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What if…?


You’ve probably guessed by now that I am obsessed by the big questions. Questions like “what’s it all for?”, “why are we doing this?” and so on.

I came across a great paper the other day by the late Donella Meadows on leverage points for changing real world systems. I’d heartily recommend it – you can find it here on the Force for Good website. It suggests that one of the best ways to effect change is to focus on the paradigm – the set of assumptions – out of which the system and its goals emerges.

Our basic human paradigms seem to include fear and love – either we fear for ourselves and close down our efforts to help others. Or we put others ahead of ourselves and give as much as we can to them. There are other important assumptions I am sure, but thinking like this made me wonder again what the basic purpose of business is.

What if….?

What if our purpose individually, and in groups, and even in whole generations was different from how it sometimes seems to be?

What if our purpose was quite simple and pure, and simply expressed: what if each of us, in each generation, made it our goal to leave a better world for the next generation?

We can debate that, but I’d rather just list some of the things that I think we would then do if we made that our goal. Sometimes I find it easier to accept a goal if I understand what I’d have to do to achieve it.

So if each of us, each business, each society and each generation had as our primary goal leaving the world a bit better for the next generation, then:

  • First and foremost, we’d work to get our own physical and psychological needs met. I think it’s helpful to distinguish between the two – yes, we all need food, shelter and good relationships. But do we all need a fancy lifestyle to prove our inherent worth? In this new world, that is what education would be for – teaching individuals to get their own needs met.
  • We’d seek to understand the world we live in and what is good and not so good about it. We’d try and understand how it worked and what the results created are. Clear vision would show a mixed bag, I think. Plenty of joy, happiness, hope and inspiration. But also much unnecessary pain and grief, and, of course, threats to our very survival from climate change, poverty, and various forms of careless destruction.
  • We’d seek to understand our own gifts and contribution and apply them. And we’d seek out, promote and support leaders who had the skills and vision to move us as a whole generation towards creating a better world for our children.
  • We’d all work together to reduce local and global problems, and make things better – critically, in sustainable ways. We’d seek to understand the leverage points – the best ways to make positive changes happen with as little effort as possible. And we’d make sure the improvements we make are here to last – after all we won’t always be around to keep things on track.
  • We’d celebrate our successes and reward individuals and groups that achieved things that helped move us towards this eventual goal.
  • We’d have to keep on learning as we did all this. Because the world doesn’t stay still. We’d need to be always open to new ways of doing things, and we’d innovate constantly. And we’d find ways to argue with each other constructively about the best solutions, avoiding the petty debates that slow us down and make us ineffective.

Our businesses would be designed to help us create this better world. We’d build strong businesses that were profitable and met our current needs. But we’d give up a little of our selfishness. And instead we’d all live and work in the knowledge that everything we did was helping those people who have yet to come.

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

4 thoughts on “What if…?

  1. Hi Peter,
    Have you read Deepak Chopra, Creating Affluence, or Tony Robbins work? I think they both put forward individual philosophies which would support the kind of approaches you are talking about.
    kind regards,

  2. Yes, I’m sure both people understand the value of examining paradigms. (Have you seen Tony Robbins’ TED talk, by the way? – what a showman).

    I was actually thinking of a more formal philosopher – Peter Singer of Princeton – when I wrote this post.

    He suggests that we make a logical error when we think that people in the future are separate from us.

    People who follow us are, of course, just as human as us, so why do we not treat them the way we would treat our own families and friends?

    (There should only be a very small discount for future generations – allowing for some unlikely event such as a meteorite shower destroying the whole human race, meaning that the next generation will never exist. But this is very, very unlikely so it’s a very, very small discount.)

    Rationally, we should treat future generations exactly as we would our loved ones. We care about our families and friends and would never harm the world they live in as it might harm them.

    So why do we not act as if this was true? Why do we chase our own selfish interests and damage the world the next generation will live in as we do so ?

    I’d guess because mostly we are unaware that our dominant paradigm is one of “look out for number one” – driven, as I suggested, by fear and anxiety (or, put another way, lack of abundance and lack of safety).

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