In our business culture today, we have a relentless focus towards more — buying more, selling more, having more. We’ve even codified this unending expectation into our work lives in the form of “quarterly returns.” The explicit and implicit expectation set upon our most public organizations is unending growth, quarter after quarter, year after year, forever and ever.
More, more, more.
But we live on a planet with finite resources. How is it we think infinite quarter-upon-quarter returns aren’t just possible, but are actually sustainable…?
There’s something deeply unhealthy about this, and we see a clear parallel in the biological world, because there IS something that provides unending growth and ceaseless consumption of resources: we call it cancer.
I’m going to say this probably isn’t the example we want to model our work after.
Here’s an analogy that helps us put things into a better perspective…
Profit is to business as oxygen is to life.
No sane person would argue that oxygen isn’t important — vital; essential even — to life.
But oxygen is not the point of life.
In fact, if someone were to get confused about this and start living as though the accumulation of more oxygen was the point of life, we’d likely say they lost their mind.
Let me illustrate.
With this warped perspective, they would start building bigger and bigger tanks to store extra oxygen, and when local limitations would prohibit more biggering, they’d find ways to store their oxygen in tanks overseas. The laws of the land would eventually prohibit their ever-expanding storage habits, so they’d create lobbyists to change governmental laws so they could go get more. Eventually, they’d try to steal (in “legal” ways, of course) oxygen market-share from smaller or unwitting “competitors.”
In short, they’d structure their whole lives entirely around the pursuit of more oxygen… but for what? This would be complete absurdity.
And yet… (I’m guessing you see my point.)
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A number of years ago, I was at the Positive Business Conference, and during one of the Q&A sessions after an on-stage panel, Raj Sisodia spoke up from the audience. He said, “Maximizing any one thing in an interconnected system creates a destructive effect on the other components of the system.” He was speaking about the destructive power of focusing on maximizing profits alone (and thought the panel hadn’t been clear enough on the detrimental effects of this).
We’ve gotten very confused about this aspect of business; we think the primary responsibility (or even purpose) of our companies is to “maximize shareholder return,” but this idea is essentially like making your whole life about accumulating more oxygen.
Not only does this mindset promote stupid, hoarder-like, greedy behavior, it also does nothing to improve the long-term quality of life for anyone.
Nothing is everything. Put another way: whenever we focus too much on one thing, we cause harm to everything else. This is true in pretty much all parts of life, as far as I can tell.
It’s time for our organizations to be held to a higher calling. We can do better.
An earlier version of this post was originally posted here.