If you want to be really depressed about business in general then read Stefan Stern in the Independent recently. It epitomised for me what everyone seems to be saying. On all sides I hear people saying that “business is broken”. There’s no trust. It’s making people miserable. It’s become the middle class mills of the 21st century.
At the same time, business is also struggling. This week Saab announced that it would not be able to meet its payroll unless they got an injection of cash. One of the world’s most elite car manufacturers brought to its knees, struggling to meet the most fundamental aspect of the contract between employer and employee – cash.
Generation theorists link both the disillusion and the financial crisis to a historical turning point. The theory is that the world revolves in roughly eighty year cycles and we’re currently at a turning-point: Baby Boomers are retiring, Generation X is taking over leadership roles and Generation Y is entering the workplace. The confluence of three sets of markedly different values and behaviours is not surprisingly perhaps causing some ructions.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So if you want to have cause for optimism, read on.
I happen to think that business is a wonderful invention. True – they are often executed very badly indeed. But that’s a little bit like saying that wine is broken and needs reinventing when you drink a bad bottle. It’s just a bad bottle of wine. There’s still plenty of good wine out there, and a lot of innovation that’s making it better.
It’s the execution that makes things like businesses bad or good. A business is not inherently either. It is a completely anodyne shell that can be designed, run, managed any way we choose.
The challenge that we have right now is that a lot of the big old businesses that we “loved” and that have defined the last forty years have been found to be lacking. And what they seem to lack most of all is soul.
There are lots of young businesses which have this aplenty. Stories of how engaged employees at online shoe retailer Zappos feel are legendary. I recently spent some time at the very small and friendly headquarters of SIM card company Giff-Gaff and felt a surge of enthusiasm from the team. Everyone there loves their job.
There are also some older businesses that seem to glow – like Apple, Johnson & Johnson.
For me, a “good” business with engaged employees (and typically engaged customers too) is a choice that a team makes to run a business in a particular way. Usually this means in the interests of the majority, sharing the good and the bad stuff. It doesn’t mean that board members earn the same as graduate trainees. But there are values that underpin behaviour.
These are also usually businesses that recognise they are on a constant improvement programme. Improvement never stops. What this means is that it’s ok to spot that the business can be improved – that it’s not perfect.
Several high profile figures have recently extolled the importance of failure. Check out J K Rowling’s Commencement speech at Harvard for a good example of this.
Perhaps rather than be horrified that businesses are yet less than perfect, we should focus on the fact that there is at least lots of scope for improvement, as long as making things better is our honest ambition and desire.
Perhaps our current failure is a good thing. We are living at a moment where society needs business more than ever, to invent new things and find new solutions, to provide jobs, to bring opportunities.
Now what we have to do is to find a way of making it enjoyable and fulfilling. That’s not going to be easy, but it is achievable. At least we’re at a point where the bubble has been pierced. We know businesses are not perfect, we don’t have to pretend any more. So there is genuinely the chance to make things better.