Last weekend, a group of creative minds in design, technology, business and academia got together at the “Reinvent Business” hackathon in San Francisco to discuss how to build more human and social enterprises. Tim Leberecht of the global design and innovation firm Frog was one of them, and wrote a thought-provoking column about what he calls “humanist businesses.” Tim contends that only those organizations that design themselves around – and celebrate – human behavior will be able to meet their grand ambitions. His first key to doing so? Empathy. And while one should approach with skepticism claims of business enabling “the ideal human condition,” he makes a compelling case about the values that tomorrow’s organizations need to live by and reward.
In addition to empathy, Tim highlights the four other keys to the humanist business: culture (central to collaboration), morality, creativity, and aspiration/changemaking. Of aspiration he writes:
Aspirational businesses are constantly changing, and they treat their employees as entrepreneurs or “social intrapreneurs,” as autonomous decision-makers and leaders who are inspired (and not just motivated) to act as changemakers across all levels of the organization. (I always ask job candidates: “What is it that you want to change?”) This requires a different kind of alignment--not the traditional one between goals and execution, but one between organizational aspiration and employee passions. At Frog, we have established loosely structured “centers of passion,” wary that a too formal setup might stifle the very informality in which passions thrive.
Tim is right that many of the most successful businesses – including the IBMs and Googles of the world – are moving in this direction. But it’s worth noting that these are the very qualities that social entrepreneurs have embodied and cultivated in others for decades. In particular, social entrepreneurs are master recruiters of changemakers – often leading organizations with flat hierarchies and creating meaningful roles for others in their pursuit of transformative social change. Their capacity for innovation is rooted in empathy, as they approach each problem with humility, respect, and a desire to fully understand the “clients” they serve. In this way, social entrepreneurs have been well ahead of the curve, and we should look to them for leadership and guidance as we build our own changemaker organizations and humanist businesses. Perhaps the fact that their work is truly guided by improving the human condition makes the incorporation of Tim’s values quite organic and seamless.
Finally, if Tim is right – if organizations must be built around empathy, creativity, and changemaking to thrive – shouldn’t we begin reforming our educational institutions with these values in mind? As Sir Ken Robinson articulated so well, our schools were designed much like factories to educate children for a world that seems wildly unfamiliar now. Can we really expect our organizations and the people that lead them to embrace Tim’s values unless our schools elevate those values first?
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