Value versus Values

That extra ‘s’ makes all the difference.

Whilst we are talking about the dysfunctional desire to reduce the world to bottom-line numbers, there was a remarkable article in HBR about the backlash to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s suggestion that he would change their hiring and compensation structure to advance diversity. It will surprise no one that the backlash came from Fox Business.

Here’s a quote from the HBR article:

The Fox article went on to quote Charles Elson, a corporate governance expert at the University of Delaware, saying: “This is fundamentally not the role of a public company, and it’s unfair to investors who may not agree with his politics. A CEO shouldn’t use house money to further a goal that may not create economic returns.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Business leaders must finally, once and for all, let go of the outdated and erroneous notion that social factors — and not just diversity — are irrelevant to the economic success of our companies.

Value is so often pitted against values as if the two are oppositional forces that may never be reconciled, much like the economy versus the environment. But, of course, economies live inside the environment and businesses operate inside societies that have values as well as the environment. The view that “legally, their primary responsibility is to enhance shareholder value, not to make the world a better place,” (Fox Business, again) makes neither ethical nor economic sense. The evidence for The Ethics Economy is compelling and already here.

When you’re inside a bubble, it’s very hard to see outside of it, which is what exacerbates structural inequality and why Larry Fink’s approach is so exemplary. The same goes for the obsession with GDP from economists or, rather, the obsession with economics.

Recently, the World Economic Forum posted one its short video interviews with Minouche Shafik, Director of The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) on the three things that make people happy. Not surprisingly, none of them is GDP, but rather good health, good relationships and meaningful work (as opposed to bullshit jobs).

All of this is perfectly reasonable, so far. What was frustrating was her final comment that economists should start measuring these things more. As I wrote in response, it’s not that economists should start measuring things that aren’t the economy, it’s that we should place less value on what economics as a discipline has to say about the world in general.

Economics has a dismal record. It failed to predict the global financial crisis and the few who did faced ridicule at the time—a classic bubble phenomenon. The financial sector is, of course, stuffed full of economists, but that hasn’t prevented immoral, irresponsible and illegal behaviour.

Health and well-being, happiness and life’s meaning are already well-understood and measured by sociologists and anthropologists. Listen to them instead. Otherwise it’s like suggesting that this “money thing” seems quite important, so physicians should start prescribing it.

A Better Utopia

If that all makes you feel depressed, I can recommend two books for you, one long-finished and that I quote all the time, the other I have just started.

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The first is Betterness: Economics for Humans by one of my favourite authors on the intersection of economics and society, Umair Haque, (he also has a fascinating life story). I could quote the whole book—and there’s plenty to read by Umair online—but regarding Fox Business argument, here is a useful response to bear in mind. It’s a quote from an interview with Joshua Daniel Margolis who co-wrote the book People and Profits?: The Search for A Link Between A Company’s Social and Financial Performance with with James P. Walsh.

“There have been 80 academic studies in the last 30 years attempting to document the relationship between social enterprise activities and corporate financial performance. The majority of results (53%) point to a positive relationship, and only 5% of studies indicate a negative impact on the bottom line”

Betterness is indeed good business. Here is Umair in emphatic mode, but the book is full of well-researched citations and solutions:

Call me a heretic, fire up the stake, ready the kindling, but I’d suggest that today we stand on the vertiginous cusp of an equally dizzying transformation in our understanding of prosperity’s place in the human universe: that an economy isn’t an end in itself, but that it’s a means to the end of a good life. That life isn’t a means to the end of wealth, but that wealth is a means to the end of a good life. That a good life is composed more of what you can’t buy than what you can. That a good life isn’t built first on disposable stuff that matters in economic terms, but on an economy that matters in human terms. That a healthy economy isn’t just one that’s less dysfunctional, but one capable of scaling higher and higher peaks of optimal function. That lives lived meaningfully well place real wealth above shareholder value, people above product, outcomes above income, and are a consequence of striving for better—instead of just “busier.”
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The second book, that I knew of but the author’s recent viral appearance tipped me into finally reading, is Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. Bregman is most recently famous for suggesting to those poor souls at Davos, who flew in on one of 1,500 private jets, that the rich paying their fair share of taxes would be more useful than philanthropy.

Winners Take All author Anand Giridharadas published a conversation with Rutger Bregman and Winnie Byanyima (who also spoke out on the same Davos panel) yesterday. Giridharadas closes with this:

But there are cycles in history, and I believe we are at the natural end of a 40-year cycle, defined by the religion of money, defined by the veneration of entrepreneurs and markets. And instead of just saying, “That’s wrong”, I think it’s more empathetic to ourselves as a society to say that the last 40 years has been an experiment, an era defined by entrepreneurs as heroes, markets as gods – just as a century ago there was the industrial revolution and the first gilded age, a time of great fortunes. I think we are living in the death pangs of an era that has done tremendous good, but has also done tremendous harm, that has lifted a lot of people out of poverty, but also put the planet in mortal jeopardy. And I feel hope that another era has to follow this era because that is how history works. As well as the death pangs, there are birth pangs right now. I believe that after the age of markets will come the age of reform and the age of solidarity.

In Alvin Toffler’s language of The Third Wave, the current frictions and tensions are the turbulent riptide as the the wave of market veneration recedes and as the age of betterness1 rolls in. My generation may be around just long enough to experience our children beating us with sticks for not doing more about it at the time.

This post was originally part of this week’s Doctor’s Notemy newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. Sign up to get it first (and in one piece).


  1. Autocorrect persists in the Freudian slip of correcting “betterness” to “bitterness” ↩︎

History Repeating

This week’s Doctor’s Note is all about value versus values. That extra ‘s’ makes all the difference. Here’s the first part of it.

In a time when terrorists play death-games with hostages, as currencies careen amid rumours of a third World War, as embassies flame and storm troopers lace up their boots in many lands, we stare in horror at the headlines. The price of gold–that sensitive barometer of fear–breaks all records. Banks tremble. Inflation rages out of control. And the governments are reduced to paralysis or imbecility.

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So wrote Alvin Toffler in the introduction of his 1984 book The Third Wave. I had a recent conversation about waves of development that sweep across the world unevenly and the friction they cause. It sent me off looking for the Toffler quote again, because I used it in the final chapter of my doctoral thesis, which I know you’re all dying to read. That quote seems to be perennially prescient.

The whole of The Third Wave is worth a re-read, because we’re now living in the future Toffler was imagining. He is quite often spot on and his metaphor of waves is a compelling.

The part about us living under the oceans was amiss, though, especially since “only less than 0.05% of the ocean floor has been mapped to that highest level of detail by sonar, which is an area roughly equivalent in size to Tasmania,” according to Jon Copley in Scientific American. (Amazingly, large sections of Mars are more accurately mapped).

Service Design. Now in Korean.

Service Design Book Korean Cover

Our book on service design was recently translated into Korean by Dr. Grace Bae from CMU HCII and Dr. Younkyung Lim from KAIST Design, Korea. It’s great to see the final result, even though I can’t read the language of course. Korean readers will have to tell me how it is. You can buy it online here.

Also, thanks to Dr Eunki Chung, a PhD graduate at the Human Computer Interaction Institute of Carnegie Mellon University who was assisting. There’s a nice circle that has been closed, since the book is a textbook for CMU Design’s Designing for Service course. The course was originally designed by Shelley Evenson in 2007, who is now one of my bosses at Fjord and Executive Director of Organisational Evolution.

Learning from Raiders of the Lost Ark

I’m in the research phase for a book project that looks at how and what designers and organisations—particularly those involved in service design or complex projects—can learn from filmmakers.

In the words of Peter Sellers Michael Caine, not a lot of people know that I studied film as an undergraduate and carried on until my final year until I was fully sidetracked by interactive media. But the filmmaking process has always played a big role in the way I think about how multi-disciplinary groups of people can best work together creatively.

More on that in the future, but right now the area I am researching is storyboarding. I frequently teach groups of self-proclaimed non-drawers how to storyboard in workshops so that they can pitch their service propositions and ideas. Working visually with a sequence of images on sticky-notes on the wall is a much quicker and better way of walking through what a service experience might look and feel like than just using text. As you move your eyes across the touchpoint sketches, you build your own mini mental storyboard of the user/customer journey.

To combat the “I can’t draw” panic that many people have, I regularly use Pixar Story Artist Emma Coates’ great technique of drawing from films. You take a film, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and freeze-frame every time the shot changes. Then you sketch a thumbnail of the shot as quickly as possible. I give my workshop participants about 10-20 seconds.

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At that speed, everyone draws equally bad (or good, depending on your point of view). I have done this with mixed groups, often with illustrators in the mix, and the previous skill level has little to do with the final result. In fact, sometimes those trained to draw well have a problem letting go and drawing rough. The key skill is being able to see which elements are important and which are not. That’s a skill that is useful in many other contexts.

As it is for Emma, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classic youth memory of mine and remains one of my favourite films in terms of structure and staging. Thanks to its heritage from melodramatic Sunday afternoon matinee movies, the staging and framing are really clear to sketch.

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh recently posted an exercise also using Raiders as an example to look at staging:

I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me.

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Cool, that Soderbergh posts about this, but even cooler is that he made a black and white version with the soundtrack stripped out of it for the exercise. It’s great, go take a look.

For some extra goodies, check out these: