Story behind the Passage
A couple of days ago, a friend of mine told me how frustrated she currently is. She said:
“You know what, everybody is now talking about the Covid vaccine. We are just treating symptoms all the time. Nobody is talking about the roots of the disease. We are just moving on as we have always done. We are not learning. And the worst thing is: climate change, which is an even more severe threat to humanity, is almost absent from the radar of public discourse. The ships are still running on crude oil and the planes with all the kerosene will be back in the air as soon as the economy is up again. We are not learning anything from the crisis.”
I had rarely ever seen her so frustrated and I could totally understand. For me, humanity is really going backward in a way. I see that in every kind of business discussion. Even the most experienced experts are talking about creating “short-term impact” only. Otherwise, businesses do not pay for any service. The most important thing is: just fix me some things that will give me immediate quick wins. Everything else is secondary.
I do know that businesses are struggling these days, just like individuals are. But the point is: Is anybody still able to think, in spite of running in crisis mode? Remember what the Enlightenment brought about: science and research. In other words, humanity was blessed with tools to analyze the world from a more objective perspective to be able to see the bigger picture. And when talking about the bigger picture, this also always entails a temporary aspect.
What I mean is that the more sophisticated and “developed” a society gets, the more long-term perspectives gain importance. Yes, I know that Covid can also be taken as evidence that long-term planning does not work. But, hello, there is a middle path! We cannot simply abandon long-term visions simply because we know that unexpected events get in the way. This also applies to the Agile trend in organizations. For sure, you need to be ready to change and adapt quickly. Still, this does not exempt you from coming up with a strategy that you should also stick to.
These observations from the business world, even from global society, bring me back to my friend’s frustration. She is perfectly right in pointing out that “the new normal” in a post-Covid world will probably be very much in line with the “old normal” from before. Sure, some things will have changed. I guess, people will still be used to social distancing. But as far as the larger trajectories of trade, commerce, and political decision-making will go — I doubt that there will be fundamental changes. The driver behind politics is still power — and those who want to gain power will act opportunistically. And opportunistic behavior hardly ever means long-term oriented and in line with sustainability goals.
These thoughts made me turn to Drucker’s Concept of the Corporation today, particularly the Epilogue. I am using this chapter here as an example of the faith that many consultants experience every day but also as a reminder that a sustainable mindset is not just some unrealistic ideal. What I mean is that Drucker ran his study at GM at the time of the Second World War. The book came out in 1946. From my perspective, it still is a milestone for applying a political, even a philosophical, analysis to a large corporation. But Drucker already knew back then that Sloan, then CEO of GM, would not care much about his scientific insights and the book. Sloan mostly ignored both, even though he had been quite cooperative during the period Drucker spent at GM.
Even though Drucker knew about the limited practical impact his work as a researcher and consultant had for GM, he decided to write this epilogue in the 1964 edition. Epilogues always mean that you look back at something to draw some conclusions that exceed the immediate findings you derive from a book’s content. That also means an epilogue only makes sense if you are brutally honest. Drucker, at least this is my reading of his work, was always frank about his observations. In addition, he was geared towards not only seeing but also talking about the bigger picture of business. This is why the passages on this first page of the epilogue are so thought-provoking, especially with respect to today’s consulting world.
“Perhaps the most surprising development is that very little has happened at General Motors — except that the company has grown even bigger and even more successful than it was twenty years ago.” When reading these lines from today’s perspective, we of course know that the success of GM has ended at a certain point. But when Drucker is saying that “very little has happened,” he is talking about the decentralization principles that Sloan had implemented back in the period when Drucker ran his study. Obviously, the ensuing success of the company was a confirmation that these new principles were working. The question remains if this resistance to change is something that in and of itself has changed very little — even in our times.
Drucker in the first lines of the page stresses the immense social changes that the U.S. experienced at the time of writing. The same holds true today. We are experiencing the fourth industrial revolution with the digitalization of everything — things and people — and seemingly nothing seems to remain untouched by this change. As in the case of GM, however, the question remains whether there is less change on the organizational side. Even more so: How successful can companies be if they continue resisting internal changes against all outside pressure?
I am not raising these questions in order to give definite answers. I am raising them to point to the frustration that can also overcome those people who are hired for supporting change — namely consultants. For sure, Drucker was not the kind of consultant that we know from today; someone who needs to deliver short-term results and do quick fixes. Yes, this sounds super critical, and I do mean it that way. Even if we assume that there are consultants in this world of 2021 who take a more long-term approach to their job. In other words, these consultants take their job seriously by wanting to contribute to the long-term and thus sustainable success of a company. What do these consultants think by means of an “epilogue”?
For sure, most consultants do not write a book about their study at a client. So, there is no need to write an epilogue. But if we use the metaphor of the epilogue as the process of “looking back” to honestly confront the real bottom-line impact that you created. What is it? And does it even matter to anyone anymore? I struggle a lot with this because I know that thinking about sustainability and long-term impact kills your business. People do not want to hear about it. All they recommend is:
“Do not try to save the world. Just sell something to the client that makes him happy because he sees results quickly. Everything else is none of your business. Just take advantage of small opportunities.”
Is this really what consulting is about? Is this really how companies think about change — change that will save their lives in the long run? Sadly, I do think this is what they think, at least many do so. Otherwise, they would act differently. I am quite certain, based on some other texts by Drucker in which he mentions Sloan’s personal ignorance, that he was frustrated with this lack of sustainable impact that consulting can create. And I am not willing to accept that all consultants simply know about this and therefore do not even make any effort of really contributing to change.
But maybe I am simply naïve and mistaken.
Maybe I will never be a ‘professional’ consultant.
Maybe I will have to be satisfied with writing stories that make people think.
1) Are you a long-term or short-term planner?
2) What is your personal contribution to global sustainability issues?
3) If you were a consultant — which organization would you like to work for? Why?