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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2003 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking

Out of Box, Out of Mind
We have more power than we realize.


By Senior Columnist Carl Frankel

Frankel-y Speaking

I’ve 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, really?

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. There’s a reason for this: it makes things easier for us. If the boundaries have been established by forces outside our control, then we don’t need to try to change things because we can’t. 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 business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”

It’s a famous line, but one that begs the question: Who wrote those rules Friedman cites, anyway? I mean, let’s get real here—Friedman 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 aren’t embedded in the law.

This oddity—Friedman invoking his First Commandment of Business as if he’d received it on Mount Sinai—was 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 boundaries—what’s fixed and what’s fluid, what exists in actuality and what is socially constructed—kept 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 isn’t 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 mark—and counter-productive—the idea of separate identity is in today’s 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 personal advantage.

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. We’re like a crew hoisting a sail into the sky. Release the winch, let fall our idea of the corporation, and dramatic re-visioning becomes possible.

Or does it? Let’s pause for a reality check. It must be remembered that the corporate rules of engagement aren’t only socially constructed; laws underpin them, too. There’s this thing called the WTO, remember? That doesn’t change a buried truth, though. It’s 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: It’s 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?

It’s a spiritual practice, really, but one with profound implications for corporate sustainability. The industrial ship is careering toward the rocks and the captain’s on a bender. Re-imagining the rules is a mutiny. A necessary mutiny. A mutiny of the spirit.


Carl Frankel’s 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: carl.frankel@manyone.net.

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