Charging into Context with Agility
Charging into Context with Agility
It's like trying to ignore a fog of gnats – they still bite you whether you want to believe they are there or not.
Two conversations this week with leaders from large companies reminded me again about the value of context in meeting business challenges, and how social entrepreneurs address challenges with context front and center.
The two business leaders I spoke with are not social entrepreneurs, but are instead seasoned and respected leaders of established – perhaps more traditional – companies. One is from a leading off-price retailer and the other from a global consumer goods company. Both recounted stories of how (1) their fellow leaders were either so narrowly focused that they could not see the big picture and often got caught in short term thinking that compromised long term success, or (2) the complexity of the organization and many layers of global management prevented leaders from acting in the way that best served their local markets. In both cases, the organizations suffered because the leaders were not able to embrace the greater context around them and act in the best interest of all.
For any leader, context is a big deal – it prescribes behavior. Context also affects us whether we choose to embrace it or not. It's like trying to ignore a fog of gnats – they still bite you whether you want to believe they are there or not.
Consider how social entrepreneurs embrace context as a key driver. In fact, social entrepreneurs charge into context – they see a need in the world and they go about solving it with whatever means they can get their hands on through their networks. The traditional boundaries, barriers, and rules of the game don’t seem to apply (e.g., sector boundaries, low-income markets, limited resources) as they put together businesses in the face of stubborn, "unsolvable" problems often in inhospitable environments. At face value, these business seemed destined to fail, and yet, they often succeed.
Likewise, the "Maker" movement, a close cousin to the social entrepreneur, is manufacturing technologies from their living rooms on a small scale because "it is easier, better for the environment and more fun." Neil Gershenfeld, an MIT physicist suggests, "the new tools over time will change global industry as we know it. He predicts a wave of new competitors for the mega corporation." (NY Times Magazine, May 15, 2011, "Meet the Makers"). At the end of the article, the featured Maker reflected on her time as a software maker of credit default swaps, and remarked "how could I not have understood the social, environmental and political dimensions of something I was working on that ended up ruining the world?"
Indeed, how can any of us? And yet, it seems, business leaders in particular, are often caught in the complexity and enormity of their companies, which stifles their ability to react to the macro context and flex as needed for their own success, their organization’s and the world around them.
Social entrepreneurs and Makers (both often Millennials) are ignoring traditional rules of business, quickly flexing to a changing context, and creating innovative products or services that serve more than the bottom line. We have a lot to learn from them AND risk losing in the marketplace if we don’t!
For more on social entrepreneurship and business leadership, listen to our LeaderLens on the topic.
Published on 05/18/11 09:47 AM