The following is a slide-by-slide transcript of my short talk at DLD Tel Aviv last week (October 23, 2012).
Employees and consumers feel increasingly disenfranchised. Trust in brands and institutions are at all all-time low. Moreover, there is a growing sentiment that the “market society” is invading and commercializing all aspects of our lives, and secularizing even those spaces that we once considered sacred.
This identity crisis of capitalism has raised some fundamental issues about the role of business in society. Is it time to measure what really matters? Many leading business thinkers believe so and propose new definitions of value. One of them is happiness. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness Index. The United Nations issued a Happiness resolution. And next Spring the world’s first ever Happathon will take place in NYC.
But perhaps. rather than measuring a different kind of value, we ought to start valuing what is not measurable. What if markets were indeed sympathetic communities for social exchange, as this quote by the economist Robert Solomon suggests?
What if it were business’ primary responsibility to make meaning, not money?
I believe that it is no longer sufficient to be efficient or excellent – today's companies need to be significant to attract and retain talent and customers. They need to embrace “meaning” as the new currency. Their leaders need to become curators and producers of meaning: Chief Meaning Officers. But how exactly do you produce meaning? What makes an experience, a brand meaningful?
I would argue that meaning is constituted by three pillars: Scarcity, communality, transcendence. An event, an experience is meaningful when it is unique, deviates from the norm, the routine, when it is a disruption, or simply exclusive. It is meaningful when it can be experienced or shared with others, when it creates a sense of belonging and community. And lastly, something is meaningful when it elevates the people involved, when it points to a collective vision, a purpose greater than the action or transaction itself. This is the element of transcendence. Let’s look at some examples.
The travel service Nextpedition turns the trip into a game, with surprising twists and turns along the way. The service does not tell the traveler where she is going until the last minute. This is interesting. Traditional business wisdom holds that trust is earned by predictable behavior. But when everything is consistent and standardized, how do you create meaningful experiences? Nextpedition’s answer is serendipity. Serendipity is scarce and thus meaningful. Unpredictability is the new consistency.
Collaborative Consumption business models combine all three principles of meaning production. Let’s take Airbnb as example: Renting your apartment to complete strangers definitely represents a disruption that unleashes the forces of controlled serendipity. But it also capitalizes on and fosters social capital inherent in dormant, trust-based networks and humanizes and personalizes travel And collaborative consumption services make all parties feel they are serving a greater purpose, in this case, sustainability, saving natural resources.
The musician Beck released his new album exclusively as “sheets of music” without recording any of the new songs himself. Instead, Beck invited his community to record them and share them online. By doing so, he created artificial scarcity: Beck’s own performances of his songs would remain exclusive to concertgoers. He literally redefined what the value of music means in the digital age. Scarcity, communality, transcendence.
In a somewhat radical stance against consumerism, outdoor clothier Patagonia placed a “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertisement during the peak of shopping season. Patagonia may have jeopardized short-term sales – but instead built long-term loyalty and a customer community based on shared values.
Catalan football club FC Barcelona prides itself with the motto “More than a club.” Its values of fairness, freedom, and human rights are shared as universal values by supporters all over the world. The club has become a symbol of the beautiful game. It embodies that sometimes losing in style can be more rewarding than winning by all means.
This brings us to art. If we want business to be more human, then it is time for the humanities to design our businesses. It is time to find a place for mystery and delight in business. It is time for management not to be a science, but an art.
This, by the way, also spurs innovation. Innovation means changing the meaning of things. That’s what art does. Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are like artists, too. As the author Kathryn Schultz puts it, they are always initially wrong, by empirical measures. They “see the world as it is not,” but could be. In other words: they have a vision. They are the fools who speak the truth, have “insane” ideas, and make change happen. They are the Chief Meaning Officers. We need more of them.