For those who have the courage and wisdom to pay attention, among the most important contributions of the now decades-old quality movement in the contemporary business world is it’s demonstration of ‘both/and’ thinking and acting. When people adopt and pursue shared purposes built on ‘both/and’ principles, they identify and articulate two or more objectives that are in constant tension with one another. For example, within the broader field of quality, an organization might pursue both fewer errors or defects and faster speed of delivery. These two objectives struggle with one another. A group pursuing only speed has an easier, less constrained set of solutions than the group pursuing both speed and fewer defects because the former can simply speed things up and accept more errors.
The benefits of both/and approaches, though, go far deeper than the stated objectives themselves because they support and promote effort that is more fully human — more challenging and, therefore, more creative and more fulfilling. While elitists might disdain the deeper meaning within the work of a team of folks at the front lines of a company pursuing both speed and fewer defects, the people on the team itself will and do report that with success comes the experience of both deeper affiliation and deeper meaning. No, such folks do not equate either the affiliation or meaning with the poet’s truth or beauty — but they do know and sense the importance of collaborating with other human beings on something that matters. As Marlow in The Heart of Darkness admiringly, respectfully says of the man who helps him guide the boat up the river, these folks do work, they do something.
And they do it together, fully challenged by both/and realities of human existence.
Our planet is beset by powerful men and women who ignore the way of both/and humanity in favor of single goals and single answers. In this, they pursue self-interest over shared interest and personal power and wealth over shared purpose and the rule of law. In contemporary geopolitics, we see this abhorrent, destructive self-interestedness in the form of powerful governmental, corporate and media officials who claim truth stripped of reason as a shield to their own pitiful failure to embrace the opportunity for a more fully human experience given to them at birth. They love single answers because they are the easy road to self-enrichment. They eschew both/and because, down that road, lies shared struggle and shared responsibility.
In economics and business, we see this single answer extremism primarily in the form of our age’s deep and widespread acceptance of shareholder value as the trump card for business performance. The primacy of shareholder value is today as widely shared as the belief in motherhood. And, yet, unlike motherhood, the beliefs and behaviors of shareholder value extremism march us toward and over the cliff of despair and destruction every single day. Whether it is exploding mortgages, layoffs, deteriorating benefits, moves to privatize social security, ongoing environmental destruction, decades-old erosion of real wages, poverty that is hidden by false statistics, rising obesity and eating disorders, failure to equate energy policy with national security — etc, etc, etc — the either/or thinking and action of single answers have now endangered our planet and put the futures of our children and their children at grave risk.
The Philistine plutocrats admonish us to either accept the primacy of shareholder value or destroy our markets, our business prospects, our jobs and our country. That is the ‘either/or’ proposition that has an iron grip on our society today.
And, it is the either/or proposition that has propped up the irresponsible, self-interested officials in government, corporations and media who have spent the last three decades promoting the false notion that the ‘size of the pie’ — the size and growth of GDP — somehow exists in isolation from the ‘share of the pie’ — the distribution of income and wealth. Both matter.
Both matter to the aspiration embedded in our national heritage known as ‘liberty and justice for all’.
Not for some. For all.
Not just for the top 1% who now control more than 40% of our wealth.
Not just for the top 20% who control more than 80% of wealth.
“For all” includes the bottom 40% who actually have less than 2% of our society’s wealth.
Just like the quality team who challenge themselves to be more fully human by tackling both speed and fewer errors, all of us — every day we wake up — have the choice to demand of ourselves and those who would claim to lead us that we commit our resources, our capabilities, our hearts, our minds and our guts to building a society that aspires to both a larger pie and a just distribution of that pie.
We cannot and will not find our way to this ‘both/and’ pursuit of happiness, though, until we once again adopt belief and behavior that demonstrably care about people beyond ourselves. Nor until we — and especially the ‘we’s’ of organizations — explicitly evict shareholder value extremism from our midst. We must not condemn shareholder value itself — only the tenets by which it is made a golden idol, a trump card of either/or-ism whose shininess blinds us to the corrosive reality with which it destroys our common humanity — including, importantly, the humanity of those who practice and espouse it.
Let us now — right this moment — turn our eyes toward both the size of the pie and the share of the pie. And let us do that work together.
Because the clock is ticking. And our children our crying out for us — their elders — to take shared responsibility for creating a safer, saner and more sustainable future.