Ive been thinking
a lot about boundaries lately. When is something allowed and when
is it not allowed? Of course there are rules. But who writes them,
Governments make rules in the form of laws. Markets have rules,
too. For instance, people will buy the less expensive product, all
else being equal. Yet a lot of what we think of as rules are actually
habits of mind. The rules live inside our heads, not out there in
the world, and they only have power because we grant it to them
through a sort of spiritual laziness. Theres a reason for
this: it makes things easier for us. If the boundaries have been
established by forces outside our control, then we dont need
to try to change things because we cant. And there we are,
happy inside our box!
It was the economist Milton Friedman who remarked, way back in 1963:
There is only one social responsibility of businessto
use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase
its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.
Its a famous line, but one that begs the question: Who wrote
those rules Friedman cites, anyway? I mean, lets get real
hereFriedman himself wrote a lot of the rules for corporate
conduct by being a big-shot economist and getting people to accept
his claims. People, not God, create the corporate rules of the game,
and a lot of those rules arent embedded in the law.
This oddityFriedman invoking his First Commandment of Business
as if hed received it on Mount Sinaiwas brought to my
attention by Thomas Dean and David Payne of the University of Colorado
at the recent annual meeting of the Greening of Industry Network
conference. It was striking how often the subject of boundarieswhats
fixed and whats fluid, what exists in actuality and what is
socially constructedkept cropping up there.
In their paper Escape from the Green Prison, Dean and
Payne argued for expanding conceptions of green
profit-seeking from cost advantage in a world of fixed rules [e.g.
eco-efficiency], to value creation through policy entrepreneurship.
What seems fixed isnt really so, they were saying. Policy
rules can be changed, and corporations that see and act on this
can seize a competitive advantage.
A workshop on value stream dynamics by Lorinda Rowledge of the consultancy
Ekos International drove home how off the markand counter-productivethe
idea of separate identity is in todays networked world. Workshop
participants took on different roles in the coffee value stream.
One person ran the growers alliance; others played the shipper,
the roaster, the retailer, and so on. It soon became clear we would
all do a lot better if we started thinking of ourselves as a single
cooperating entity rather than individual enterprises pursuing our
A paper by doctoral student Margaret Gollagher challenged the entire
notion of corporate identity. Her argument: reality is fluid. Fixed
concepts become that way only through a sort of collective illusion.
Were like a crew hoisting a sail into the sky. Release the
winch, let fall our idea of the corporation, and dramatic re-visioning
Or does it? Lets pause for a reality check. It must be remembered
that the corporate rules of engagement arent only socially
constructed; laws underpin them, too. Theres this thing called
the WTO, remember? That doesnt change a buried truth, though.
Its that people working inside the corporate system have much
more power than they give themselves credit for. Many of the boundaries
we tend to accept as defining the rules are much less
impervious than we think. They can be broken down by conscious,
continuous acts of the imagination. Dean and Payne, Rowledge and
Gollagher were all saying essentially the same thing: Its
in your power, quite literally, to re-imagine the corporation.
Doing so, though, requires a special kind of alertness. You have
to actively resist being lulled to sleep by the easy familiarity
of the status quo, and you also have to keep asking that all-important,
creatively liberating question: Says who?
Its a spiritual practice, really, but one with profound implications
for corporate sustainability. The industrial ship is careering toward
the rocks and the captains on a bender. Re-imagining the rules
is a mutiny. A necessary mutiny. A mutiny of the spirit.
Carl Frankels next book, Out of the Labyrinth: Who We are,
How We Go Wrong and What We Can Do About It, will be published in
2004. Frankel can be reached at: email@example.com.