Sunday, November 22, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Unquestioned Answers

While in Costa Rica, I continued reading Lynne Twist's book The Soul of Money. So many of her sentiments about the use of money, sufficiency, and abundance have resonated with me. At the end of one particular chapter she challenges readers to explore not unanswered questions, but unquestioned answers. I have not been able to get this term out of my head. I spent a long night in Costa Rica, tossing and turning, wrestling with the unquestioned answers in my own professional life.

Since going to business school, I have been on a track - to pay back my loans, to believe that I must make a certain amount of money in my single paycheck, to climb, climb, climb as high as I can in the field of business. We hear so often that there are not enough women at the very top of business world, that people from my socioeconomic background are under-represented and needed in large corporations, as are those who embrace empathy and innovation and change. Up until now, I assumed that these sentiments were a given, answers to timeless questions and concerns in business, and that I must heed this call.

With this latest economic downturn, these very things that I have held to be true without question are now up for scrutiny. Everything is up for debate. I went to an innovation conference several weeks ago, hosted by Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Business. My former boss, Bob, invited me because he knows of my deep interest in change and design. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO and one of the panelists at the conference, discussed the dilemma of big business today as it relates to change. IDEO runs workshops throughout the year that are training sessions for business people to encourage more creativity within their companies. They are wildly popular events, and there's only one problem with them. "Once people open up their minds to the world of design," Brown said, "they can never go back. Many times, attendees of our workshops leave their jobs shortly after they complete the sessions. They can't accept a life in typical big corporations anymore. They know better."

Big corporations have been trying so hard to make innovation and change a part of the culture, or at least trying hard to pay lip-service to change. The difficulty is that only a handful of corporations really believe in the power and necessity of change. Target, Apple, Nike are among the few. By and large most big corporations just want to return to the good old days of fat profits, zero regulation, and big, big bonuses. Those individuals who really want change, innovation, and design to be incorporated into the fabric of a company get too frustrated with bureaucracy and the slow, lumbering gait of a company strangled by its own size. And so, they leave for smaller, more nimble, freer pastures. Who could blame them?

These are the brave souls questioning the answers that business has for so long assumed to be universal truths. Now, the truth is not quite so clear as it once was. The people who have long-benefited from business as usual (so much so that BAU has become a common acronym in their lexicon) are getting very nervous because their lifestyle is being threatened by those asking why, those who are questioning the 'given' answers.

For those brave enough to ask why, their dilemma now lies not in how to get their ideas heard by the ones who phone it in, but whether or not it's even worth it to ask why at all. Many are leaving to build their own dreams, to bet on themselves rather than on a big corporation. The world of business should be afraid. To survive in this new economy, corporations need the questioners much more than the questioners need the big corporations.

I laid in my bed, realizing that these questioners are the next great breed of entrepreneurs, the next batch of people who are on the verge of jumping from the safe, secure cliff and changing the world as we know it. And then I asked myself the question, "Will I be brave enough to count myself among them?" I waited long into the night for an answer to come from the darkness, and with the sun my own heart rose up to speak a quiet, strong, clear "yes".

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