The title of this blogpost is liberally borrowed from one of my favorite business articles of all time written by Gary Hamel on the WSJ Blog. The part of the article that really grabbed me was this one:
Why is it that managers are so willing to acknowledge the idea of a company dedicated to timeless human values and yet so unwilling to become practical advocates for those values within their own organizations?
Some of the human values Hamel covers in the article are beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, charity, fidelity, joy, courage and honor. I was so inspired by the article that I ended up structuring much of my new material around this core thesis: The companies who lead with human values are the companies who are going to win going forward. The ones that are inspiring us and growing at crazy rates (see Apple, Google, Foursquare, etc.) value human above all else.
I just returned from Le Web in Paris, where I saw the sharp contrast right before my eyes. Day 1 was mostly filled with interviews of those companies (mostly American) struggling to understand how to regain market share and customer trust. From the Microsoft WP7 Phone to MySpace to Nokia to RIM, I heard many murmurs around me in the crowd that people didn't even want to listen anymore. They were waiting for Dennis Crowley from Foursquare or Mikael Hed from Rovio (maker of the uber popular game Angry Birds). Not that the audience was incredibly representative of everyone in the world, but I would say that I was sitting amongst the early adopters and taste makers of what is happening now and going forward. The thing I heard over and over from the companies, like Microsoft and MySpace, was that they were 'focused on user experience' to an almost eye-rolling level. Nobody defined what that meant and I'm sure I wasn't the only one to wonder how they could focus on the experience of the people they were so out of touch with (I plan to write another post on this soon).
Each of the speakers appeared smart and probably were users of social web technology themselves, but came across so fundamentally out of touch with what was going on around them. The mannerisms, the media training and the dancing around answers consistently spoke "corporate" even though they were dressed casually. A really significant question directed towards Paypal regarding Wikileaks and the controversy of removing the account resulted in a complete regurgitation of all of the press releases I've read before. Positive spin and corporate responsibility (not to customers, but to the corporation itself) bled through the human being addressing the audience.
Contrast this with the amazing heart and soul exhibited in the Day 2 lineup and you'll totally understand where I'm coming from. My first stand-up-and-shout-YES! moment came listening to Alexander Tamas (DST International) who said:
"The urge to built something meaningful that changes the world is a life time chance."
I nearly cried. Not another badge gamefication geo-location iPad/iPhone social recommendation deal-of-the-day coupon garnering social media impact measuring whatchamacallit. As Dennis said during his Q&A the day before, "We didn't sit around a boardroom thinking, here are 10 ideas to build into a company. We like building products, and if it became a business? Great!" Not that I will poo-poo the money-making ability of companies who come up with a business idea in a boardroom that will make a gabillion dollars...I just want to see the world lean more towards Tamas' vision of building a company.
An appropriate follow up to Tamas' Q&A was Phil Libin of Evernote, a little app that helps users gather important stuff and notes. A simple idea with a humongous impact. Libin gave me my second and third ear-orgasm when he said:
"Never once were the companies we fixated on as our 'competition' relevant in the past. Don't think about what other people are doing. Don't look backwards."
"everyone asks about conversion rates. the short answer is 'it doesn't matter."
I believe strongly that it is Libin's insanely awesome focus on making something meaningful and useful (so useful that Evernote users are rabidly in love with the tool and report often that it 'changed their lives' for the better) that resulted in 5 million registered users (18k per day growth) and an entire book section devoted to maximizing Evernote in Japan.
Libin's final remarks were equally thought provoking:
"The worst reason to start a company is to make money. If you want to save humanity (or the city of paris shutting down for one day because of 1 inch of snow), that's a better reason."
I instantly downloaded Evernote (yes...I've been holding out).
And on and on it went. Matt Mullenweg and Tony Schneider (Automattic) - more inspiration - then Mitchell Baker (Mozilla) who inspired me at Le Web, then blew me away later at Digital4Change (more later). A little later, the ever-inspiring Shai Agassi (Better Place), Jack Hidary (SmartTransportation.org) who gave me more yes moments with his car sharing ideas and then Mel Young's interesting Homeless World Cup project. The singularity stuff was also incredibly thought provoking with Ariel Garten, Salim Ismail and Henri Seydoux.
I can't pick a highlight. It was one cheer after another. A million brain synapses firing in all directions. I was so inspired I wanted to hug everyone in the room. After that morning and early afternoon, all hope was regained for me. Le Web gave me several "TED moments" - bravo Loic and Geraldine!
Unfortunately, I had to leave a wee bit early to go and moderate at the Digital 4 Change conference at HEC Paris. Because of my crazy schedule, I hadn't sat down to really absorb what I was walking into. I shared a taxi with Cédric Giorgi, who was one of the most amazing co-moderators I've ever had the pleasure of co-moderating with. His presence helped keep me calm in the face of: OMFG, I'm moderating two panels with the likes of Mitchell Baker (Mozilla), Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize recipient & founder of Grameen Foundation), Matt Flanery (Kiva) and Walter de Brouwer (OLPC) amongst other notables. With my mind already buzzing from Le Web's inspirational message, I thought I may collapse at any moment. It was such a GIGANTIC contrast from the 'we are focusing on user experience' PR spins the day before.
An entire day of how social business is changing the world (and the numbers are in and it's working!) made me reflect hard on the hole in the soul of business as we know it. Between Hamel's article, the clear evidence that social business works from Le Web and Digital4Change and Umair Haque's recent post entitled "I'm Bored - The Significance Manifesto" I started thinking...this is more than just a hole in the soul of business. It's a hole in the soul of our culture (and when I say 'our', I mean mostly North American).
I want to continue...but in order to make this easier on the eyes to read I'll make my own observations a second post.
Part 2: here...