On 1st January, the Supreme CEO looked over the global balance sheet and reflected what a wasted decade it had been. The euphoria of the 1990s, with the spread of democracy, the rise of the Internet, and glimmers of a sustained dent in global poverty had been followed by terrorism, war, financial crisis, a climate crisis looming larger, and general disillusionment with the global system. While panic and collapse had been averted, it seemed like time for an assessment, to get a sense of what the next decade might hold for the world and its billions of stakeholders. A bright young consultant (only a few hundred years old), with an MBA (Master’s in Buddhist Administration) from Taxila University, was engaged to do a quick SWOT analysis.
Strengths: On the plus side (wrote the consultant), the change in leadership in your richest major unit represents both a return to sanity and a new global perspective. The two largest units, measured by numbers, have come out of the recent crisis well, and they have demonstrated maturity and internal leadership. There are signs of more balanced cooperation among the various units, especially between those that are established and those labelled “emerging”. Freer communication and information availability is also an important new strength of your rather decentralized and heterogeneous organization. Creativity has been a long-standing source of strength, and it can be reinforced by freer interaction and knowledge sharing.
Weaknesses: Inequalities at the grassroots level, and between various units, continue to be a fundamental weakness. Without basic health, education and access to livelihoods, too many individuals suffer themselves, cannot contribute to broader well-being, and become participants in conflicts. Sometimes the problem is inequality even without material deprivation. Attempts to control natural resources, especially oil, continue to be a major contributor to instability and conflict. Differences in beliefs and mobility among individuals across units seem to be leading to increased internal frictions. Many unit leaders are subpar in qualities and performance, working too much for their personal objectives.
Opportunities: There has never been a better time for translating creativity into innovation, throughout the organization. The mastery of biological building blocks and of a range of inanimate materials can lead to breakthroughs in healthcare, energy production and waste management. How units and sub-units are organized is also ripe for innovation, thanks to the ability to store, process and transmit enormous amounts of data. The opportunity to reduce resource pressures through innovation in energy production and use, and hence to deflate an important source of conflict, cannot be overestimated. This should be the No. 1 priority for the organization.
Threats: Inequality, feelings of being left behind, feelings of cultural erosion, and resource pressures all contribute to conflict. Violent conflict has always been a problem and escalated into a global threat in the last century with nuclear weapons. That threat has spread, and has been supplemented by global terrorism. Now we also have an additional, different sort of global threat, climate change. One concern is that the recent economic crisis will lead to policy responses that hinder innovation and development, but that now seems a minor threat, as the crisis itself slowly passes. Global health epidemics seem to be growing as potential threats, though.
The Supreme CEO read this brief report and smiled ruefully. Some things never seemed to change in essence— fighting over resources, inadequate leadership, ignorance and mistrust. Some things would be hard to change. The organization was very big, unbalanced and diverse. There was no explicit recommendation from the bright young MBA, but it did seem from the SWOT analysis that something could be done on the innovation front. Innovation that fundamentally altered the economics of energy use could reduce conflict over resources, remove support for some unsavoury unit leaders, and reduce the threat of climate change. It was too bad that the last meeting of units to address this problem had not really made much progress. Part of the problem had been that the meeting’s plan and process came up against all the weaknesses the consultant had identified.
What was that maxim about building on strengths or leading with strengths? An emerging balance. Mature leadership in the most significant units. Openness and knowledge-sharing possibilities. And that deep-seated creativity. If all those strengths could come together somehow, maybe the needed innovation would happen. Certainly, it seemed as if the potential was there, and there were many individuals pursuing these critical innovations. Their numbers needed to be increased, their ideas shared, and their innovations spread as rapidly as possible. That was a workable strategy, focused in its efforts and its desired outcomes. The rueful smile became a more cheerful one. Maybe 2010 would be a good start to a decade that would recapture the promise of the 1990s.
(A retirement gift for Prof. Alan Richards.)
Nirvikar Singh is a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org