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HOW BUSINESS CAN HELP PEOPLE CREATE CHANGE

Radical everyone

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In a time of global pessimism, how can business reignite hope and stimulate growth? Our research in partnership with CitizenMe told us: it should help everyone create radical change. Inside companies, this demands a rethink, of fundamental concepts. Our contributors start this conversation in the second part of this report. And how should leaders react? Robert Jones, our Head of New Thinking, lays out three steps.

RESEARCH

RETHINK

REACT

01

ALMOST EVERYONE’S A PESSIMIST

01

If we take stock of the long-term changes society has seen, things don't seem that bad. We're likely to live longer, without extreme poverty or malnourishment, and we’re less likely to die violently. In statistical terms, society is becoming more equal for all races, genders, religions, and sexual orientations. We have greater access to information and global literacy rates continue to rise. Even though there’s a long way to go, in many ways things have never been better.

But this picture belies the current feeling around the world. When there are problems on our door-steps, far-reaching comparisons rarely provide consolation.

Our research, based on 4000 responses across the UK, US, Germany and Brazil, reveals that only 34% have a positive outlook on the world. What's more, we're pessimistic about the chances of things changing in the near future, with 50% feeling things will only get worse. Only 35% feel they'll improve in the near term.

WORLD OUTLOOK

  • Things will get better 35%
  • Things will get worse 50%


Negative headlines dominate the media and this is having a clear impact. When asked what issues mattered most to them, there was no consensus around a particular topic. Areas of concern were wide-ranging. However, more local challenges were considered to be the most pressing. Health, Security & terrorism, Education, and Employment were four of the top five concerns globally.

WHAT MATTERS MOST?

  • Security, terrorism 39%
  • Health 39%
  • Education 37%
  • Planet, climate 35%
  • Employment 33%
  • Fairnessm, equality, democracy 29%
  • Corruption 27%
  • War zones & refugees 24%
  • Public services 19%
  • The impact of technology 17%
  • Immigration 16%
  • The elderly 14%
  • Other 3%
02

APPETITE FOR
RADICAL CHANGE

02

There’s often a false perception that pessimism is inherently linked to nostalgia, but it can be a catalyst for progressive thinking and positive change. Our research reflects this.

Rather than looking to the past for answers, there’s an appetite for opposition, for fresh energy, and for different rules of play.

HOW SHOULD WE MAKE 
THE WORLD BETTER?

  • Fundamental changes to how things are 51%
  • Small improvements to how things are
 31%
  • Return to when things were better 14%
  • Continue with how things are
 5%

Right now, over half of the people surveyed think we should be creating radically new systems, compared to just 14% who believe we should be reverting to things past.

This belief isn’t the preserve of the young. It spans age groups, genders and countries. Even amongst over 55s, where pessimism is most rife - 50% of over 55s have a negative outlook compared to 33% of 18-24s - the desire for radical change is clear.

Though the pace of change in the world is unsettling, we don’t want to go backwards. We’re shaped by history, but we have little appetite to be bound by it. Big ideas that challenge society’s status quo are likely to gain support in future.

03

HIGH
EXPECTATIONS
FOR BUSINESS

03

In recent years, people have become disillusioned with the efforts of organisations and establishments - governments, businesses, international bodies - in bringing about positive change in the world. Instead, people credit individuals and groups of ordinary people working together.

When asked who ought to be driving change, groups and individuals remain in the frame (29% and 36% respectively). On top of this, 41% on average believe the business community has great potential. Respondents ranked business ahead of existing national governments, international bodies, activists & campaigners.

WHO OUGHT TO BRING ABOUT POSITIVE CHANGE?

  • Business everywhere, including large internationals 41% 31% 13%
  • Individuals doing good 36% 36% 20%
  • Local governments 32% 21% 7%
  • Existing national government 31% 15% 7%
  • Groups of people working together 29% 37% 22%
  • International bodies 24% 21% 8%
  • A different national goverment 23% 20% 0%
  • Social enterprises & charities 16% 21% 13%
  • Activists & campaigners 12% 20% 11%
Ought to bring positive change
Most likely to bring positive change
Who has brought most positive change

There’s a large gap between expectation and recent performance. Only 13% feel businesses have been the primary driver of positive change in the past decade and when asked about the reasons for this, 42% suggested that focus on profit was a barrier.

People want business to take an active role and aren’t looking for delegation or distance. When asked how businesses should be creating positive change in the world, focusing on sustainability (1st), doing good in the local community (2nd), and fostering innovation & research to tackle problems (3rd) were the most popular suggestions.

What next?
The takeout from this research is unequivocal. Businesses must help people create the radical change they want to see in the world. We need to rethink fundamental concepts, and our contributors start that conversation in the next section. For leaders, now’s the time to react and in the final section, Robert Jones explains how.

Analysis by Josh-Hedley Dent, Lead Consultant at CitizenMe

(CitizenMe is a data platform that empowers people with their personal data, and redefines consumer insights by giving businesses access to integrated digital and survey data in minutes.)

01

RETHINK
THE CONSUMER

MOHSIN HAMID

We talked to Mohsin Hamid, Man Booker nominated novelist and Chief Storytelling Officer, about the themes from our research. He had big ideas about how business can help people create positive change in the world, starting with the way they serve the consumer.

How do you feel about today’s world?
We are living in a moment where there is a rampant sense of anxiety and pessimism.

If you asked somebody in the US in the 1960's, ‘what will be happening 50 years hence?’ people would have probably told you, ‘we'll be in outer space. We'll have flying cars. There’ll be robots. It’ll be a time of plenty, an amazing new world.’ If you asked somebody today, you’d probably get visions of food shortages and environmental catastrophes.

Why? There are multiple reasons, but one is the pace of change. It’s accelerating and we’re bombarded with information. This information is very often negative. Nobody reports that in Pakistan today, 200 million people didn't kill each other. They report that last week, one person blew up eight others. We’re biased towards negative information because dangerous news is useful to us. An orange flash behind the trees could be a tiger.

As people compete for attention in all forms of media, they default to this kind of information. We find it on our phones and televisions and screens every few minutes, so we think we’re on the verge of disaster. Added to this is the fact that in many places, we are living in a time of rampant inequality. Awareness of inequality is growing rapidly, as people see how others live, through Facebook and television and the like.

However, the truth is that on planet earth today, people live longer, are less likely to die violently, and the gap between the education that women and men receive is diminishing. The poorest people are consuming many more calories than they were centuries ago, and the number of children that die from vaccine preventable illnesses is dropping dramatically. It's a better planet overall.

I think there's a feeling of crisis - not that there are more crises or fewer solutions than before.

In this climate of unwarranted pessimism, what kind of change do we need to see?
The changes we need to make are fundamental. Nostalgic visions of the future are deeply flawed, and to address our pessimism, we need to begin to articulate visions for a future we actually desire.

For example in 1960's America, we recognised that we wanted a future where black children and white children are treated the same.
That's a simple proposition that enabled a direction, and many changes for the better did come.

Political change should be grounded in enhanced equality. It might mean dismantling national borders, maybe having democracy function at a planetary level. Could the world vote on certain issues together, instead of being bound by the power of nation states? This isn’t necessarily the right answer, but we need more of this kind of discussion.

Can business help further this discussion?
The business community is vital to this conversation. Businesses are stakeholders in larger society and should shape it for the better, always thinking about the societal consequences of business practices. There are many enterprises today that try to conduct themselves in a way that they think to be morally sensible. For real impact, there are huge implications on the way they approach regulators, partners, products, and customers.

For example, businesses could promote a shift from an obsession around the human being as consumer to a focus on the human being as producer. For much of the last half century, the idea of consumers has become dominant in business and political discourse. Everything gets cheaper, or free, which is good for the consumer. But consumers can only consume thanks to borrowing or producing. Borrowing is unsustainable, and producing gives a sense of dignity and self-worth. If you consume thanks to borrowing, but don't see yourself as a productive member of society with a skill that’s valued and nurtured, you become disenfranchised. Universal basic income won’t solve this.

From a business standpoint, the productive capacity of the end user should be the test. Businesses should ask themselves how they add value both to the people working in the company and to the people they sell to. Advertisers pay for consumers’ attention, but I would apply similar standards to people's time as producers. What value, economic or otherwise, can these people create from productive activity? How can business be built on mutual benefit? For example, say writing Facebook posts is a productive activity, I would like those producers to be compensated – to capture some share of the value in the economic system in which they're participating. If this is to happen, there are lots of questions to answer.

Overall, though our pessimism is at least statistically unwarranted, we need change. To start that process, we must talk about visions of the future that are radical, forward-looking and - above all - genuinely and inclusively attractive. Focusing simply on monetising the consumer strikes me as an increasingly untenable long-term proposition, and re-orienting away from this is very important.

02

Rethink
the leader

PADDY LOUGHMAN

What a time to lead.

The scale and complexity of change in the world is unprecedented, and our research shows this is taking its toll on our general outlook. Data is enormous, some problems are too complex to understand, corporate power is shifting, and technology may be escaping our control as post-human futures crest the horizon. In this landscape, how can a leader be effective? What style of leadership can tackle the ambiguous, inter-systemic challenges we face to steer us towards a radically better future?

We’ll pose thoughts developed through conversations with Sarah Drinkwater, Head of Campus London at Google and Chair of Google Women UK, our CEO Sairah Ashman, and others who help shape our thinking daily, through our work. We'll talk about how modern leaders must bring fresh energy to perennial concerns, and consider entirely new ones.

Beyond the bubble, via EI
Diversity and inclusivity aren’t just good for business; they can be a competitive advantage. Diverse teams are smarter because they understand diverse problems, and without them business can suffer.

In broader culture, expectations have shifted: 7 year olds give TED talks, people of colour take the highest accolades in fashion, film, and theatre, and feminist narratives thrive. There’s an appetite for better representation, but it’s not reflected in leadership. Private education – which caters to just 7% of the population – is still the passport to power. Women are absurdly under-represented: there are only 15 female heads of state out of 146, more FTSE 100 CEOs called Dave than female CEOs, and despite playing a central role in the development of computing, women struggle to be accepted in Silicon Valley.

Biases are hard to overcome. They’re entrenched, institutionalized and sometimes undetectable. To tackle them, modern leaders must recognise the value of Emotional Intelligence. EI competencies aren’t ‘soft skills' that are weak or pliable, but essentials that may offer leaders an advantage over the AIs they’ll soon compete with.

Truly engaging with EI means significant shifts in leadership craft. Leaders need to understand their emotional limits, seek to extend them, and embrace those of others. They must recognize the differences and accept that they don’t have all the answers. Having ‘the ability to fire themselves’, as Sarah from Campus London describes it, is crucial.

Disrupting disruption
Experiments show that by ‘violating your schema’ you can ‘switch on’ your creativity. This suggests that creativity a) resides in all of us, and b) is a mechanism we have evolved to respond to and survive change. As Sarah sees it, people often think creativity is ‘producing things’, when really, it‘s ‘problem solving’.

In business today, to be 'creative’ is often to disrupt. But disruption theory has been criticised for being ‘blind to continuity’, and ‘disruptive’ thought leadership is devolving into cynical billionaire-class propaganda at the expense of public intellectual analysis. We need new ideas, but we also need careful maintenance and systems-thinking to ensure our ideas have broad, long-term impact.

What if we reframed creativity, so that it doesn’t seek to create change, but anticipates and helps us find solutions for the problems change creates? The leaders we spoke to agreed that creativity, by this definition, is vital.

This means being willing to connect, to be open-minded and curious, to learn and play. Perhaps most importantly, it means being willing to encourage creativity in those around them by making room for experimentation.

Reaching beyond the now
Pressures to focus on the short-term are manifold. From the profit motive and short election cycles, to our preoccupation with mindfulness, nostalgia and instant-gratification, we’re constantly shortening horizons. Because we can so easily quantify, track and celebrate short-term results, they’re seductive.

Leaders need to help us look further ahead, beyond immediate reward and recognition. Long-term challenges require effort that may go unrecognised for decades. We are, as counterculture activist Angela Davis puts it, the ‘living imaginaries of past generations’. We realize their visions, as future generations will realize ours.


For this kind of long-term thinking, leaders need integrity and accountability. Rather than enter the stalemate between stubborn nostalgia and indefinite optimism on one side, and the sclerotic lack of alternatives on the other, leaders should seek coalitions and partnerships. To make them work they’ll need a degree of neutrality and, as Sairah Ashman put it, ‘a determined agenda but a very low ego’.

Ultimately, integrity means that social goals align with business goals, rather than taking second place. This cannot be value signaling. Positive change isn’t delivered by a tagline. Leaders must recognise customers and competitors as people and partners, rather than numbers and threats. They must push VC return cycles to raise capital to support long-term goals, that build a future we may never actually get to appreciate.

What’s clear is that in such uncertain times, leadership is vital. We need diverse leaders building inclusive environments. We need them to nurture creativity to solve existing problems rather than create new ones. And we need our figureheads to have integrity, to pursue visions that have incredibly far-reaching consequences.

03

Rethink
responsibility

AMY LEE

As a film fan, I tend to see the world through that lens. So it was when I considered the results of our research: 41% of people believe that companies everywhere, both large and small, should be ‘creating positive change’ in the world. This is a challenge to CEOs but also a surprising vote of confidence for the potential of business to do good, in a world where pop culture repeatedly paints corporations as greedy Gordon Gekkos, impervious to the needs of regular Joe.

Citizen Kane, often cited as ‘the best movie ever made’, serves as a lightning rod for the dominant narrative on corporate life in the late Twentieth Century and early Millennium. Business, the film seems to say, is the cynical pursuit of profit, in direct opposition to the human impulse to do good by your fellow (wo)man. How could such commercial organizations — particularly those publicly listed, serving the quarterly demands of the stock market first and foremost — drive anything but more wealth for the 1%?

Yet our research shows that people do believe that profit-seekers can and should be agents for positive impact. So, what’s changed? Are we now more willing to have faith in business?

Business inside out
Since Orson Welles’s depiction of newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane, the media landscape has radically changed. The online revolution of the last decade has transformed how we tell, consume and monetize stories, and has played an instrumental role in blurring the lines between people and business. Social media, in particular, gives everyone with internet access the ability to publish their ideas to millions in the blink of an eye: propelling the unknown to influential, and making the previously unknowable — celebrities, politicians, business leaders — more like us (aka more funny, boring, spontaneous, flawed).

So the digital tools that give us the power to turn businesses inside out may in turn have humanized the very companies we prefer to distrust. One video of Travis Kalanick turning on a driver became the viral personification of Uber on its worst day. Elon Musk is a billionaire future-builder you can tweet right now and who might respond in seconds. Unlike Steve Jobs and other iconic business enigmas of the past, leaders and their staff are there to interact with us at any moment, creating the illusion that they are more current, more accessible and perhaps more open to act in our interests than ever before.

New forms of media are also central to undermining our confidence in public institutions. Coming of age at the end of last Century, the zeitgeist was defined by stories investigating the morality of stiffs in suits (Pretty Woman, 1990, American Psycho, published 1991). Today, we interrogate power in new ways. Weibo enabled a Chinese blogger to reveal a state official’s corrupt accumulation of wealth; Wikileaks is regularly used to reveal alleged abuses of position; modern movie-makers force us to examine official versions of events (Michael Moore, Kathryn Bigelow). Perhaps this increased lack of trust for the establishment has shed a relatively optimistic light on the potential for business to make positive impact?

Silence is jeopardy
Another reason for this shift in perception may be simply that businesses are doing better at doing good. High profile scandals like the Volkswagen emissions cover-up in 2015 may finally have put the nail in the coffin of Corporate Social Responsibility as an effective vehicle for impact and consumer influence. In its place has grown a new breed of digitally-native businesses that put their social mission at the heart of their brand and their business model. Warby Parker and Everlane are riding the wave of conscious consumerism by giving us all the chance to do good as we do things that feel good.

We have to acknowledge, however, that this new breed is typically privately-owned and therefore free to pursue personally motivated social agendas. Just as Hollywood is willing to romanticize start-ups selling niche artisanal products and demonize big corporates, surely it’s not so easy for public companies with mainstream audiences to take a stand?

Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn said, ‘The C.E.O.s of big public companies don’t walk out onto the plank of social and political leadership by default. But today, to keep silent is to jeopardize the reputation of the company.’ Certainly, in the wake of the US presidential election in 2016, we have seen an increase in so-called corporate activism on hot button social issues by some of the world’s biggest brands. 80 companies, including Apple, Pfizer and Deutsche Bank, took a stand on LGBTQ rights by lobbying North Carolina’s governor to repeal the state’s laws on washroom usage.

But, if the recent political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic has taught us anything it’s that the masses are not aligned. Not on long-term alliances, leadership choices or the right of public companies to pursue social agendas. Howard Schultz, former Starbucks CEO, experienced a #boycottStarbucks backlash and was accused by certain pundits of putting ‘personal political views before shareholders’ when he pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next 5 years. Clearly, ‘positive impact’ is a matter of opinion not simply a moral imperative, particularly for public entities with shareholders to answer to.

Uncle Ben once said to Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Common sense and our research says this is as true of board execs as it is masked crusaders. Wherever you are in the world, businesses have huge influence over people and the planet. As digital tools have broken down barriers between brands and individuals — enabling both parties to be more open, more honest, more available to each other — so our expectations have grown that companies will use their power to make our world a better place to be.

04

Rethink
creativity

CHRIS MOODY

'The world is changing'…

If I had a pound for every time I read this statement I'd be riding round on a gold Segway with a silver cape. But, much as we’re in a ‘post’ era – post truth, post expert, post Brexit, post leader of the free world – ‘the world is changing’ is a truism for a reason. The world has changed, and our research shows we’re keen for more. Over half of the people we talked want radically new systems, compared to just 14% who believe we should be reverting to things past. We’re looking for newer, bolder, better ideas.

Now, it’s easier than ever to get a voice or a thought out in the world. Where once the creative industry had control, this is no longer the case, and creative professionals are rethinking traditional practices. The type of jobs we do today at Wolff Olins are radically different from the ones we did even five years ago. We’re branding and realizing experiences, sentiments and philosophies, as much as we’re giving a presence to tangible organizations.

Playing to the crowd
From Johnson Banks’ experiment with group think on Mozilla, to straight-to-Snapchat publications, through to genuine omnichannel behavior, design is finding ways to adapt to this new normal. Brands are learning to gather great content from the crowd, to listen to the audience and to involve them in the creative process. Surfwear maker Quiksilver, smoothie shop Jamba Juice and the pop band One Direction are just a few of the names that have looked for help on creative crowdsourcing websites like Talenthouse and Tongal.

More people than ever can create and shape the ways our communities look, sound, feel and behave. This can only ever be a good thing.

But what does it mean for the role of the design professional? Do those 10,000 hours you spent on the foundation course at art school or in that unpaid internship matter now anyone can access the same tools as you? On top of that, if Travis and Jeff make their own logos, why do we need you?

In pursuit of difference
The creative industry needs to respond to this shift. Rather than pushing to be ‘better’ (which has to be a given), it should push to be ‘different’.

What colour is your car? When was the last time you saw an orange one? In many areas of design and culture, standing out is dying out. As everyone’s emboldened by the same technology and opportunities, it’s a great time to make things but these things are often the same. Uniformity is the price.

So in our era, it's the role of the creative to be deliberately weird.

Wikipedia and Facebook are among the greatest, most collaborative, most revolutionary tools of our time but they have little presence. They’re simply vessels. Their functionality is obviously important, but why shouldn't things that work well look great too? The Victorian sewer system was an exercise in underground engineering, but it was still designed to look good.

This isn’t about polishing icon suites or making responsive fonts. It’s about finding extraordinary ways to do ordinary things. Life’s best bits come from beauty, surprise, joy, awkwardness and silliness. To make something truly special, we need to embrace these things rather than submit to rigour, logic and algorithmic predictability.

Wearing augmented eyewear is innately weird. Google Glass tried to normalize it, whereas Snapchat embraced the oddness, and that's why Spectacles were infinitely more interesting. They made people smile.

Great things can come from being unlike everyone else. Michael Johnson, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and the amazing Caster Semanya are peerless and extraordinary. Good brands will always ‘work’, will be lean, nimble and agile but great brands are mind bogglingly different, greedy and freakish. They have form, function and attitude. Heart stopping beauty, aesthetic tension, clashing colours and typefaces make the world a more interesting place.

The world wants radical change for the better and we won't get that by holding up a mirror. We’ll shift it on its axis by interacting with it, surprising it, and then forging new rules. Designers have a duty to do more than assemble logical user journeys for the businesses that commission them. They should be placing obstacles in the way that make people stop, take notice, and change course.

05

Rethink
power

NOMZAMO MAJUQWANA

If 2016 was all shock and awe, will 2017 be more ambition and action? That’s a question I asked myself, fingers crossed, as I joined Wolff Olins’ San Francisco office this January. Half a year later, our research proves my hope is an emerging reality. 


Crises that came to a head in 2016 are only now making their full impact clear. As a liberal, I see politics I stand for under threat in every country I’ve ever called home, from Brexit’s undoing of European integration in the UK, to Trump’s disregard for liberal democracy in the US, or corruption’s corrosion of the constitution in South Africa. Personal politics aside, we can all see our climate changing as the Antarctic begins to collapse, Africa loses fertile land, and America’s temperatures soar. And we fear new types of wars, from horrifyingly spontaneous roadside terror attacks to global cyber attacks capable of exposing and stealing our digital identities.

The result is a fight or flight situation, and our research shows people are gearing up for the former. Though many of us have a negative outlook about the future, there’s universal desire for radical change, including in relatively optimistic markets like Brazil. Given the scale of the challenges before us, this appetite for action is exciting - but anyone looking to affect change needs power to make it happen.

An age of people power
British philosopher Bertrand Russell defined power as ‘the ability to produce intended effects’. The ‘intended effects’ revealed by our research all revolve around change, and to understand where power lies, we need to ask: who has the ‘ability to produce’ it?

Our respondents haven’t seen positive change coming from the establishment, or from business. Only 7% of people credit existing national governments for positive change in the last decade, and only 13% point to businesses.

Ours is an age of people power. We have seen change coming from each other – from individuals in their everyday lives and from groups of ordinary people coming together. Looking to the future, most of us – 54% overall - look again to individuals and groups for answers.

Power on the inside
Where does this leave corporations? Though we’re looking to people to affect positive change, we don’t want business to step aside. In fact, we expect it to step up: 41% of us believe businesses, both large and small, ought to bring about positive change. This figure shows huge potential, and is especially revealing when we consider that only 31% cite existing national government.

For us to realize the potential, we must close the gap between people power and corporations. From an internal perspective, this is easily done when we remember that businesses are made up of individuals too. A workforce is essentially a group of people brought together everyday, and by unlocking the innate power of employees, every business is ripe to thrive in an age of people power.

But corporations can’t simply assemble people to meet commercial targets. They must catalyze them in service of fundamental and positive change. Deloitte research shows that a growing proportion, particularly millennials, feel at their most influential in the workplace, so business should become a springboard for them to affect the change they want to see. This demands more than generic volunteering and sustainability initiatives.

Power to the outside
Unlocking businesses’ innate people power is just one side of the coin. The flip side of this coin is consumers – the people who use what companies provide. To be really powerful in an age of people power, organizations must think about how they can simultaneously empower their workforce and those who use their products and services.


Here in the Bay Area, the need for business to find its place in an age of people power is particularly pressing because most companies create platforms for action rather than products for consumption. The most powerful organizations in Silicon Valley thrive by giving people a form of power. Apple allows us to pursue our passions, Google makes it possible for us to find information, and Facebook helps us forge connections.

These companies rely on people using their platforms to personal ends. They’re under particular pressure to keep being the tools people need to affect the change they want. Doing so will demand not just a powerful workforce, but also one as diverse as the users this city’s biggest companies empower. Only then can constant alignment between the change people want and the platforms businesses provide begin to be possible.

If all businesses take inspiration from the above, they’ll have a transformative impact for the world, for people, and for themselves. For the world, they can win the trust necessary to fulfill people’s desire for a fundamentally safer, more sustainable, and healthier planet. For people, they can build diverse workplaces where, to echo the sentiment of Ben Horowitz’ famous Columbia University commencement address, anyone is able to contribute their skills to affect change they want for the people they represent.

For themselves, businesses stand to benefit hugely from doing more with and for people. By permitting and preparing people to act on issues that matter to them, they stand to bolster loyalty and retention. By nurturing a workforce confident in its abilities to rally people and resources around a cause, they can fill ever-widening succession gaps with proven leaders. Lastly, by taking action on the problems that are most important to their people, businesses can achieve the most resilient form of relevance: They can become what the world really needs.

06

Rethink the
shareholder

DAN GAVSHON BRADY

Since the 1970s, the moral obligation of business has been to deliver value for shareholders, no more, no less. It has yielded enormous benefits to these shareholders and to consumers. But it has also come at a cost, to citizens, to workers, to communities and to the environment.

As the effects of the Anthropocene age and of globalisation become increasingly apparent, questions are being asked about the role of business; not just from the general public, but from within. Joe Nocera, writing for Bloomberg, says ‘The essential problem with the over-reliance on shareholder value as the only metric of success is that it creates the wrong incentives’. Paul Polman, CEO of multi-billion dollar company Unilever, says, ‘If ultimately the purpose of a company is maximizing shareholder return, we risk ending up with many decisions that are not in the interest of society.’ Even the Financial Times of London has got in on the act, calling water privatisation an organised rip-off with bills rising simply to fund shareholder payouts.

Our research shows 42% of people believe the business community’s concern for profit is a barrier to positive change. Shareholder return alone is too crude an incentive, failing to take into account personal, societal and environmental implications. What then, should be the measure of success?

A broader view
There have been many attempts to broaden the scope. The triple bottom line, for example was geared towards social and environmental impact. The quadruple bottom line focused on sustainability. Other non-monetary measures, like happiness and wellness indexes, have encouraged optimisation of sentiment over annual returns.

Many have proposed ways to look beyond individual business performance, towards the wider societal and environmental concerns of an economy.
In 2017, Kate Raworth gained praise with Doughnut Economics, which looks to address the human tension between commercial achievement and ecological disaster in a 21st century economy.

These suggested interventions aren’t without inspiration or merit, even if some remain cynical about corporate greenwashing. However, if businesses can use another quantitative measure, the approach can become entirely self-serving, with ‘good’ metrics a proxy for monitoring and optimising economic performance. (Will Davies has written extensively on the co-opting of wellness and happiness by both governments and big business as a form of social, professional and economic control.)

Recalibrating a mismatch
All of these models have hopeful, in some cases, utopian intent and viability. But they exist in a vacuum, and fail to incentivise business to work differently. The fundamental problem is the mismatch between our expectations of business and the execution of business. This needs recalibrating.

Back when healthy, competitive business served customers, employees and local communities, that fed a functioning democracy. But of course, in a highly interdependent, globalised, information economy, these matters aren’t straightforward.


In a recent book, Adam Arvidsson and Nicola Pietersen write that industrial society was built on a social contract, in which business wasn’t purely about return for shareholders. Its interests were intimately and structurally tied to society’s, and ‘most people agreed on the basic common values: economic growth and increasing prosperity’. They propose an ‘ethical economy’ that integrates moral concerns with economic measurement.

Just as climate change is not a technological problem but one of political and economic will, so business’ capacity to create radically better worlds is not a technical problem but one of intent. And that intent must come from a recalibration of the social contract: what is business for and what and whom is it meant to serve?

Whatever their ownership or incentive structure, organisations and institutions are – for a while at least - made up of people. Given the future of corporate power increasingly lies in its capacity to galvanise its people around societal issues, as my colleague argues in Rethink Power, it feels like an exciting time to be exploring these questions. If we can answer them afresh, we can start to balance the mismatch between people’s expectations of business and current reality.

REACT

ROBERT JONES

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has’.

These words from anthropologist Margaret Mead now have a new urgency.

Our research shows that the majority of people want radical change. They believe it will come from individuals and small groups, not governments. And they expect business to play a role in leading that change.

Businesses can help people to make sense of things, through knowledge, advice and education. Think Wikipedia, TED, Faber Academy, FutureLearn and Smithsonian.

They can help improve their lives, through ethical consumption and smart tech. Look at IKEA, Patagonia, H&M, Hive or Zocdoc.

And they can help them change their worlds, through creative, political or commercial powers. Watch Today at Apple, 38degrees, Modern Fertility, Etsy or Kickstarter.

In all these ways, businesses can help make everyone radical.

So how to start?

The organisations making headway are ambitious. They’re going for what’s difficult, what’s far-reaching. They’re seeking irreversible change and, in the same vein as our contributors in the previous section, they’re rethinking conventional wisdoms.

Out of this ambitious spirit, we see three specific actions.

01 Reframe your role

If you’re going to help customers change their world, reframe your role. Think about a cause that’s linked to a social agenda, and transform your goals from the traditional corporate mindset of ‘everyone wants’, to a new ideal: ‘everyone can’.

AXA is part way through this transformation. Rather than an ‘if’ business, that pays out if you have a disaster, it’s becoming a ‘how’ business that gives customers ways to live better. Its five customer experience hallmarks – shining examples of service initiatives - make this philosophy very tangible, and at a broader scale, its Research Fund ‘boosts the scientific discoveries that contribute to societal progress’.

Wonderbly has discovered a bigger social purpose behind what it does. It isn’t just a publisher of children’s books: It’s a movement that makes parents more creative, and uses personalization to spark self-belief in its very young readers.

Enel, one of the world’s biggest energy companies, has applied its new, activist spirit – ‘open energy’ – to the sharp end of its business, by merging CSR with innovation, and by redefining its relationship with customers through its digital experience.

Organisations like these are reframing their roles and rewiring their businesses around a cause.

02 Power your customer

If you’re going to help customers in a big new way, then be deeply customer-centric. Don’t just serve your customers, make them feel bigger, bolder, stronger.

After all, customers are no longer passive consumers but powerful, active citizens. They want to shape, fund, produce and co-own.

Team Knowhow, a new UK-based tech support service, is designed around real customer needs. They have built service categories - and an entire commercial framework - around customer benefit (Connect it, Fix it, Protect it, Improve it).

Girl Effect is enlisting its users - girls from around the world - to help end poverty by getting creative. It uses market research and shapes the content in its portfolio of media brands to challenge the social norms that hold their communities back. It will have 30 million active participants by 2020, inspiring more than 350 million people to create a new normal for girls.

Organisations like these are designing a radically different customer experience: one that gives users and customers the power to change their world.


03 Humanise your organisation

If you’re going to give your customers new powers, you have to empower your own people - especially the front-line, who are your interface with customers.

Progressive businesses with a customer service arm don’t have sales targets. Centrica is one of these. It knows the value of empowering its people, trusting them to use their judgement, and incentivising them to meet the customer’s needs rather than the organisation’s short-term commercial demands. It uses net promoter score, which tracks a customer’s willingness to recommend them, as its central performance metric.

An empowered frontline has the freedom to tailor their approach to their customer base. Hampshire Trust Bank, a challenger brand in the financial services sector that doubled their customer base last year, knows the value of the personal touch. CEO Mark Sismey-Durrant talks about a ‘return to the finest traditions of relationship banking’, which means specialist teams investing time to fully understand individual objectives.

For this approach to work, more and more companies encourage their employees to bring their whole humanity to work. They want them to be people, not corporate functionaries. They are shaping an employee experience that embraces the whole person. For cutting-edge examples of these companies, look at the work of Frederic Laloux.

And because so much of the customer interface is now digital, there’s a big move to humanise technology. Very recently, the world’s tech community mobilised behind the need to think about people and societies, not just users, in the Copenhagen Letter.

The companies working in these ways are making waves, and this is just the start. If more can reframe their role, power their customer, and humanise their organisation, they’ll help everybody create the radical change they want to see in the world.

We’ll follow up on these themes over the next year. Please get in touch to share your own experiences and ideas.