My first big CSR/sustainability event was the 2010 Net Impact Conference held at the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School. I had been invited there to speak on a panel on the topic of intrapreneurship, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on a number inspiring and insightful talks. One of the sessions I attended was an interview with Aron Cramer, the CEO of BSR.
As I recall, much of that hopeful, engaging discussion centered on transparency – a topic that’s close to my heart. The concept of radical transparency is pretty simple. It’s the idea that firms will endeavor to be as transparent as they possibly can, both externally with customers, communities and competitors and internally throughout the organization. It’s akin to asking a fully armored knight to strip down to a fig leaf. This is an idea I fully agree with, and it’s one that helped give rise to the idea which prompted this post.
The talk left me wanting to pick Aron’s brain, so I stuck around afterwards with the hope of having a brief conversation with him. Aron was very gracious, and we discussed the yawning gap between the current state of business and the one needed the myriad wicked problems faced by humanity, and he introduced me to the idea of “radical transparency”, a term that has really stuck with me. I probably wouldn’t recall any details of the discussion, had it not been for the way that Aron lit up when discussing radical transparency. It was as if we had hit on the word of the day and the duck had dropped down on Groucho Marx’s old TV show, “You Bet Your Life.”
This approach would require a radically different outlook from corporate leaders. First, it would require them to face the issues and to accept that business has an important role to play in solving them. Second, it would require them to give their ombudspeople the latitude to discuss things which are currently kept under wraps.
This would necessitate a dramatic shift from today’s mantra of “secure all information”, but firms could continue to protect business-critical information. Leadership teams could set explicit boundaries so that the ombudspeople, and those engaging with them, would have a clear understanding of what was off limits. (We’re not going to ask anyone to divulge the Colonel’s secret recipe.) To be clear, the key piece here would be the earnest effort to minimize that which was not shared. (Remember the fig leaf?)
This might also necessitate legal changes to protect both the firms which choose to go down this path, management teams, and those taking on these roles. The goal should be to improve on the performance of all businesses, and the acceptance of the idea that we’d no longer compete on the “back end”, although all could strive to gain the upper hand by way of exemplary execution.
If you’re tensing up at the idea of engaging with your competitors in this way, I’ll ask you to consider this: If a business is dependent on such advantages to remain competitive, isn’t that tantamount to saying that it’s not competitive at the things which it is in business to do? For those in that boat, I’d suggest steering clear of this proposition. Otherwise, the water’s fine.We have to rally ourselves against inertia, skepticism, myopia and heavily entrenched interests. Click To Tweet
Taking up this approach would require a level of cooperation seldom seen in today’s competitive environment, but it’s not impossible. One need only look at the mobilization of the US economy during WWII to see what can be done when we’re sufficiently motivated to work together. This time around we lack a specific enemy to rally against. Actually, that’s not completely true. I think there is an enemy in this fight. With apologies to Winston Churchill, the only thing we have to fear is ourselves. We have to rally ourselves against inertia, skepticism, myopia and heavily entrenched interests. (Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my…).
Can we rally for that challenge? I think so, but we might have to sacrifice a bit of relative comfort and we’ll surely have to start working together in ways and at scales previously unimagined. But if we want to hand a desirable, or even livable, world to future generations, we have to muster our capabilities in short order.es in short order.”]
It’s time to give it all we’ve got.