John Meynard Keynes once said: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” I think most business leaders would scoff at the idea that an economist guides their business decisions, but a step back in time might challenge their skepticism.
In 1970, The New York Times Magazine published an essay by Milton Friedman in which he claimed that the only responsibility of business is to increase its profits. In Friedman’s view, a business that thinks it has a greater role to play in society (creating jobs, combating discrimination, or mitigating pollution) is “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.” But economist Noah Smith admits that members of his profession “have always known that ‘negative externalities’ (like pollution)… could clog up the plumbing of the free market”; Henry Ford believed that “a business that makes nothing but money is a poor business;” and Jack Welch has called the pursuit of profit for its own sake “the world's dumbest idea.”
If you find those claims wanting, would a recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court help? Here’s Justice Alito’s opinion on the Hobby Lobby case: “While it is certainly true that a central objective of for-profit corporations is to make money, modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so.” In spite of this, Friedman’s paradigm has managed to hold sway for better than four decades.
To what effect?
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Friedman’s era of unfettered capitalism has fostered decisions that might make sense in a vacuum, but in the context of a society, an environment, and a planet make no sense at all. How else can we explain the coexistence of record profits, stagnant wages and high, enduring unemployment, while firms look to externalize or otherwise avoid every cost possible? We also have the environmental costs of climate change, general biodiversity loss, and more specifically, the potential collapse of global fisheries.
It’s time to reconsider the values that guide our business decisions. As Jo Confino writes, “We can carry on living this dream, which could lead to devastation on an unimaginable scale, or we can help create a just world within ecological limits by piercing through the limitations of our current beliefs.”
A growing cohort is waking up to this and they’re looking for ways to nudge firms in a better direction, but even those who are eager to lead the transition tend to feel limited in the type and degree of change they can make as they’re accustomed to bumping up against seemingly immutable organizational practices and perspectives. Christensen and Derek van Bever echo this idea, stating that managers want “to focus on the long term but don’t think it’s an option.”
We must work to broaden the field of influence to enable and encourage potential change-makers to fully employ both their passion and capabilities. It’s time to unleash what I think of as radical intrapreneurs – folks who can help lead the transition to circular business systems. Radical intrapreneurs, a subset of social intrapreneurs, embody the necessary impatience to devise and implement direct, continual adaptations that will benefit both their firm and broader interests. Richard Branson refers to social intrapreneurs as “secret change agents,” who are often driven to quietly account for the big-picture implications of their business decisions. The Ashoka team adds that they are “good for the bottom line, good for the brand, and good for staff morale.”
Intrapreneurs are the people who naturally take a holistic approach to reviewing existing systems as well as to designing new ones. A radical intrapreneur is additionally equipped with the stubborn belief that through a mix of dogged determination and the unrelenting pursuit of ingenuity, they will achieve things most would assume to be impossible. In short, radical intrapreneurs won’t take “no” for an answer — especially when that “no” comes from the ghost of Milton Friedman.
I should probably take a step back to address something. If the word ‘radical’ gives you pause, I suggest you make peace with it quickly, lest you prefer the idea of bankruptcy. Take a moment to consider the following: Does your firm not long for breakthrough innovation? (Radical ideas are the bedrock of such.) Moreover, whether you believe that climate change is an imminent threat or you’re more of a skeptic, it is imperative to recognize that there are limits to any system. There is only so much fresh water. There are only so many fish in the sea.
As British economist Kenneth Boulding proclaimed, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” If this concept is unfamiliar, I implore you to get familiar with any of a number of well-documented examples of ecological collapse (I’d start with those of the Aral Sea, and the reindeer of St. Matthew Island, or perhaps the “success story” of Easter Island’s inhabitants learning to subsist in a state of severe environmental degradation).
If we don’t find a way to re-balance the natural systems that our businesses have progressively dismantled, there will be a reckoning. In fact, that reckoning is already under way: New research suggests the inevitable collapse of portions of West Antarctica’s ice sheet, which would cause ten feet or more of sea level rise.
We can hasten and lock in decline, or we can work to avert it. Given the choice, I’d rather grab hold of the exciting prospect of reinventing business for a better future than cling to the hope that catastrophe is not awaiting at every turn.
Umair Haque is right: “We’re going to have to take great leaps. Not baby steps,” as the window of opportunity for incremental changes has passed. It’s time to change the paradigm. Viewing business decisions from Friedman’s lens fits H.L. Mencken’s idea that, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The prevailing paradigm is due for an overhaul. To keep our doors open through this transition, we will have to learn to adapt, and radical intrapreneurs are the ones who chafe at a status quo that begs reinvention.
Survey your team: Who among them was once bursting at seams with ideas, but has been worn down by years of backing into ill-fitting roles and the slow, tacit discovery that their ideas were unwelcome? They were probably hired for strengths they have since been taught not to bring forth. We systematically mute and marginalize those who might make us great out of fear. Sharp minds become dulled by the struggle against the constraints of organizational rules and orthodoxy.
This paints a dreary picture, but it’s not a lost cause: these radical intrapreneurs still work for you — you just need to revive them.
Do you remember that old Apple ad that celebrated “the Crazy Ones?” The ad was effective because it evoked the idea of the unconventional genius who can bend the universe at will while making the world a better place. Although we may be quick to grin as we self-identify with an abstract characterization, can we as readily bestow such largesse upon the real behaviors of our quirkier employees, or do we just see misfits, rebels and troublemakers?
Trying to view the outspoken or ill-fitting in the light of great potential seems a tall order for leaders whose powers of innovation are limited by the dictates of managing risks and quarterly outcomes. Might I suggest radical intrapreneurs present a risk worth taking? They are our crazy ones, our passionate folks with perspectives a bit outside the norm, but ‘the norm’ has gotten us into the mess we’re in. While these tendencies may have led them to be marginalized, it’s time for the tables to turn. If this sounds like a stretch, remember that diversity of thought is believed to be a key to innovation.
While divergent thinking is a cornerstone of innovation, it is also anathema to rigid, hierarchical systems which codify the “right” way of doing things and punish non-adherence. This may have made sense in the context of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management of repetitive tasks, but that is not the domain of today’s knowledge workers whose job is to react to an ever-changing set of circumstances with workable solutions.
Knowledge workers should also be looked to for new ideas on improving the business. Rank and file employees are largely overlooked when it comes to this. When management gives them the opportunity to contribute, it’s often through infrequent, forced brainstorming events, but such events tend to be unproductive. Rather than waste effort attempting to conjure novelty, consider aligning with Alfred North Whitehead’s suggestion that “fundamental progress has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas.”
Quit wasting valuable resources in frivolous brainstorming sessions. Instead, give your radical intrapreneurs the headroom to think. Stop trying to commodify human beings and allow them to blossom into their “onlyness.” Radical intrapraneurs naturally question everything - allow them to apply the full spectrum of their history, capabilities, and ideas to their work, rather than a muted, greyscale, contorted version. Only then will they be able to bring the full complement of their skills and passion to bear on their work.
The business paradigm is already shifting, but where it goes depends largely on where we work to take it. We must explore our ventures from new perspectives and continually evolve the ways in which we create value. Besides, giving radical intrapreneurs a chance to drive positive change may bring additional benefits as in their seeking they’ll likely uncover unforeseen risks, for which we’d then have the opportunity to prepare. And failing to uncover such opportunities could be viewed as neglecting our governance responsibilities.
Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy, suggests that, “Having a purpose isn’t necessarily about what a company makes or sells, but rather, it’s about how the workers approach their day.” Dan Rockwell adds, “People push themselves, when you tap their inner drives and get out of the way.” I’d echo those thoughts with the idea that overburdening staff and limiting their creative input may seem the safest route to make our quarterly earnings, but that it’s ultimately a recipe for planned obsolescence.
Giving people a chance to breathe, and empowering them to lead, is not just good advice for our radical intrapreneurs, but for all of us. Harried workers who spend their days triaging issues amid ever-growing piles of work are not going to find better ways to get things done, nor can they be expected to come up with breakthrough ideas. There’s no time to see the forest for the trees when the trees you’re surrounded by are burning and falling all around you.
Make room for your people to regularly take stock of their work and extend trust to them. Let them try new things and help them guide their efforts from unproductive tests to projects that show promise. Broadening our perspectives from a purely profit-centered orientation to one that looks to balance multiple concerns will not be easy, but it’s a challenge we need to accept.
Maintaining the ‘profit over everything’ mindset has always been a choice. It’s time to shift that paradigm. Otherwise, we’re allowing ourselves to be the slaves of a defunct economist. As a radical intrapreneur, I want no part of that. Neither should you.
Harry Millner said that “All progress occurs because people dare to be different.” We have to allow our people to be different.
Here’s to the crazy ones.
This post originally appeared at GlobalCEO.com.