As business leaders speak of the “Human Age” and claim that capitalism is being replaced by “talentism”–defined as access to talent as a key resource and differentiator–many companies have embarked on initiatives to “unleash their human potential.” Those are big words and noble ambitions, and naturally they seem worth striving for. But as one of the hosts of a hackathon in San Francisco this weekend, which invites developers, designers, and other creative minds to “reinvent business,” I have been wondering: What is a “human” business, anyway?
You might argue that the notion of a human business is a category error. Organizations are bureaucracies at their core, and it is hard to think of any formalized collective human endeavor, and especially any business, as being free of rules, structures, and processes. After all, these factors are what ultimately makes corporations (and nonprofits alike) reliable and trustworthy, and grants them their authority. Consequently, there appears to be a fundamental chasm between individual human behavior–which is expansive and multifaceted, ranging from the rational to the wildly irrational, sentimental, and unpredictable–and the design of organizations: rational, practical, results oriented, and engineered to perform consistently.
And yet, companies are made up of people who are loving, caring, generous, forgiving, and wildly creative at their best, and incoherent, inconsistent, moody, selfish, arrogant, aggressive–and yes, even violent at their worst (not coincidentally, the corporation, when contextualized as a “person,” has been diagnosed a psychopath in a popular 2004 documentary film). Inarguably, every corporation under the sun (well, maybe except for Foxconn’s robot-powered manufacturing lines) is made of and run by humans, and quintessentially based on human relationships. So how can any enterprise not be human?
I prefer the term humanist business. “Human” describes what we are, “humanist” signifies what we want to be. A business might be human because it best caters to the actual, realistic human needs (articulated, for example, by Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs, but it becomes humanist only by aspiring to a greater purpose that enables the ideal human condition through its very pursuit.
Humanist businesses offer a community of sympathetic individuals a unique collaboration model to realize what I would consider the five categories of distinctively human potential. They also reflect five qualities that are necessary for any organization looking to redesign how they operate to be more productive and prosperous. Here they are.
Empathy is the ability to put oneself into someone else’s mind, to truly feel with and for them. And indeed, if we humans are neurologically as Dev Patnaik asserts, then organizations need to be wired to care, too. This requires an emotional understanding of the sentiments, dreams, desires, and ambitions of their employees and customers. Amidst a flood of explicit “big data” and confronted with the constant urge to quantify human relationships, empathetic enterprises preserve and refine their intuition–an appreciation for the implicit and the opaque.
Patnaik points to Harley-Davidson and IBM as examples of “open empathy organizations.” The New York Times writes of a recent study suggesting that giving employees occasional altruistic tasks increases their sense of overall productivity. Design Research, the methodology of the creative ethnographer, is helping companies “bond” with their employees, partners, and customers by understanding their daily lives. Empathetic businesses can sense mood shifts early on and readily adapt to new behaviors, long before intuition becomes knowledge.
Culture: From “wired to care” to “wired for culture“
With empathy as the foundation, the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel contends that we owe our success as individuals and as a species to our “social mind,” defined by our ability to form cultures. He considers it the vehicle for social learning and cooperation with strangers in the context of “mutual aid communities.” These communities are based on trust and like-mindedness, that is, familiar mores, traditions, and customs as well as shared values. Culture is key for collaboration, which is why it is such a fundamental asset to every company. The online retailer Zappos says it “competes on culture,” and Nike, Starbucks, and Virgin have all created distinct narratives and tribal identities that turn their brands into movements. Grant McCracken even demands a chief culture officer in every organization, and companies such as Google, Eileen Fisher, and Affinity Lab already have one in place.
Morality is the ability to act in accordance with moral principles, concepts of good and bad, right and wrong. As hyper-connectivity and radical transparency expose all of our behavior in broad daylight, integrity is the only sustainable position in today’s business. Dov Seidman (who is a fellow host of the upcoming “Reinvent Business” hackathon) contends that in our more interdependent world, questions of “how much” matter much less than the question of “how” (how we think, behave, lead, govern, operate, consume, engender trust, and relate to others). As a result, moral businesses match internal and external character, purpose and action, words and deeds, and they no longer tolerate a gap between idealism and pragmatism, between principles and practical reasons. In fact, morality becomes their most powerful product, forging a lasting connection with constituents by “out-behaving” (Seidman) their competition.
Case in point: Outdoor clothier Patagonia encouraged potential buyers to check out eBay for its products and to resole their shoes before purchasing new ones. In an even more radical stance against consumerism, the company placed a “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertisement in The New York Times during the ‘Black Friday’ shopping frenzy. Moral businesses don’t do things right; they do the right thing.
Humans create–not only positive things like ideas, things, relationships, and stories, but also confusion and chaos. Traditional business wisdom holds that trust is earned by predictable behavior. But as most process efficiencies have been exploited over the past decades, variation trumps standardization. To counteract boredom, the “new work stress,” as CNN defines it, successful creative businesses constantly reinvent themselves.
For Virgin’s Richard Branson, for example, everything is an experiment. Others vary their marketing presence, guerrilla-style: U.K.-based Interflora monitored Twitter to identify users who needed cheering up and then sent them a free bouquet of flowers. Similarly, Dutch airline KLM launched a “surprise” campaign, seemingly randomly handing out small gifts to passengers. Amex’s travel service Nextpedition relies on serendipity to create open-ended, custom “mystery trips.” All of these creative enterprises embrace unpredictability as the new consistency. Their leaders are not measured by how much uncertainty they can eliminate but how much of it they can tolerate.
Moreover, such enterprises crowdsource the creation process and invite their employees and customers to co-create–from Dell’s IdeaStorm to Wikimedia’s five-year strategic plan. They are hyper-social organizations but also ones that create space for solitude, moments for the individual to be alone with their thoughts. Original ideas are very lonely, at the end of the day. Or as the choreographer Alonso King once put it: “What is interesting about you is you.” As trite as it may sound, creative businesses give people time and space to be themselves.
You may have noticed that while I have mentioned creativity, I have avoided the term “innovation.” It is because I agree with Bill Taylor when he writes in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post that people don’t want to innovate. They want to dream, empathize, bond, do the right thing, and create. In doing so, they may end up innovating (or as Tim O’Reilly says, “Innovation starts with people having fun”) but what truly drives them is something different.
This can be characterized as the quest to work toward a unique mission, whether it is individual advancement, spiritual enlightenment, or social progress. The prerequisite of aspiration is imagination, and its immediate product is hope. Only an organization with vivid imagination, both individual and collective, can envision a bigger and brighter future–and thus provide a sense of hope, the lifeblood of any human endeavor. Aspirational businesses are constantly changing, and they treat their employees as entrepreneurs or “social intrapreneurs,” as autonomous decision-makers and leaders who are inspired (and not just motivated) to act as changemakers across all levels of the organization. (I always ask job candidates: “What is it that you want to change?”) This requires a different kind of alignment–not the traditional one between goals and execution, but one between organizational aspiration and employee passions. At Frog, we have established loosely structured “centers of passion,” wary that a too formal setup might stifle the very informality in which passions thrive.
Humanist businesses provide the community and resources for realizing the key human potentials of empathy, culture, morality, creativity, and aspiration. As the new millennial workforce demands meaning over money, and prefers employers that are different by making a difference, humanist businesses shift their organizational rationale from productivity to impact, from excellence to significance.