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Moving from 'how much' to HOW

This piece was previously published in The Human Factor.

Roughly two centuries ago, Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that moral imagination diminishes with distance. In today’s hyperconnected, hypertransparent world, we live without borders and without the pressures of locality. There is no distance for our imagination to soar. The interconnected world has made us interdependent, even morally so.

Therefore, our moral imagination has to increase, expand and fill the small spaces and gaps between us. 
 
Our moral interdependence is inescapable in a world where the Greek financial crisis can place the Bombay Stock Exchange benchmark in freefall and where global consumer demand for cell phones and videogame consoles leads to genocide in central Africa.
 
This requires change in the way leaders lead and companies operate. 
 
For too long, we have been leading our companies and operating our businesses based on old approaches to governance, management and human endeavour, which do not fit in the dynamics of the new world. We have entered deep into the ‘era of behaviour’. Of course, our behavior has always mattered, but in today’s world, it matters more than ever and as never before. 
 
As a result, questions of ‘how much’ (how much product can we manufacture; how much revenue can we squeeze into this quarter; how much market share can we take?) matter less today than ‘how’ questions (how can we create sustainable relationships with trading partners; how can we forge deep and meaningful connections with our people; how can we outpace the competition?) 
 
These ‘how’ questions depict what is necessary to thrive in the 21st century and how to reawaken our moral imaginations for greater good. In today’s knowledge economy, it is not what company does or stands for — it is how they do it and how they live their values that will set them apart. The sum of a company’s hows’ — how it communicates, how it works, how it treats others, how it makes decisions and how consistently it acts — is the source of its lasting competitive advantage.
 
The workspaces of future will be those that find new ways to create value and differentiation through behaviour of their people – innovations in ‘how’. Where employees contribute their character, creativity and collaborative spirit at work in pursuit of a value-based mission, worthy of their dedication. 
 
This is not true of just companies and organisations. It is true of how their leaders and people behave individually. I have watched with great admiration the movements in India, particularly of late, that are reconnecting people and organisations with moral universe. 
 
The ‘Bell Bajao’ wave, started by the human rights organisation ‘Breakthrough’, demonstrated how the power of an idea can be amplified by widespread connectivity and collaboration. Powered by the values of dignity, equality and social justice, ‘Bell Bajao’ has inspired changes in the culture of women’s rights by encouraging citizens to ‘ring the bell’ to avert any instance of domestic violence. Through innovative and interactive use of technology, such as social media and mobile video vans, the ‘Bell Bajao’ wave has achieved worldwide recognition by reaching an estimated 130 million people across the globe. 
 
It has also been inspiring to witness the wave of popular support for the movement against rampant corruption in the system led by 74-year-old social activist Anna Hazar that has been the talk of town in India recently. Hazare’s hunger strike in April 2011 led to a nationwide (and worldwide) reawakening that spurred candlelight vigils by youth, protesting against the culture of corruption. More than 4.4 million ‘tweets’ were registered in support of the cause over three days.
 
People in India have resoundingly answered the call of action to stand up against corruption. Look at the website (www.ipaidabribe.com), which invites people to share their detailed experiences of bribery and corrupt practices they have come across. The website has led state departments to take concrete action. After the website cited the case of State Transport Department of Karnataka in its reports, the body invited the website team to present their findings. Transport commissioner Bhaskar Rao has been quoted in the press stating that, “I wanted to use that website to cleanse my department.” As a result of the investigation, he cautioned 20 senior officers and introduced measures to increase transparency and accountability in the department.
 
Many organisations have seen and realised how vital the increasing economic prosperity in India is. But let us not lose sight of the fact that the aggressive pursuit of scale – whether more revenues or more profits – tempts companies to lose sight of the values and principles that lead to true sustainability. Sustainable values are about ‘how’, situational values are about ‘how much’. As Ram Nidumolu, C. K. Prahalad and M. R. Rangaswami wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2009: “Sustainability, ultimately, is about the mindset and behaviours that connect and sustain relationships with family, colleagues and investors, in the business world and natural world.”
 
The more dynamic an economy, the more need there exists for morality to govern global behaviour. The world needs to be rooted in principles and a moral foundation lest it risks spilling over into disorder. To avert that possibility, how individuals and corporations operate has to change. Developing ethical corporate culture and inspiring principled performance in business operations are the needs of our time. Only by getting our hows’ right can we ever hope to achieve enduring sustainability and an expanding moral universe.
 
Dov Seidman is the chairman and CEO of LRN, a company that helps businesses develop value-based corporate culture. He is the author of “HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything”. You can follow Dov on Twitter at @DovSeidman and join the HOW community on Facebook

Topics: HOW