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Spring!

First, flowers!
Zilker Botanical Gardens

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Zilker Botanical Gardens

It’s so great to see all this color.

Work has been really fun lately. It seems like spring has really amped up my creative process. I spoke at a conference in Austin a few weeks ago called RISE, it was really fun. It was especially great to be around a bunch of entrepreneurs. It reminded me of the first time I went to music/arts summer camp in high school. Instead of being a weirdo, I was with my own kind, people who shared my values and ideals. In this case, it was fun to be with other irrationally optimistic, creative, driven people who persistently see our country’s financial difficulties as an opportunity for growth and change. It was cool.

My session was on defining and identifying core vision, values, and mission. It went really well, and has got me thinking about some very exciting possibilities to expand on the parts people responded to especially well. Next week, I’m guest speaking at Wisdom at Work, which you can read about here, if you’re interested.

Speaking of entrepreneurs, I got to meet one of my idols yesterday, Perez Hilton. What? That snarky gossip blogger who draws on pictures of movie stars in MS Paint? Yep. I have to admit his blog is a guilty pleasure of mine. But what I find more interesting is how he’s managed to go from just some dude who writes a goofy blog to a media mogul. Seriously – the guy had one of the hottest shows at SXSW, has a clothing line at Hot Topic, a book, tv shows, and more. I expect him to be in the company of Oprah as far as media influence is concerned in the next ten years. He is wicked smart. Anyway, I’ll quit gushing and just show you the picture:

Me dorking out.

I am such a dork.

I’ve been better about keeping my business blog updated, but less so here. I’ve got some new website stuff in the work, so stay tuned for updates. Oh – and I also have a new article in a journal called The Systems Thinker. Sweet! It’s on organizational politics and ethics, if you’re interested email me and I’ll send you a copy.

That’s all for now. I have to go wash some terriers.

Ruminations on systems

One of the terms that’s been thrown around quite a bit in the MSOLE program is “systems theory.” It took a while to get my brain around this concept, but now that I have, I can see why my professors bring it up all the time.

Systems theory basically states that most things exist as part of a system, and are often a system themselves. So a human body is a system, made up of organs and other stuff. Organs are systems made up of cells, which are systems made of molecules, and so on. A thing is a system if it’s components are varied and work together in some way to create the thing. This is a crappy explanation, but think of it this way; a plant is a system – lots of different types of things make it up – cellulose, chloroplasts, water. If you hack off the roots, it may die, and no longer be a living plant. A rock is not a system. It may have several components at the molecular level, but they’re not interrelated. If you hack a piece off of it, it’s still a rock.

Systems that are self-correcting – those that need to maintain some kind of equilibrium to survive are called negative-loop systems. Systems that grow or shrink are called positive-loop systems. So our bodies are negative-loop systems; when we get to hot, we sweat to cool down, and when we get too cold we shiver to warm up. The survival of the system depends on equilibrium. But a cancer is a positive-loop system; if allowed to grow unhindered, it can disrupt the body’s negative-loop system.

Take this to a sociological level, and you have systems like families, cultures, countries, and so forth. Systems theory, as it applies to business and leadership, is really useful for taking a wider view of things like corporate change efforts, government regulation, and culture.

My current class is on business ethics. There’s lots of interesting debate on the dichotomy of capitalism, the publicly-held business model, and ethics. If publicly held corporations exist in order to provide value to shareholders, and everything else serves that goal, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to what is acceptable and what is not. I’m doing some research right now on the difference between personal and professional ethics, and it seems like personal ethics are often more Kantian (absolute) in nature, where traditionally business ethics are more utilitarian. So the big question becomes, who gets the utility? If it’s the stockholders only, then other people (employees, community members, etc) pretty much get the shaft. This seems like a very linear way of looking at ethics and responsibility. Put your stakeholders in order of importance, and make decisions accordingly.

Proponents of newer models of global business ethics obviously think otherwise. There are lots of models out there for how to convince a corporation to give equal weight to other people who are affected by these decisions, like consumers (who may not want to pay for shoddy products), community members (who might not be happy about excess toxic waste), or employees (who may not feel so good about layoffs or restructuring). But most of the stuff I’ve read for this particular class so far goes at it from a linear standpoint, and I don’t think it’s a linear problem. I think it’s a systems problem. Screw with your customers to drive up profits at the end of the quarter, and you may be facing lawsuits the next quarter. This is because you’re messing with the system, which consists of everyone affected by your business. Cut employees to reduce costs, and you end up with low morale, high attrition, and reduced efficiency. It might not bite you this quarter, but it will within a year or so. Again, look at the system as a whole. These decisions may not negatively impact profit to shareholders first, but it will effect them within one or two business cycles.

Ultimately, I think systems thinking forces us to take a longer term look at the consequences of our actions. If Krispy Kreme had thought about the potential longer-term problems that might ensue from cooking their books by over shipping to vendors right before the end of the quarter (and then picking up the excess donuts after), it seems like they might have changed their practices a bit. A 75% drop in stock price since 2003 might not seem like an acceptable loss, in hindsight.

I think infusing more systems theory into the field of corporate ethics could be really useful. It’s still pretty utilitarian – the greatest good to the greatest number – but because you have to see the issue from a more birds-eye standpoint to understand the systemic effect of decisions, those decisions are less likely to be harmful in the long run.

bonus blogging

I’ve been re-watching Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth via Netflix. It’s like church for me. If church was like this, I’d go every week. Campbell’s ability to see the forms that project the shadows on the wall, his talent for finding the same metaphor in every culture and every era is amazing. And what has been interesting about watching this the second time around is how many of his themes and metaphors fit naturally into the issues that concern me the most in organizations and modern corporate life.

This set of interviews was done in the late 80s, and talks a lot about how Campbell was a big influence on George Lucas and the Star Wars (original) trilogy. He discusses how in western culture, dragons are metaphor for intellect without body connection – a state which results in unchecked greed and insatiable hunger. He also thinks that Darth Vader, a man who has almost completely disconnected from his body and the natural world in order to maintain power, is a metaphor for oppressive systems that dehumanize us.

While I think Campbell saw this as metaphor for oppressive governments, I think the corporation has become one such system. Though it’s made up of people who are probably largely ethical and decent, we all get paid to work for the profit of others, and the concerns of those “others” must transcend our own connection to what is natural and right for ourselves and those we love. I’ve struggled a great deal in the past year with the fact that what might be the ethical or loving thing to do in a personal relationship is often considered unprofessional in work relationships. Campbell’s framing of the dragon or system as that which removes us from our bodies, and so removes us from our eros; our vital, living presence in our own existance, seems incredibly apropos of what the corporate system is doing to our humanity as a society. Why else does company after company, even the ones touted as the most ethical, get caught in governance and ethics scandals?

How can an organization that is structured to subjugate the needs and concerns of those who run it be anything other than dehumanizing, if that which makes us human is that which allows us to have compassion for ourselves and others?