The Contributive Business, Part 4

In my last three articles I have covered:

  • The notion that there might be the possibility of creating a new type of business, focused on contribution rather than competition. I called this kind of business Contributive to distinguish it from the conventionally focused business which I referred to as Competitive. Referring to James Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games (Free Press, 1986) I suggested that conventional Competitive businesses played a finite game, whilst the new model of Contributive business could instead play an infinite game.

  • The differences of focus, outlook and behaviour of Competitive and Contributive businesses, in more detail, with the beginnings of a description of the implications of the difference of focus.

  • The global driving forces which seem to me to make the shift from a competitive focus to a contributive one imperative, including: climate change, political and economic upheaval, and inter-generational differences.

In this last part of the series on The Contributive Business, I will outline some of the threats and opportunities for business in the new era, suggest which types of business face the greatest threats and the biggest opportunities, and begin to outline a new thought-leadership role which all businesses will need going forward.

My belief is that we have reached a time when customers and potential customers, employees and potential employees, suppliers, partners, and all kinds of people and organisations will make judgements about any given business which go far beyond old measures of financial stability, quality of product and/or service, legality, reputation, marketing, and even brand.

I believe that, increasingly, and with the pace of change accelerating every day, businesses will be held to account on their authentic positive contribution to society (I use the word society to refer to everything from the individual employee and the individual customer, to the global climate).

Buying decisions. Investment decisions. Advocacy decisions. All decisions about any given company, whether a one-person provider or a global corporation, will be increasingly influenced by this new measure of contributiveness. It won’t all happen at once, equally, to every kind of business.

We will be more forgiving and tolerant of small enterprises, at least initially. By contrast, with much bigger, more complex, more opaque corporations, those with numerous brands and numerous touchpoints, we will be more inclined to judge harshly but less able to ‘vote with our feet’ (because it is hard to choose to not buy from an organisation that one doesn’t understand). Similarly with tech corporations, such as mobile phone companies: it will be hard for anybody to choose the most contributive company from amongst the makers of mobile phones, because we all know (although we may pretend we don’t) that there is no such thing - at least not yet - as an environmentally-friendly mobile phone).

So the first type of company to be judged and held accountable under the new focus on positive contributiveness will not be the very small or the very large: but those in between.

The small to medium sized enterprise that can be observed and understood.

These businesses have the most to lose in the early years of the new focus. They are the easiest to walk away from, the easiest to replace in our loyalty and consumption habits with alternative providers. But they are also the companies with the most to gain, with the greatest opportunity to make positive change, to become part of the new order rather than the old: the opportunity to become the first wave of contributive businesses. The vanguard of a new and better way to do business.

If they do that, then the much larger corporations will be forced to follow.

An even greater opportunity presents itself to start-ups and pre-start-ups: the opportunity to shape themselves from the very beginning of their business lives and stories as representing the new order of things rather than the old: to look forward by focusing on their contribution rather than looking over their shoulders at the competition.

The Contributive business will be judged by its performance across a number of areas. These will include its behaviours towards:

  • Customers

  • Employees

  • Suppliers

  • The local community in which it ‘lives and works’

  • The wider community/communities in which it does business

  • The environment locally

  • The environment globally

  • The nation(s) in which it operates

  • The world as a whole

  • Humankind

This is a long list of things for any business to think about and to take heed of when acting: but this is arguably as short a list as we can make. All of these things matter.

A business with an impeccable environmental approach but which avoids paying taxes can’t really be called Contributive.

A business which donates generously to global charities but which has poor policies around inclusion or around the care of its employees, will inevitably be seen as hypocritical.

Etcetera.

These elements of contributiveness cannot be looked at in isolation from each other. They need to be envisioned, directed, managed, driven, executed, at the most senior level in any company.

Traditional companies have around their boardroom tables: a chief executive or managing director, a chief finance officer or finance director, a chief operating officer. Many will also have a marketing director, sometimes a brand or communications director, an HR director.

The new business model demands a new addition to the board: the Contributiveness Director. A person for whom all of the elements listed above constitute their sole focus. The Contributiveness Director cannot be a functionary within HR, or within marketing, or hidden away in some other department.

Companies which pay lip service to the concept will fool nobody but themselves. They will miss the opportunity to be in the vanguard of positive change.

Contributiveness Directors will be the new thought leaders in business, the people leading business forward through the most challenging period in the history of commerce.

In a future article I will look at at some possible measures for each of the key areas listed above, and suggest some processes which companies who wish to make the shift from the competitive focus to the contributive focus might adopt.

Simon Middleton, February 16th 2019

Simon Middleton