Guest Post: Why business is broken and how you can avoid being left behind.
This guest post comes from the mind of Community Builder Masterclass co-creator & New Work City founder Tony Bacigalupo, with edits and contributions from myself. I hope you enjoy it. -Alex
Our society has a dysfunctional relationship with business.The people who lead companies that acknowledge this fact – and change their approach – are reaping the benefits. The ones who continue to ignore it, though, put themselves at risk for being left behind.
Maybe it was that century of industrial-era emphasis on efficiency, or the consumerist culture that came along with it, or something else entirely. But somehow, we ended up thinking that a successful business is something that makes money regardless of external effects, positive or negative, to society.
In fact, business tends to see the two forces as opposition. An organization’s doing good? It must be a non-profit, right? A company makes tons of money? It must be screwing people over somehow, right?
Today, we live in a world where “business as usual” means that companies and the people who work for them are at odds with each other, fighting for attention, buy in, and collaboration from their team members. To most people in this world, their job is a sacrifice of time, energy, creativity, and control.
To make matters worse, there’s war on a second front, as companies struggle and scramble to acquire and retain customers at all costs. Especially with the globally connected, digital lives that we live, we’re being sold to at every turn. Every company is selling something bigger, brighter, faster, cooler, than their competition.
The result is a culture that reduces customers to little more than ears, eyes, and a wallet full of credit cards.
Primum non nocere – First, do no harm
The architects of the systems for capitalism that we use today intended to build something that rewarded businesses when they rendered a service that was worth being rewarded for– money for goods and services. Simple.
But no system we’ve ever designed as humans is perfect.
Money on its own (and other forms of “compensation”) is a one dimensional, incomplete, and arguably poor way to measure value. While you can make money by rendering a valued service that people will pay for, it’s dangerously easy to make money by doing things that are, even to the casual observer, more harmful than good.
Worst of all, the incentives of money clouds judgement, increase the rate of risky decision making against the best interests of their employees and customers.
I don’t believe that money is evil. Money is empowering. I run a for-profit business because when we generate profit doing good things, we get to use that profit to do more good, so long as we stay aligned with the best interests of our team members and customers.
But money as a lone motivator does create systemic negative results. To quote a visionary educator who knows a thing or two about broken systems, Science Leadership Academy Principal Chris Lehmann says often “If you put a good person in a bad system, the system wins far too often.”
To put it in another context, the medical field teaches the fundamental principal of Primum non nocere. Translated from Latin, the instruction is “First, do no harm.”
Consider the painful irony of how “business as usual” has corrupted healthcare, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
Doing Well by Doing Good
How do we go about improving a system that is so deeply entrenched in every facet of society? I believe we have a chance to make some progress and there’s prior art for this kind of change.
In one example, it turns out that the system that industrial empires are built upon don’t work so well in a world of finite resources. At scale, as resources becomes scarce, costs rise and the laws of economics take over.
In practice, it was economics (not planetary friendliness) that drove some of the earliest large-scale enterprises to adopt recycling as a standard best practice. From a purely economic perspective, at scale it made more sense to recycle something than it did to make a new thing from scratch.
So something like sustainable manufacturing, which might have been considered previously by a company to be prohibitively expensive, suddenly becomes good business. Once a few big players show the value and innovate for their own benefit, other large companies will start to adopt, and a virtuous cycle begins.
But most importantly, the interests of businesses come into alignment with the interests of society at large rather than the two being at war.
This simple example is just one way of looking at a complex problem, but it serves to illustrate my point. Innovative businesses are (re)discovering that it’s actually harder and more costly in the long run to be at war with its employees and customers.
Innovative businesses are more collaborative, internally and externally, and as a result create thick value for the world – a combination of financial profit PLUS positive impact.
Working for these kinds of businesses, and building these kinds of businesses, creates a system where “business as usual” allows people make money by contributing to something that they care about.
Do you want to feel good about your work?
In building New Work City, I learned a lot about how hard it is to build something that people care about enough to help make it happen and to help make it sustainable. But I also learned how easy it can be once you get a couple of things right.
I learned that when I made it my job to do something that other people believed in, I had no trouble finding help – my customers became my allies instead of my adversaries.
I had no trouble finding customers – in fact they seemed to find me, almost like moths to a porch light.
I had no trouble spreading the word – every newspaper and blogger that I talked to wanted to write a story. Every customer wanted to tell their friends.
Through all of this, I learned that this kind of participation can’t be forced. It’s earned through communication and sustained by trust.
For companies who are used to steamrolling their way to outcomes, this is a pretty unusual way to approach a business.
And unfortunately for them, it shows, from the challenges in recruiting and retaining talent to the wasteful spending on acquiring new customers just to stay alive.
Innovation and collaboration cannot happen in a company that operates this way.
“Business as usual” focuses on connecting with customers and employees who fully expect they’re being lied to at all times. “Business as usual” must constantly find new ways to convince people that the company knows best, and that the company has what they need and want next.
This war for buy-in and participation between the business and the humans it relies on most is artificial, invented by the broken system.
We can fix this together…
Over the last 5 years, I’ve learned a lot about how to build and lead an organization that works by injecting humanity back into business equations. I’ve had to learn some lessons the hard way, but remain convinced that I’m much better off driving business in this direction.
But my one business doesn’t fix the world. I want to help others who want to end the war with their customers and work together as collaborators.
This past fall, I started working with my good friends and fellow coworking leaders Alex Hillman and Adam Teterus of Indy Hall on an online “Masterclass” with the goal of teaching people the core principles behind how we manage our organizations to these world-bettering outcomes.
After just 6 months of evolving the curriculum, the results have been incredible. Our students are seeing things from a newly shaped point of view, and with that are better prepared to lead the kinds of organizations that we know are possible.
…one city at a time
To increase our chances of helping more people make a difference, we’re taking our show on the road. We’ve chosen a few core elements of our multi-week online class to build into a one-day in-person bootcamp of a workshop, and planning a year of workshops around the world.
To kick things off, we’ve already partnered with organizers at three amazing upcoming conferences:
- Coworking by the Beach during the Bleach* Festival in Gold Coast, Australia
- The first Coworking Australia Conference in Melbourne, Australia
- And the annual Global Coworking Unconference Conference in Austin, TX
I’m excited in particular because our classes give me the opportunity to help people, but also to help people who potentially influence a lot of other people. Everyone who we’re able to teach is someone who has the potential to influence the lives of countless others.
That is how we can make the world a better place, together.
Ready to do something about it?
Join me, Alex, and Adam any of the three locations on our tour later this month for one of our full day in-person workshops. Our partner events also have offered discount codes on their registration, which you can find on our website.
Early bird tickets for the Business of Community Workshops are $550, and you can save an additional $50 using the code LIST1. Each workshop is limited to 25 seats to allow us to work closer together.
If you’re not in Gold Coast, Melbourne, or Austin – I’d appreciate your help connecting us to people who are! You can reply to this email to find out the best ways to help, and what o can offer in return for your support.
Finally, if you live in a city where you can rally 20-25 people for a workshop, we want to come to you. We already have a few locations in mind, but its YOU who is going to help us decide where we go next.
-Tony Bacigalupo & the Masterclass team