A Collision For Good

Two great ideas collided yesterday. I left not only unharmed but enlightened; the kind of energy that produces the Oh, this is so cool feeling. The first idea came to me carried within Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s article How Great Companies Think Differently in the November issue of Harvard Business Review. The second came from reading about the intersection of design and knowledge management featured in Jeff Merrell’s blog Learning. Change. By Design. I’ll share my excitement about both ideas, then possibilities from the great collision.

Reviewing my yellow highlighted version of her article, Kanter makes the compelling point that great companies just think differently. Their primary focus is  building enduring success through meaningful societal contribution. Sure they make money; but money is an outcome, not the singular intent.  To use an old phrase, they “do well by doing good.”  She compares this thinking to transactional companies who view profit as a primary intent and people, communities and societies as parts to ft in “later. ”Not naming names, but we can think of companies in both categories.

Kanter suggests six practices that distinguish great companies:

  • They have a common purpose and core identity. Their purpose and values guide their actions, not numbers of widgets.
  • They have a long-term view. Decisions are made in terms of creating a sustainable institution, recognizing that immediate investments in human capital may have a longer term, but lasting, pay back.
  • They create emotional engagement. The positive energy from purpose and values that serve real needs of real people encourages the hearts and inspires effort from constituents.
  • They partner with the public. Instead of a tired “public or private” debate, great companies recognize that agendas that align with private partners, people and public agencies frequently produce long term benefits.
  • They are innovative. Of course, great companies have innovation practices. But because of their practices- leading with purpose, a long term view, emotional connection and a wide net of partners- great companies also create more possibilities.
  • They allow self-organization. They trust people to work in the organization’s best interests and build relationships based upon shared interests.  They encourage connections across borders and reporting relationships to pursue ideas.

The second idea was encouraged by Jeff Merrell’s observations about what design does, particularly in the minds of Design For America students. Design thinkers see solutions where others see problems.  They do it by sort of standing in the middle of the mess and looking, listening and learning. They see patterns and make connections.  And, they suspend judgment about what should be and work with what is and what could be. Design thinkers look at the same connections the rest of us do but see new possibilities.

Now I’m at my collision.  Could design thinking move transactional companies to be great companies? Could it inspire an elevation of the “how much and how many” conversations to “why” conversations? Conversations that tackle questions like:  Why are we here? Who do we serve? How do we improve their lives? in meaningful ways.

My question is a bit rhetorical, because I believe design thinking can move more companies to the great side. Maybe it’s the right thinking at the right time; a path out the binary choices of greed vs. envy, profit vs. service and mine vs. ours. Rosa Beth Moss Kanter makes a compelling case that great companies don’t make these false choices. Design thinking can guide the rest.

To learn more about design thinking and Design For America, check out http://designforamerica.com.

To read Rosa Beth Moss Kanter’s article What Great Companies Do Differently, see the November issue of Harvard Business Review at http://hbr.org/magazine

To read Jeff Merrell’s blog Learning. Change. By Design, check out http://purplelineassociates.com

One thought on “A Collision For Good

  1. Susan,

    Thanks for including my little bit in your collision of ideas. And making more out of it.

    I couldn’t agree more with your insights here. What’s intriguing to me about the underlying mentality of design thinking is that it also allows you, I think, to be satisfied with progress but never be satisfied (we’re done!). I think that’s an important point in making the kind of change toward the vision you spell out here (via Kanter). If any company wants to move more toward “doing well by doing good” it’s going to take a lot of learning by doing. Design process gives you a method for looking at that transition, I think.

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