Friday, July 29, 2011

This and that for a blistering summer

In most parts of the country late July proved to be a time of oppressive heat, so in this post before I decamp for some time in cooler coastal Maine, I thought I would lighten up a bit and present some rambling tidbits I have picked up along the way. It’s been way too hot for deep thinking – or attempts at it.
New Award concept. Inc. Magazine (for growing companies) had a short entry in its July/August issue entitled “Rethinking Annual Honors.” It seems a payroll processing company in Illinois, SurePayroll , has a yearly employee event called the SureChoice Awards, the highlight of which is the Best New Mistake honor. Employees nominate themselves and their admissions of error. Competition is lively battling for the top prize of $400, twice the company’s more traditional prize amount. Last year there were 40 entries. The magazine reports that the company president Michel Alter, who conceived of the award, did so “to remind staff that in a culture of innovation, failure is always an option.”

I like this counter intuitive idea. It’s fun and at the same time instructive. Non-profits and their employees take their missions very seriously and sometimes so much so they become rigid and unwilling to take any sort of risk, for fear of making a mistake. Mr. Alter states “mistakes are the tuition you pay for success.” Lest you think it’s all fun and games at SurePayroll, its president makes clear there is no award for making the same mistake twice.

Warning for struggling institutions (esp. house museums) From the Harvard Business Review blog 6/30/11, by Stephen Wunker .

“A company in a turbulent industry often seems like a dairy farmer whose herd has been reduced to just one cow, whose only adaptation of his business plan is to milk that heifer extra-hard. The story cannot end happily.”

Mr. Wunker was writing about Barnes & Noble which met falling print book sales and the e-book challenge with its Nook, leaving Borders behind, literally in the dust. I think of the house museums that still overly rely on the guided tour model – as well as other non-profit institutions who haven’t re-tooled their business plans to reflect changing tastes and audience/client preferences. I like Mr. Wunker’s analogy. It is perhaps unwittingly buoyed by the fact that heifers (cows that haven’t been bred yet) are unlikely to produce much milk anyway.

Cross-reference across the centuries

Another Harvard Business Review blog (6/24/11) I have admired is by Umair Haque, a business writer and founder of a “agenda-setting advisory boutique” (now that has to be classier than “consultancy”). He is a humanist and argues in a piece entitled “The Best investment you can Make” that a way of turning around our economy is by investing in “living a life that matters” -your own or that of someone you love. In these times, he cites the capital flight to safer investments, such as gold, bonds and stocks. But he suggests: “perhaps the safest investments of all are the human, social and emotional ones. They’re what give human life texture, depth, resonance and meaning.”

By extension I would propose that such is a good argument for supporting the work of non-profits, which exist to serve and support our society, rather than to produce monetary profit, The return to its supporters is to move a step closer to what Haque lays out as a personal goal: the ancient Greek philosophical concept of “eudaimonia” – happiness or in another translation, “human flourishing.”

When I saw this citation, I went immediately to a book I have been reading - Sarah Bakewell’s “How to Live – or- A Life of Montaigne” - the 16th century philosopher whose Essays are still being read and pondered today. There it is -“eudaimonia” – the aspiration Montaigne seeks personally and for his readers, which he wrote about 430 years ago and which a modern writer asks us to consider again. May you find the same, the remainder of this summer and beyond.