Why our business leaders need to wake up
By Christopher J Tipler
If Australian businesses, and our society at large, are to be successful we must strike the right balance between imagination and memory – between the future and the past.
Imagination is the mainspring of creativity and is the quality that moves us forward. Without it, most of the good things in our lives would not exist – the rule of law, the enterprises that employ us, all the technologies we use daily, the great art that illuminates life, and so much more.
Our awareness of the past allows us to be creative with safety; we know from experience which things tend to work, and which don’t. The knowledge and wisdom that flow from experience do not condemn us to the repeat the past; they liberate us to try new things with confidence.
In general, if imagination gets ahead of memory, we will over-promise and come to grief. If memory outpaces imagination we will under-deliver and become stuck.
Right now, most of Australia’s business leaders, and the organisations that represent them, are badly out of balance. They are stuck in outdated twentieth century perspectives because of a massive deficit of imagination and seem to want to go back to a past in which their interests were apparently well served. This problem is reflected generally in widespread corporate resistance to almost any change, in an adversarial attitude towards government, and in a ‘victim’ mentality.
More specifically, it is reflected in the demise of strategy and the failure to plan properly, in a reluctance to embrace the new sustainability paradigm, and in the widespread persistence with ineffective human resource practices. Let me briefly explore each of these.
The problem of strategy. In business, the strategic process is the only reliable way in which new ideas can be transformed into new revenue streams and new ways of operating. Properly conducted, strategic planning matches ambition with the good habits of the organisation to effectively reconcile imagination and memory. Yet our business leaders seem to have lost faith in strategic planning and have become very short-focussed and reactive. In particular, the GFC and all the subsequent market uncertainty have led many businesses to conclude that they cannot plan for the future. This is wrong, as good business planning is not dependent on any particular external scenario.
This fundamental mistake in thinking is making it almost impossible for imagination to operate as an active principle. As a result, so many of our businesses condemn themselves to the status quo and to all the complaining and hand wringing that goes with being mired in present circumstances.
With the same reactive, unimaginative, mindset our business leaders have also acquiesced in the application of ‘level playing field’ government policies that are killing our agricultural and manufacturing sectors, despite the importance of these sectors to a good future for Australia. The level playing field idea not only reflects a failure of imagination, it is based on flawed memory. Even a cursory review of economic history reveals that the economic success of nations has been built on tilted playing fields, and that all of our trading partners work very hard at tilting, despite the GATT.
The problem of sustainability. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said that forethought was the hallmark of a civilised society. Yet, in Australia we have consistently practised its opposite for two centuries, and our major businesses have often been at the vanguard of environmental destruction. The issues confronting us, from climate change to species loss, soil degradation and water shortages, are now so obvious and so serious that it is no longer difficult to imagine the dreadful future that awaits us if we don’t act.
Nor is it difficult now to imagine the major new business opportunities that will accompany the inevitable rapid shift to more sustainable ways of producing goods and services. In this context, to ignore the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion and oppose any significant change, as many of our big businesses are doing, is not business leadership; it is a failure of imagination that needs to be confronted.
The problem of people. If environmental sustainability is the greatest external challenge of our times, and a lightning rod of opportunity for business, then the approach to managing people is its internal equivalent. And nowhere is the failure of imagination and the need for a new perspective more evident. The acrimonious disputes between Qantas and its staff present a too-common problem in almost archetypal terms – an outdated view of the workplace bargain (involving silly notions such as ‘work-life balance’ which result in the workplace meeting only a few employee needs), a reluctance or inability to communicate the business strategy, fear-based motivation, heavy-handedness and blaming.
All of these things create mistrust and competing certainties – I am right, you are wrong. This is truly last century stuff and it reflects very poorly indeed on the performance of our management elite. I suspect that few Australian companies are tapping more than 60% of the potential energy of their workforces. If a company achieved the same level of efficiency from its capital base there would be uproar at both board and shareholder level.
Our business leaders need to dig a lot deeper, rediscover the power of imagination, and acquire some twenty first century perspectives. Until they do, Australia will struggle to move forward.
Christopher Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of Corpus RIOS – The how and what of business strategy. His web site corpusrios.com contains more material on this and related topics.