Leading Change for Sustainable Innovation
Each word in this title is very popular today. It has become a fad at management retreats to discuss the concepts of leadership, sustainability, change, and innovation.
But is this what is really important?
Let us discuss.
In a company that produces oral hygiene products, a young business school graduate is hired. Eager to prove his worth, he comes up with a recommendation for management on how to increase profitability.
His recommendation is to enlarge the hole in the toothpaste tube, so that with the same squeeze, consumers will get more toothpaste out of the tube. It is expected it would increase the consumption of toothpaste by 100 percent. And since making a bigger hole in the tube the marginal increase in costs is close to nothing, the increase in revenues will correspond to an almost 100 percent increase in profits.
What a great idea. What a genius. The kid gets a promotion, and a bonus.
Now, is this truly an innovation?
I think so.
Is it sustainable?
Why not? It produces profits, and most consumers probably do not notice that their toothpaste gets used up faster than usual. Even if they do notice, they probably blame themselves for squeezing the tube too hard.
Does the young man’s innovation qualify as leadership?
It will probably be considered as such. The kid stood out in the crowd and produced profitable change in the company.
It was sustainable. It was leadership. It was innovation. It was profitable.
Is this what we should do as managers, as business leaders?
I ask you.
Now, let us take another example. There is a health center in California that promotes a vegan diet. (This, like the previous anecdote, is a true story.)
At this health center, the doctors try to change our habit of eating animal products, oil, salt, sugar, and processed food––and eat, instead, what our ancestors in the Stone Age ate: vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
Would this be considered an innovation?
I do not think so. Not for taking us back 2,000 years.
Is it sustainable?
Probably not. One of the goals of this vegetarian diet is to lose weight. But 97 percent of people who try to lose weight fail to do so.
Nor does the center make a large profit. How many people do you think will pay a large amount of money to go there and eat vegetables and fruit all day long? There is no money in this business. If there were, hundreds of such centers would open up all over the place, like mushrooms after the rain. But look at how quickly a chain of outlets selling cupcakes expands, or a chain that sells fried food. That is how you make money: You sell what people want to buy. You innovate something the market approves of.
Is that so???
The toothpaste company is making more money, all right, but it is also wasting resources.
Is that good for society? The vegetarian center, is making very marginal profits while struggling to heal people of obesity and the diseases that accompany it––such as diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, lupus, and other inflammations: Is that good for society, even though it is not making good money? Making money should not be the goal. Innovation should not be the goal. Sustainability should not be the goal. Even leadership should not be the goal.
They are all means to achieve the real goal.
And what is it?
Sociologists tell us that the purpose of both humans and organizations is survival.
But look at how we eat. Look at how we treat our air, water, and earth. Look at the crime rate. Look at how many children murder their parents––something unheard-of in primitive society. And what about the nuclear devices we developed, which can destroy society and the world as we know it?
Are we doing what it takes to survive, or are we slowly but surely moving toward the destruction of civilization as we know it? The goal of survivability is a “ should goal” but it does not appear to be the goal we aim for in our behavior as a society.
The medical profession says the goal of the human organism is to reproduce itself; we are reproductive machines.
OK. That sounds to me like another way of saying “survival of the species”––a goal that is slightly wider than the one sociology offers us.
But are we doing what it takes to prolong the life of our species? Are we leaving a better world than the world our parents gave us?
Technology-wise, yes. We definitely have it better than our ancestors. Medicine has advanced beyond what our grandparents could even dream about.
But is it a better world?
I suggest that it is not.
Overall, we are destroying the world we live in: polluting the air, the water, and the earth. Our children will have to go to a zoo to see animals we see all around us today. Our grandchildren will never see some of the flowers whose scents we appreciate today, because they are becoming extinct right now––this moment, as we speak. They will never see certain species of fish and birds. Because of air pollution, they will never be awed by the magnificent spectacle of a clear sunset.
What are we doing???
So what should be the Goal?
Tikun olam. That should be the goal. “Tikun olam” is the ancient Hebrew explanation for why we are here on this planet.
And what does it mean?
The literal translation is: “To repair the world”––in other words, to leave it a better world when we die than how we found it when we were born.
Why “to repair”? Because of entropy. Because of change. The world is constantly changing, but not for the better––unless we take the initiative and proactively make change for the better.
Our garden will become a messy jungle of weeds unless we garden it. Our car will fall apart unless it is maintained. Our marriage will lose its creative intimacy if we ignore its demands.
We have to work the garden. Repair the car. Invest time in our marriage. Work on our community. Work for our country. Help heal the earth. Yes, “tikun olam” means to “heal the world,” to leave it a better place than the place we inherited.
Innovation, sustainability, leadership, yes––but they must be viewed through the following prism: Does our innovation heal the world, or does it damage the world?
All our actions should have a spiritual criterion.
Profits should not be the goal. They should be the constraint: Of course we do not want to go bankrupt, but the goal should be to make a better world. The benefit must be higher than the cost––and I’m talking about the cost not just to the company but also to the world, to society, to our children.
I read somewhere that it is not true we are passing on the world to our children. In fact, we are borrowing the world from our children. We are leaving them with deficit they might not be able to pay; leaving them a dirty, messy world that they will have to clean up in order to survive.
And it is all coming from a single erroneous, misguided concept of profit as a goal.
Innovation, yes––but for what?
Sustainability, yes––but for what?
Leadership, sure––but for what?
Profit, yes — but at what cost?
Let us not forget what we are really in this world for. Let us not forget that as children of God, we are here to serve love and not hate––to serve the good of the world––because our days are numbered and we cannot take anything with us.
So what counts is not what we take, but what we leave behind
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes