Priorities in a Flummoxing World

“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear?! You think you have merely stopped a business deal-that is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back. It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity, it is ecological balance! You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians! There are no Arabs! There are no Third Worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rubles, pounds and shekels! It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, sub-atomic and galactic structure of things today! And you have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone! Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?”

— Paddy Chayefsky, Network

(from The Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Screenplays Volume 2)

Organizations have always been facing ethical challenges, while now more than ever, people in those orgs are thinking proactively about how to move forward for the inevitable shift.

An individual can have a lot to think and do, starting from personal development to shape one’s own ethical landscape and act accordingly.

But on a larger scale and collectively as an org, pursuing ethical premonitions may lead to trickier challenges on the fronts of clients/customers, shareholders and business models. It’s not possible to wield control over what ethical values all should hold. It’s both an individual and structural issue.

We can nudge or educate individually and at scale. While the structural issue is much more difficult: even when everyone understands and shares the ethical assumptions, many of us may still be structurally pinned to a system that inherently poses ethical risks.

And that structural issue is inherent in the system through business model, market, and shareholder behaviours. An ethically enlightened employee can only do so much if sticking to a high ethical standard poses huge risks to his/her wellbeing such as making a living.

There are two things here:

1. Top down, org leaders need to create a (primarily digitally) transformable org structure, so that each individual (or functional unit) can become flexible (humane?) on configuring what kind of “receptors” she want/need to resist or at least address ethical challenges in her work. Once that mechanism is in place, unwanted ethical values at least have a possibility to be squeezed out when more people create receptors that block them – making the bottom up approach possible.

2. The whole business environment needs to be friendly and humane to those who are squeezed out, and to those who take the risk of guarding their values. That’s a wicked problem that goes well beyond ethics.

Perhaps few orgs have that bravery of being out of risk-aversion range, to openly co-create the choices and raise awareness of it with people in the orgs. So that’s a statistically significant misfortune, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to mass-transform.

One way, and surely not the only way, I can see is to focus on two fronts:

1. Facilitate learning and critical discussions among the status quo people of status quo orgs, by advocating, educating, consulting, and nudging. Revolution is unlikely to happen. Any small improvement counts. One buy-in at the top means a lot symbolically more than pragmatically. Those status quo orgs and people are the protagonists of the fading generations, but are merely the dispensable background of the next. They will be gone eventually. Those who become aware and wiser can start immediately to do the second thing.

2. Focus heavily on shaping the environment/context for future generations, again by education, literature, innovation of meaning, and establishing platforms for younger generations to explore. When they grow up and know better, the orgs they end up building and disrupting may become closer to what they think they deserve, although not necessarily the ones what we think they do.

What can be done to pursue those paths?

1. Advocate and learn to understand probabilistic thinking, and admit biases. Books like Mindware, Thinking Fast and Slow, Enlightenment Now, and Factfulness could be a great start.

2. Learn the best of the analytical tradition. Read How to Measure Anything, and any decent philosophy of science book, learn data science.

3. Understand design in order to evolve the practice. Follow the works of Kees Dorst, Bryan Lawson, and Nigel Cross.

4. Transform personally and professionally. Books by Scott Berkun can be a great start.

5. Transform organizationally and collectively. Read Edgar Schein. Learn about systems science, systems thinking, enterprise architecture,  and enterprise design.

6. Don’t wait for the tipping point, become an activist, advocate, observer, or enthusiast to build it up.

7. Don’t pray for miracles. Be the miracle. Thinking is free, doing is priceless.

There’s no need to be disappointed by our failure or our orgs’ frustrating inertia. While we should be ashamed of our reluctance to learn or our indifference to learning.

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