Book review for Long Range Planning (reviewed by Barry Hopewell), a Reed-Elsevier (U.K.) periodical
NOTE: LRP is the leading international journal in the field of strategic planning.
Getting to the Better Future, John E. Renesch, New Business Books 2000, ISBN 0-9610228-0-9, 133pp (pb), US$13.50
There tend to be two sorts of books reviewed in LRP. By far the majority are embedded firmly in the current business paradigm, and ignore the global problems of sustainability and social justice being created in significant degree by business itself. A much smaller number raise their sights above the matter of simply making profits at any cost to ask what business is really all about, and how it can give us a genuinely sustainable future. Getting to the Better Future is gloriously in this second category.
John Renesch presents us with a vision of what business can be, indeed what arguably it must become. Capitalism and business have arguably created great benefit, but appear to be running into the sand because of those very paradigms that limit current thinking. The bottom-line-only focus is not sustainable long term. Companies that operate without values will neither be sustainable nor acceptable in the long term (illustrated since the book’s publication by the recent ENRON/Andersen fiasco).
But Renesch does not focus on the negative; he gives us a positive vision of what the world can be, and the essential role of business therein. His vision is about the transformation of human consciousness, and the necessary transformation of individuals to go with it – a new paradigm that transcends today’s limited thinking.
He is of course ‘building on the shoulders of giants’ – visionaries who have seen and charted aspects of the way ahead, including Willis Harman, Ervin Laszlo, George Leonard and Peter Russell.
Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Part of the book’s message reiterates that we must apply this in our individual lives, to continue to grow and transcend our limitations. Else we likely continue to behave like children, and so do our organisations. Of course humanistic psychology has been telling us this for years, inspired by Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and theory of self-actualization.
A key point is that with self awareness comes responsibility. When we all act responsibly in full awareness of the consequences of our actions then our businesses will become responsible – no longer willing to destroy communities, lives and environments in the name of making money. We are collectively responsible for the global crisis we face, and each need to do our own bit to resolve it in the everyday choices we make.
Similarly, “Western business is now the de facto leader of all global society. It’s called ‘progress’ in the West, and people around the world are lining up to ‘catch up’ with this standard… With such power to influence comes responsibility.”
The systemic problems of capitalism are briefly discussed, with reference to the work of Paul Hawken, David Korten and others. The financially dominated system appears insidious, pernicious and very short term (vide the ongoing series of currency crises around the world). Many multinationals have become “socially insensitive, environmentally cruel, and are doing their best to make a few people rich at the expense of… the majority of the earth’s population”. Denial of responsibility appears to be endemic. The importance of the systems thinking promoted by Peter Senge et al is emphasised.
We need a new leadership that will address the needed changes in mindset and assume responsibility. W. Edwards Deming understood the depth of thinking required: “Transformation into a new style of management is required. The route to take is what I call profound knowledge – knowledge for leadership of transformation.”
Renesch identifies the trend of an emerging ‘spiritual renaissance’ of business. At last the S-word is out of the closet in which hard line materialists have tried to keep it encased. He takes judicious care to distinguish between religion and spirituality, quoting the Dalai Lama: “Religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we can’t do without are those basic spiritual qualities.”
The author’s own culminating concept is the conscious organisation. He envisages organisations seek to self-actualise in a way similar to Maslow’s individual self-actualisation. This builds on Peter Senge’s learning organisation and some of the writings of Charles Handy and Dee Hock.
What makes the ideas in this book actionable? A whole chapter is devoted to this subject, the most important of the book. If the ideas are relegated to the dustbin of “interesting discourse”, nothing happens. We need to make them actionable – “What does it mean for me?”
There is not room in this review to do justice to the content of this chapter. A list of subheadings will give an idea of the content: Values and Hypocrisy, Responsible Choices, Win-Win versus Win-Lose Worldviews, What Can One Do?, Stop Doing Things that Perpetuate the Old Paradigm, Start Doing Things that Facilitate the Emergence of the New Paradigm, Finding Passion or Letting Passion Find You. Most of you will find some provocation to action in these pages!
Taking one example, the section on Values and Hypocrisy leans on the work of Robert Rabbin: “Our real values are expressed in our actions, in what we do and how we do them. Our actions never contradict our values: our actions are our values.” Beware espoused values! And hence beware company statements of values that are not consistently reflected in the actions of senior managers.
An appendix gives the text of a New Agenda for Business, a credo for doing business in the twenty first century. This admirable resource was developed in 1999 by a group of business leaders including the author. You can see the agenda, and sign up to it, at www.the-agenda.net.
So what has this all to do with strategy and the strategist? Everything! This is about the future of business. I find it a synthesis of compelling ideas whose time has come; others may find it a load of new age claptrap! But stay open. Agree with them or not, you should be aware of these ideas!
John Renesch is widely informed and has a particular talent for expressing in a simple way the crux of what can seem complicated ideas. This is a short book, readable in a few hours or less. This is an exciting future for business in the vanguard of human transformation. Read it soon!
© Barry Hopewell 2002