February 1st 2023
“I don’t mind being wrong. What matters to me is that we do the right thing”
A few years ago, I spoke at an event in Sweden called “Project Inspiration”.
My presentation that day was all about how we talk about things before we do them. The thesis being that if we want people to make change, we need to first spark conversations about that change.
At the time we were at the height of our collective giddiness about the power of digital tools to connect people across the planet. And companies were excitedly talking about moving to a “4-Profit” economy, where making profit would increasingly depend on taking care of people and planet.
The fact that these two social phenomena (social media and corporate social responsibility) emerged together was not an accident.
Since the birth of capitalism there has been a fundamental dissonance with financial results being the prime driver of business at the expense of people and planet. But for most of the last hundred years we have collectively chosen to ignore it.
The advent of social media changed that, because it enabled one person with a camera and an internet connection to share a point of view. And inevitably, those who cared a lot about a cause or an issue were often among the first to see the potential and sta
rt posting. With that came the permission to call out this dissonance, to share our sense that it does feel profoundly wrong for companies to plunder our environment, destroy our planet and take people for granted in order to make lots of money.
This speaks to what the economist Adam Smith calls the “Invisible Hand” or the idea that there are unseen forces that move the economy and drive behaviour. The Invisible Hand, in this case, was being driven by social media and it was leading companies to pay more attention to people and planet in their pursuit of profit.
Indeed, back in the mid 2000s, you would have easily subscribed to the idea that by 2023, every business would be Purpose -driven and social media would have created incredible societal benefit.
So what happened?
Well, I’ve spent some time reflecting on this. And the conclusion I have come to (and please challenge it) is rather simple. Now I like simple conclusions, which perhaps says a lot about me. But I do think that we spend too much time as humans coming up with complicated solutions that never get implemented. So I tend to prefer simple conclusions that do get implemented, even if they are imperfect.
Anyway, I think what happened is that we don’t actually do most of the things we say we will do.
Said differently, most of the time there is a significant gap between what we say we want to do or should do, and what we actually do.
My core argument back at that event in Sweden was that to get people to change we needed to get people talking about change. I believed that our new digital tools would create a powerful Invisible Hand that would lead us to do things for the benefit of all and that would in turn lead to the growth of a 4-Profit economy.
Instead, digital tools have been used to build echo chambers, radically increase polarization, cause untold damage to mental health and split our societies apart. As for the transition to a more Purpose-driven economy, well it has been achingly slow.
And, as history has demonstrated, just because you get people talking about things, and even making commitments about things, doesn’t actually mean they will do them. Look at the Sustainable Development Goals and how many of those we are actually going to achieve by 2030. The picture is not edifying.
So I got this all rather wrong…! Talking about things does not, in fact, lead to most people doing them.
Why is that? And can we do something about it.
I have spent the last few years knee-deep in those questions. And it turns out that we do actually know, thanks to advances in neuroscience, why that is. Although I’m not a scientist so forgive me for the layman’s rendition of what follows.
At the heart of our willingness to say one thing and do another sits a human “algorithm”, which we will call an “Operating System”. This Operating System sits in our brains and was programmed by each of us at a young age. Its purpose was to keep us safe at a stage of life (typically before the age of 7) where we were pretty powerless to take care of ourselves. To stay safe, as young kids, we observed the world and drew conclusions on how it functioned and then encoded these into our OS. And once the OS started running, it kept running. Imperceptibly. In the background. Throughout all your adult life. Creating strategies and manipulating situations and relationships to take care of number one and keep you safe.
It’s still running today. Yours is running right now, as you read this. I know, freaky isn’t it.
And while the OS is a key part of why we are still here as a species, because it was very good at keeping us away from nasty sabre-tooth tigers, it means that we remain hard-wired, even as adults, to prioritize our own self interest, regardless of the collective need or of our commitments.
It also means that we end up often making decisions that rationally don’t make a lot of sense because they are being made by an Operating System that was programmed by a child. And this causes humans to do funny and rather daft things. Like lobbying for fossil fuel companies at a COP conference when the world is in the throes of climate change. Or having a car accident and driving away. Or not talking to a sibling for years because they once said something that really annoyed you. Or saying things and then not doing them….
It’s a funny old world. But somehow it makes a bit more sense if we recognize that it’s actually being run by children pretending to be adults.
So are we condemned to be continually run by children or do the adults actually get to play as well?
The good news is yes, the adults do get to play.
We can override our personal algorithm and break the cycle of saying things and then not doing them. How? Well, simple as it seems (I know, more simple conclusions) the answer lies in being intentional and focusing on serving something bigger than ourselves. In this case, our Purpose.
I’m going to be writing a LOT more on Purpose and how it can help you override your Operating System in future blogs, but for now, I just want to just shine the spotlight on the fact that intentionality is not the norm right now. Most people and most organizations (which are, after all, just collections of human beings) show up in their Operating Systems, focused on their own self-interest.
We are all, collectively, still trying to protect ourselves from a world that is scary and we don’t understand.
And as a result, we are making it a lot more scary and lot less easy to understand.
The name of that event back in Sweden was called Project Inspiration. They clearly got the name right – most events you don’t remember a few months or even weeks later. This one has continued to be an Inspiration years later.