it no longer pays taxes anyway. So why not go whole hog, so to speak? Do well by doing bad. (6) Collude with your competitors to create a cartel, or better still, buy them out altogether—in the name of competition. (7) And—in the name of free enterprise—lobby governments all over the globe to grant subsidies for your industry, and to rid it of those annoying regulations. If you do eventually go bankrupt, which can actually happen to companies that exploit, fear not: you have become “too big to fail.” Thanks to your political donations, the government you betrayed will bail you out, shifting the costs of your failure to society at large. (The economists, right in step with such shenanigans, call this an “externality”!)
But one day you wake up to the realization that you have been ravaging yourself. “Could I have been responsible for all this, by doing that IPO? I used to love my business. We had a great time serving the customers I worked so hard to keep. I had pride in our place, our products, our people. Now the customers write me nasty emails and the workers glare at me when I see them (which is rarely). For what reason have I cashed in my legacy: to amass all that money I can’t spend?”
Imagine a country full of such corporations, let alone a whole planet of them. We’re getting there. By hogging resources that could be recycled to build vibrant new enterprises, these kinds of companies are distorting our economies and debilitating our societies. (Why can’t they just die of sudden strokes, instead of these prolonged corporate cancers?) By playing countries off against each other, they are undermining our democracies. And by their relentless fostering of production and consumption, they are damaging our planet. Not all corporations do this, just too many. How much MORE can we take?
One-dimensional companies, like one-dimensional people, are pathological: they are an invasive species that has no business in a healthy society. Edward Abbey said it best in 1975: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Why build engaging enterprises only to jettison their engagement?
Let’s go back to that fateful decision about the IPO. You were a real leader when you built your enterprise. Why become a follower now, with yet another IPO? Are you really beholden to the stock market? There are better ways to finance enterprise. (a) Find some patient, decent capital, that will allow you to grow responsibly and sustainably. (b) Or do an IPO that keeps the analysts at bay by issuing two kinds of stock, as did Tata in India and Novo Nordisk in Denmark, with family trusts that control a majority of the voting shares. (c) How about converting to B or Benefit Corporation status, with a commitment—legal in one case, voluntary in the other—to respect social and environmental needs? My own publisher, Berrett-Koehler, profitable in a difficult industry, took the legal, B Corp route. It also offered its stock directly to its own authors and other stakeholders. (Disclosure: I am an owner of my publisher!) (d) This suggests another option—crowdfunding, where many people each buy a little bit of the ownership.
As for start-ups: (e) Consider relying on funding by loans and retained earnings, at least if you don’t need heavy investment. This is supplemented by sweat capital, the real investment in truly entrepreneurial enterprises. (f) How about creating the business as a cooperative, with one share each owned by the customers (as in a credit union bank), or the suppliers (as in a farmers’ cooperative), or the workers (as in the Mondragon Federation, started in the Basque region of Spain in 1955, now with 74,000 workers, in 268 businesses, and sales of €12 billion). By the way, there are more cooperative memberships in the United States than people. (g) Here’s an idea that may sound crazy: give your existing company away to its employees—you know, those people who actually care about the place, unlike the day traders who own it. Is it really crazy to carry this kind of legacy to your grave instead of destroying the one you built up so carefully? The John Lewis Partnership in the U.K. did this in 1950. Since then, while so many chains of department stores and supermarkets have come and gone, this one continues, acclaimed and profitable, with its 84,000 “partners”. Would the name “John Lewis” mean anything to Brits today if the family did an IPO? (h) One step farther is to dispense with ownership altogether and create a social enterprise— a business set up as a trust that is owned by no-one. Look around—they are proliferating. Think about the YMCAs. In fact, many NGOs have business activities alongside their more prominent social ones, to help support the latter. The Red Cross, for example, sells swimming lessons.
Better is better
Economists insist that MORE is the way forward. Nonsense. It is the way backward, economically as well as socially. We don’t have to destroy our progeny and our planet for the sake of this senseless dogma. Sure we need development and employment, but responsible development, with robust employment. A healthy society is sustained by a diverse, responsible economy, not one driven by the mercenary force of one-dimensional growth. Stock markets have done enough damage.
There are many impoverished people all over the world who need more: more food, more employment, more housing, more security. What they don’t need is the MORE that is depreciating the so-called developed world. When do all of us, in both these worlds, get to live honorably, fully? What is development for anyway?
We would do well by shifting our economies from MORE toward better. While MORE is about quantities, better is about qualities. They lift us up instead of dragging us down. We can invest our efforts and our resources in durable products, healthier foods, personalized services, properly-funded education. Rather than reducing employment, a shift to better can enhance it, with higher paying jobs in healthier enterprises. When we work better, we feel better, and so we do better and live better. Our societies become better…and sustainably democratic.
Imagine a world of getting better, instead of grabbing MORE.
© Henry Mintzberg 2017
Administered by Tanya Sardana
ᶦIn March of 2015, a deranged pilot flew a Germanwings airplane into the face of a mountain, murdering 150 people. Just over a month later, a New York Times article reported from a shareholders’ meeting that “at a time when Lufthansa faces urgent commercial challenges…many shareholders expressed concern...that the Germanwings tragedy risks detracting management from its turnaround efforts.” One portfolio manager claimed that Lufthansa management “will have to come back to reality.” The murder of 150 people was apparently a distraction; reality is getting back to managing Value for the shareholders.