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umair-haque's picture

I'm Bored - The Significance Manifesto

A humble confession: I'm bored. As mind-implodingly, soul-suckingly, spirit-munchingly bored of business as Jason Voorhees probably is of Friday the 13th.

Let me explain why, via a tiny theory. Porter's five forces, the 5 "C"s of marketing? Forget it. I'd suggest that today, nothing characterizes industrial age business like the Five P's. Business is Pedestrian (in its vanishing smallness of ambition), Predictable (in its furious obsession with the trivial), Predatory (in it's hyperaggressive selfishness), Pompous (in its unvarnished self-importance), and Pointless (in its lack of usefulness to people and society). What it really excels at is pumping out inauthentic, unsustainable, illusory value--instead of the real thing.

Does this sound harsh? Consider some recent, everyday, humdrum headlines.

*GM using bailout money to fight higher fuel standards
(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/10/AR2009031003310.html)

*Banks having destroyed the mortgage title process perhaps irrecoverably
(http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2010/10/08/foreclosure-fraud-for-dummies-1-the-chains-and-the-stakes/)

*Cigarette makers fighting global regulation
(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/business/global/14smoke.html?src=me&ref=business)

*Marketing by almost literally brainwashing
(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/business/14stream.html)

You might, then, begin see my point. Predictable, pedestrian, predatory, slightly pompous, and, effectively pointless. Argue with me if you like, add a nuance here and there, bring the hoary B-school 101 defensive arsenal to bear if you want, but I'd suggest that the institutions of business as we know them might just have outlived their faded triumphs. In fact, I dare you: pick up the business section--and ask yourself how many articles don't meet most, if not all, of the five P's.

Of course, I'm not the only one who finds himself brain-crushingly bored of predictable, pedestrian, predatory, pompous, pointless business as usual. The people formerly known as "consumers," once easy-to-placate investors, legions of snoring managers, tuned out "human resources," scores of low-cost global competitors, thousands of fed-up startups--they are too. Apathy is skyrocketing. Activist investors are doing less fist-pumping with boardrooms--and more fist-punching at them. Entire new categories of insurgents (think social entrepreneurs), hell-bent on revolutionizing capitalism as we know it, are starting to succeed.

I suspect that, like me, they've all come to expect the worst--because that's what they usually get. Lowest common denominators, customer service hell, fake profits, zero contribution to society, ripping off the future, trampling the natural world, giving with one hand but taking with the other. Here's what they're all beginning to say: "the 21st century needs big, fat, wheezing industrial age business like a baby needs a Big Mac. What can you really do for me?" In other words, if business wants to matter--it's got to do better.

While the 5 P's might have sufficed to create 20th century advantage, if creating 21st century advantage is your goal, then being predictable, pedestrian, predatory, pompous, and pointless are incompetencies.

So here's my manifesto. It's about transcending the industrial age's slyly abusive relationship between the boardroom and the living room, between corporate "people" and human people, between "shareholder value" and enduring worth, between the bottom line and the bigger picture--and taking a giant leap to a higher level of advantage, one that's created through significance, the art of doing meaningful stuff that matters the most.

Educate, elevate, and enlighten. I'm bored that most boardrooms see me as a "consumer," not a person. Business as usual shouts relentlessly at me to buy, buy, buy--to run faster and faster on a treadmill of hyper-consumption. But most--if not all--of it fails to make me healthier, wealthier, happier--or even slightly more interesting. Listen, C-suite: I don't want to spend my life the slightly overweight, rather boring guy with bad taste that I am. But most C-suites don't want to better me. In fact, the signals I'm getting tell me they'd prefer me to be a morbidly obese, totally brain-dead, clueless robo-consumer. It's a sucker's game--no matter how much you win, you lose. And there's nothing more insignificant than a business that can't transcend that game to educate, enlighten, and elevate people instead.

Amaze, delight, and inspire. I'm too predictably uninspired and unmoved by each new product and service that rolls out (and too many of the organizations they roll out of). There's nothing more insignificant than a company incrementally "innovating" (translation: yet another razor, a different color, a faster processor, a bigger biggie-size, a clangier bell, a shriekier whistle). So here's a question: can you remember the last product (that wasn't made by Steve Jobs) that amazed, delighted, and genuinely inspired you? I can't. It's the exception that proves the rule. The worst part of the parlous state of business today is that being pedestrian and pointless is itself mind-numbingly predictable. 21st century advantage starts with amazing, delighting, and inspiring.

Resonance of purpose. I'm bored (when I'm not horrified) by the fact that most boardrooms seem to be on a quest to win the gold medal in this year's Sociopathy Olympics. And I'm bored of excuses that are instantly, constantly cooked up about it. "The market demands it." "Our investors made us do it." What is this, first grade? If people demand stuff that's self-destructive, here's a thought: educate them about it. If your investors are that near-sighted, press on--and teach them a lesson. No more excuses. 21st century businesses are going to have to learn to stop being apologetically clueless--and start being unapologetically humane. If you want to matter, you're going to have get serious about doing stuff that counts, endures, and resonates. And that means sticking up for an ideal or two--whether beauty, truth, justice, passion, honor, integrity, joy or more--and never, ever apologizing for it.

Prosperity, not just profit. Nothing's more mind-numbingly boring than a boardroom whose definition of success begins with profit, and ends with bonuses--because, as we're discovering the hard way, that's a great recipe for a Ponziconomy. Profit is an effect, not a cause; it's the reward, not the accomplishment. So I'd gently suggest: creating 21st century advantage is going to require a bigger, deeper, broader, radically more significant definition of success--one that begins with shared prosperity, and ends with enduring, authentic gains that matter to humans, nature, and the future.

These aren't the only paths to significance. There are a lot more on my list (and probably some on yours). I look forward to discussing those with you in the weeks to come.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd suggest: industrial age business is to human achievement, the human psyche, and human purpose what a box of instant ramen is to a Michelin starred meal. Paltry, slightly depressing, a malnourishing--and, if consumed on a regular basis, maybe even permanently debilitating.

We can do better. In fact, to send this Great Stagnation packing, we have to. Let's roll up our sleeves, toss yesterday's tired, toxic assumptions aside--and get started. True prosperity is a product of significance.

Editor's Note: We're delighted to introduce Umair Haque as a regular contributor to the MIX. Umair is Director of the Havas Media Lab and author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business. He also founded Bubblegeneration, an agenda-setting advisory boutique that shaped strategies across media and consumer industries.

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mitch-krayton's picture

Brilliantly written.

krishnamurthy-prabhakar's picture
Dear Uamir, Thanks for giving expression to anguish and thoughts abut present day business. As you should be aware in India largest number of suicides have taken place that ever happened on earth. The numbers crossed 2,00,000 for a decade before 2006. The relevance this aspect is the crony capitalism that has taken over the world business. They control the media and even saner and skeptical voices are suppressed and rosy pictures are projected with respect to growth, while the roots of the society are rotting. We have crossed the global sustainability of 350 ppm. 79.98% of people in India are living below 2$ per day. Now How your manifesto is relevant for the farmers, urban and rural poor? 
siri-dhyan-singh's picture
This reminds me of ken wilber's appeal to engage things culturally, psychologically, biologically, and collectively.  This is part of what he describes as an integral approach.
 
 
His thinking (and others) have evolved the concept, but this is a nicely written piece that appeared early from zeee google!
helene-finidori's picture

Umair, thank you!

I’ve been following your writings and watching your presentations for a while now, here, and there... The world needs heralds for a new era and grassroots initiatives to diffuse ideas and help put them into practice. Increasing numbers know something has to be done, but do not know where to start, caught as they are on the treadmill of maximum output now. I am glad marketers are taking a lead in mobilizing business for change and initiating virtuous dynamics. Please continue! I’m helping spread the word.

maureen-kelsey's picture
Ciao Umair,

Hai ragione as we would say in Italian which means you have reason to be.

While I could offer you many suggestions that could facilitate a change for the better, I would like to offer you to join us at Call to Change (small business innovators( which you can find on Facebook.

There you can find also Pascal Jouxtel. I think he is not bored, tired surely. Still, he enjoys himself as I know from his blogs and his Fb page.

If you would ever like to chat, please contact me whenever. I could really get you laughing.

My best and warmest regards,

Maureen Kelsey

brian-driggs's picture
Mr. Haque! So nice to see you included on one of those MIX emails! I could not resist!

Thank you for for this. As someone who has been living these ideals for a little over a year now, it's incredibly pleasing to see someone on your level lay them out so eloquently. I'm reminded of a conversation with Peter Gibbons in the movie Office Space.

"I don't like my job, and I'm not gonna go anymore."
"So you're gonna quit?"
"No. I'm just not gonna go anymore."
"Won't they fire you?"
"I dunno, but I really don't like it, and I'm not gonna go."

So much about being in "business" does not appeal to me. We are, as you suggest, seeking to educate, enlighten, and empower people. We want to show them the amazing things being done by people just like them, inspire them to try new ideas, and share their delight in the results. Those aspects of business, those "rules" laid out by the grossly overpaid dullards posing as "leaders?" We're not going to listen to them anymore.

I believe there is no greater success than helping others to be successful. This is our purpose, and we align all our efforts behind it. If we make a dime, we reinvest six cents into the people who gave us that dime, because we know, the more success we help them achieve, the more they will help our cause.

And, while none of us expects to get rich doing this, I believe we'll be able to enjoy a richness not experienced by the literally wealthy - we will have made something valuable and sustainable - a difference.

So thank you for this, sir. It was very encouraging and made my day.

aaron-anderson's picture
Funny, your riff on Porter's forces, given that I have had a similar reaction to them. My suggestion is that we supplant the now cliche five with an expeditionary mindset. That is, perhaps we can use Expeditionary Strategy Development to move toward a more sane approach to how we move business and other organizations forward.  The detials at the link.
dave-benach's picture
Thanks Umair - insightful, highly relevant, and actionable. Your manifesto verbalizes frustrations I imagine many people must be feeling regarding the current state of business.  The only thing missing is a Khrushchev-like shoe thumping image of you in the header!
 
A perfect 5P example: A senior advertising exec working on a large banking client recently told me that his client is removing ALL references to their call center numbers from their marketing material... because they can't handle the volume of incoming complaints. Flawed business practices lead to a vocally disapproving client base, so the 'solution' is to distance the company further from it's clients... Classic. Classically predictable, pompous and pointless.