Over the Christmas break I’ve been thinking a lot about my career direction. This past year (2011) has been on the rough side, with some significant cashflow challenges which have kept me up at night and impacted my personal relationships. While things are looking more positive coming into the new year, I have been seriously questioning whether the direction of the business is taking is the right one — is the outcome worth having another year like last year?
I remember reading (or hearing at one of the many social innovation events) last year that if you’re interested in pursuing social innovation you should seek out a societal problem that you would like to see fixed and start to innovate around it. I wondered what social need my business — a professional services company that ostensibly is focusing on the corporate sector — was really addressing?
I soon came to the conclusion that the social need is that the corporate sector is the cause (directly or indirectly) of many of the environmental, and in some cases social, issues we face as a community. And that, by and large, the business community is not moving quickly enough to address these challenges — especially when we consider carbon emissions and environmental over-consumption.
I see a lot of great ideas in the social innovation community (and more widely) that are starved for funds and support. Where tens of thousands of dollars are all that’s needed to get something off the ground and test a new, innovative concept. Conversely, in my professional experience I have also seen significant sums of money wasted on ill-thought-through campaigns, products and services. What if some of that poorly invested money (which is small fry in the context of the kinds of projects I’ve witnessed go awry) was instead directed towards these projects that create social good?
So, there are two parts to the challenge — one is how can we innovate to bring a meaningful number of the business community to a new perspective? The second is how we can effectively direct capital to projects (and the people behind them) to create social good? And, more powerfully, how could we do both at once?
One approach is to consult to business to assist them in the transition to what I’ve previously called the “Economy of Meaning”. Leveraging the interest and commercial promise of things like social media to start a dialogue about creating more meaningful innovation. Framing a message around innovation, or reduction of risk etc. that is resonant with the broader social goals. I can’t help but think, though, that this is trying to sell something to a group that are, by-and-large, not really all that interested. That the drive for profit and financial reward is the wrong lever to be pulling to get meaningful and lasting change.
This is also a challenge for me as it requires me to explicitly outline and communicate what is an intuitive sense for the most part, that the concepts, models, methods and approaches that I have in mind, based on my professional and personal experience, are the way of the future. Unfortunately, there are very few hard-nosed case studies that demonstrate this at present.
Another approach, then, which I’ve started down the path of in the past, is to create an exemplar business that embodies these principles and practices — to become the case study. This requires a very different way of looking at the problem space, and instead identify business opportunities that are more public-facing (rather than business-to-business). Such opportunities also require a significant degree of capital, especially during the early stages of development where cashflow is unlikely to cover the investment of time and $$ to get a concept off the ground. And it requires a tonne of energy (which I must admit, I don’t really have right now…)
Even just finding the time to build the business case and prototype some ideas without adequate capital to cover the cashflow hit is a challenge. And to do this would require a strong commitment to the concept to get over what Seth Godin calls the dip. I’m yet to come across an idea that I feel so strongly about that I can unequivocally commit to it. And the few ideas I have in mind would require some time to develop initial prototypes, concepts and business plans to get to that point (or at least determine that they’re not viable/something that I’m willing to commit to).
I’m not sure that a professional services company is the right vehicle for achieving these goals. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not (at least not in the traditional model). But in the short-term it seems the most appropriate option, until I can find that concept that really resonates, that I believe in strongly enough to grow.
Hopefully in clarifying the purpose and aims (as outlined above) I can start to think more creatively about what form that business might take and begin to work towards that bigger vision…