I recently completed a series of articles analyzing how we structure and operate businesses. In these four articles, I analyzed corporations at various stages of life – infancy, youth, adulthood and old age – by taking the corporate personhood metaphor far more literal than it should ever be taken. In doing so, I wanted to find extreme examples where the corporation as a person made no sense, extract a few chuckles and, if I was lucky, stop someone from laughing for just long enough to realize that the point being made may not be so ridiculous after all. My goal was to entertain, but also to fool the reader into catching small moments of conscience or confusion that found truth in words so outlandish that one couldn’t help but question our way of running businesses.
My core thesis with these articles was that corporations are an extreme form of person – all profit and no empathy – that benefit from many of the same rights as people, but are not held to the same standards. It’s not just that this creates unethical businesses or amoral organizations; my largest issue with the corporation as it has manifested is that we have created exceptionally dumb organizations. By maximizing profit, we’ve minimized thinking. We can’t really be mad when corporations cut corners, cheat the system and generally screw people over to make money – we designed them that way. That old saying about the type of person who would crawl over their own mother’s dead body for a buck – we actually made a type of person that deems that sort of behaviour as perfectly logical.
I don’t want to see the end of the corporation, and I hope that didn’t come across in this series. What I want to see is a better kind of corporation. I don’t simply want more ethical corporations, I want smarter ones. I want corporations that are not as near-sighted; those who have the freedom and ability to break the shackles of the quarterly earnings statement in order to focus on a more holistic, long-term strategy.
I want corporations to have two considerations to maximize: profit and social good. Will these two considerations be at odds at times? Yes. Will this new corporation be an easy entity to design? No. Will the resultant design be a much more complex, confusing, ambiguous and at times frustrating environment to work within? Yes; that’s the point. I want to design healthy tension into the way we work. I don’t want to have an obvious answer – will it make money? – to every question.
Simplistic corporations allow for – nay, encourage – simplistic thinking. This should disgust us. The human brain is an intricately complex vessel that allows us to hold exceptionally involved thoughts and ideas. Our minds are playgrounds for creative thinking; however, they’re also lazy. If we design an easy way out, they’ll take it. As such, if we want better thinking, we must structure environments that encourage better thinking.
This is my job in a nutshell. As an Innovation Strategist what I do is create environments that encourage better thinking to ultimately lead to innovative ideas. Design thinking guides me on how to solve wicked problems by looking at them differently, asking stupid questions, and placing a diverse team in environments with healthy tensions that force us to question traditional thinking and each other. We design our approach intentionally to be critical of ourselves so that there are no easy answers. However, for the most part, I only get to play on a smaller scale around products and services.
To me, the corporation is the most wicked of all design problems. Countless cases highlight the flaws of current corporate design, leaving the business world and the rest of the world crying out for a better way forward. Do I have a solution to this problem? No, not yet. However, I do know the first stupid question we need to start asking:
Why did we make a person so drastically different from ourselves?