Forget opportunities, it’s time to focus on problems
Sustainability, corporate citizenship and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are often responses to the same challenge: while corporations are succeeding at making money and growing market share, they are less successful when it comes to being appreciated, trusted and loved.
Business is often viewed with suspicion, questioned about its role in society, targeted by activists, and scapegoated by politicians and criticized by academics. CSR is often an attempt by business to re-position itself—to demonstrate interests beyond pure profit, that it is interested in the improvement of society.
This all points to a bigger problem.
Remi Eriksen, chief executive of DNV GL, one of the world’s largest quality assurance companies, says something very interesting—historically, businesses were created to solve a problem. Somewhere along the way, the focus shifted from the problem and its solution to growing, and growing rapidly.
I think of it as the selfie-stick problem. The opportunity is obvious—make billions by making and selling selfie-sticks (a market set to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 26% between now and 2020) to tourists. But selfie-sticks don’t solve any real issue that exists in the world.
This break from solving problems to doing whatever it takes to make money is the largest issue facing leaders today—and arguably one that has also led to rampant consumerism and natural resource consumption. Too many businesses are disconnected from any real purpose beyond generating more money for owners and shareholders.
But some leaders who have made profit their purpose are now saying they need something more. I agree—people are meaning-driven animals and when we can’t find it, we feel confused and disconnected.
I always feel hopeful when I see how leaders respond to something real and meaningful.
Recently, I had the pleasure of joining leaders from some of the world’s largest corporations as they interacted with members of Human Library in Singapore. They were moved, in some cases to tears, as they heard difficult stories from real people.
Over the years, we have tried to address this desire through philanthropy, corporate foundations, CSR, and sustainability. To an extent, these initiatives have helped address our aspiration for meaning.
But we all know that by themselves these things are not enough because they aren’t core to our businesses. We are running out of new markets to expand into (or will at some point). Growth is no longer easy to come by.
It’s time for a paradigm shift: we need to shift business’ focus back to solving problems again. Enormous problems. Scary problems.
Instead of looking to sell a new flat screen TV to a hundred million people, let’s solve problems that affect the day-to-day lives of a hundred million people.
And while this may seem idealistic for large corporations—the truth is stark. Death is inevitable for corporations which do not see that growth can no longer be achieved by simply finding new markets for old products.
In fact, according to the Leading Out report by Xynteo Ltd, nine in 10 (92%) emerging Indian business leaders agree that businesses can’t be commercially successful in the long term without addressing socio-environmental problems.
The only way the largest corporations are going to be able to address the next billion customers is by solving the massive, intractable problems that they face.
Rick Wheatley is executive vice-president, New Growth, and director of the Leadership Vanguard at Xynteo Ltd.
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