Efficiency vs. Soul: The Daily Romantic Struggle
The leading Spanish newspaper El Mundo interviewed Tim Leberecht on the occasion of his speaking at the BBVA-Ideagoras conference in Madrid. Read the English translation.
Let me start talking about the flame and the passion. A lot of people still think that work is the place where you hold your emotions in order to be predictable and productive. Do you think that this mindset is really changing in the digital economy?
According to a 2013 Gallup survey, more than 70 percent of workers worldwide are disengaged at work, and another study claims that even the initial enthusiasm on the job fades after six months on average, inevitably giving in to disappointment and cynicism.
This is not surprising to me. Although business is arguably the most important operating system of our lives, we have divorced it from our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. With my book, The Business Romantic, I propose that we broaden our perspective and bring our full selves to work—not just as hyper-efficient productivity machines, but as the enigmatic and struggling individuals that we are.
We must reclaim the language of business—that has infiltrated so many, if not all, aspects of our lives—and expand the common vocabulary of efficiency and productivity with new definitions of what it means to do business together, to be in a good company. Emotional fulfillment, a happy workforce, and meaning should be the end, not the means.
On the one hand, the digital economy is challenging this quest because in some ways we’re now observing a new, digital form of Taylorism: the datafication and quantification of everything, including the constant monitoring and optimization of our performances as workers and human beings. It seems that we only value what we can quantify, that only the measured life is a good life. This narrow view leads to a radically data-driven algorithmic society that engineers the romance, the mystique, unpredictability, and beauty out of our lives: a new era of disenchantment. One could not think of a more powerful trigger point for a new romantic counter-movement.
On the other hand, with its focus on constant adaptation, super-flexibility, and collaboration, the digital economy requires very different skill sets, and we’re beginning to see alternative concepts of value-creation and productivity emerge. We’re moving from an economy that was built around products to an economy where everything is a service. Even traditional manufacturing industries such as car making are now in the service business, with real-time feedback loops, permanent improvement, and software providing the main value to customers. The “product” is reduced to being just one component of an integrated service ecosystem that delivers functional and emotional value to customers.
This new focus on service implies designing unique, memorable experiences—rich interactions—on either side of the transaction, for both the employee and the customer. One could also say that interactions are the hidden value of transactions.
This is where romantic experiences come in. Experiences are memorable if they are punctuated by distinct moments, small or big events that disrupt our routines and violate our mental models. A memorable experience is non-linear and non-flat. It is a happy un-medium. It is dramatic, full of surprising twists, uneven. It pushes us outside our comfort zones but rewards us with a being a different person at the end of the day, every day. A manager for a tech firm whom I interviewed for my book put it this way: “I go to work every day to find out what happened over night.”
Digital technologies—from social media to virtual reality—now enable us to commute between different worlds, switch between multiple identities, and make the familiar strange again in no time. They add layers of meaning and context to our lives, and offer us greater thickness, a higher pulse, more drama in which we can find meaning. These are all quintessentially romantic qualities.
In an ever more volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous world, we not only need new skills: we also need new rituals and miracles. We need new sacred spaces. We need to learn again to fall in love, to seek and find beauty, and stoke our desire for desire. We need to learn again to value what we cannot measure. In other words: we need more romance.
There is still this thought that business is from Mars and romance is for Venus. Are the walls finally falling? Have you noticed a change since your started talking about the business romantic?
But Venus and Mars are still part of the same solar system! What I mean by that is that it is ok to be different; that very notion is in fact at the heart of romance. Romantics embrace and celebrate difference, they love antagonisms and contradictions. They engage with this world by creating a new one.
Not everything in business lends itself to romance, and not every aspect of romance should find a way into business. There is a natural tension between the risk-seeking adventure that is characteristic for romance, and the risk-minimizing predictability and formal organization typical for business. At the same time, commerce by its very nature has always been about crossing borders, and business romance is a powerful conduit for it.
With my book, I want to show that while romance is a world view and a lifestyle, it can also be a powerful framework for business. I wanted to give people who want more from business new and specific language. There’s nothing more rewarding for me than people raising their hand at the end of a talk and saying that they hadn’t realized it, but they had been business romantics all along. In addition, I hope my book helps those who aren’t romantics to recognize the value of those who are.
Since The Business Romantic came out, I have spoken at numerous conferences and have been at many companies, including several more engineering-minded firms such as Airbus, IBM, or UPS. I’m extremely encouraged by the response I have gotten. Not every professional is of course ready to act like a romantic, and not every CEO will suddenly want to turn their organization into a romantic organization, but I did see a great hunger for more meaning, for more soul in business. Never before has mainstream business been so ready for a more human way of working. There’s a great sense of concern and frustration with the dehumanizing aspects of datafication and quantification—exemplified by the Amazon way of doing business—as well as with increasing inequality, unfair distribution of wealth, and an eroding middle class. Even the share economy, which had started with high hopes of a more inclusive society, has left people disillusioned after some of its most successful proponents like Uber turned out to be reckless bullies that exploit unfair advantages in a largely unregulated gig economy.
To help put my book’s ideas into practice, I recently left my corporate day job as a CMO of a design firm and founded The Business Romantic Society: a network of thinkers and doers who share the mission to humanize business. Our goal is to serve as the go-to consultancy for the “soulful organization,” helping changemakers in companies to successfully drive strategic transformations through coaching, strategy, and, most importantly, romantic workplace and customer experiences that translate strategic objectives into moments of intrigue and delight. We are already working on several client projects with medium-size and large organizations, and there are other entrepreneurs and firms out there doing similar work.
This shows me that business is indeed changing. It won’t happen overnight, but if we manage to build muscle memory and get this new mindset into some of the day-to-day behaviors, the smaller units of change in companies, say, performance reviews, workplace designs, or how projects or meetings are run, then we have a real chance to effect lasting change.
Would you say that Steve Jobs was a business romantic? Or is Sir Richard Branson? What big names could be included in the category?
Steve Jobs was most definitely a business romantic: driven by vision and intuition more than data and science, a meaning-seeker and maker, and a charismatic, exuberant, emotionally intense, impulsive, and sometimes erratic man. Sir Richard Branson falls into this category as well. Other big names include Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla, whose personal story is fascinating. Evan Williams, the cofounder of Twitter and Medium, also comes to mind. Or Emmanuel Faber, the CEO of Danone. He is a tough leader, but one who exhibits an enormous sensibility for the “spaces in between,” for the beautiful and the sublime, the deeper truths.
It’s fun to look at business leaders through that lens: Eileen Fisher? A business romantic. Unilever’s Paul Polman is one, too. Howard Schultz of Starbucks, definitely. Daniel Ek of Spotify or Chad Dickerson of Etsy, for sure. Bill Gates, GE’s Jeffrey Immelt of GE, or IBM’s Ginni Rometty? Impressive business leaders, but not romantics.
A peculiar case are the venture capitalists (VCs) who are so popular in Silicon Valley: for example, you may think of Peter Thiel as a hard-calculating investor, but if you read his book Zero to One carefully, you realize he’s very much a romantic at heart. The same is true for other VCs.
But romantics are still the exception among the CEOs, and I wish we’d see more. Anonymously, for example in a recent Fortune survey, they admit that intuition and “’soft factors” such as emotions, perceptions, hopes, and desires are underrated in business and should receive far more attention. At the same time you have people like Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of Time Warner, saying: “I am not a romantic, I’m a business person.” Unfortunately, false dichotomies like this are still way too common, and not enough prominent leaders embrace what I once learnt from a seasoned politician: that the hallmark of a great leader is his or her big heart.
What about the not so big names? You mention a few in your book: the outsider, the visioner, the believer…
I’m particularly interested in the lesser known professionals: the ones who are, like most of us, “in the middle”—in the middle of hierarchies and in the middle of their tenures at their organization, or their careers—and have to rekindle their own spirit or have made it their calling to rekindle that of others (and probably by proxy their own).
Among the people I portray are a middle manager at the US-retail chain Best Buy, a “visioner” who helps individuals and organizations find and articulate their purpose, an IT-marketer, an entrepreneur who is building a gild for the 21st century, or a “cleaner” who uses the literal act of cleaning as a metaphor for maintaining a company’s sense of imagination and possibility, very much in the spirit of the famous words by romantic poet William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Isn´t there a big generational gap between the millenials and all of us who came before? Do they get your message more easily? Is this “new desire of romance” you talk about deeply embedded in the new workforce?
Studies show that millennials are intrinsically motivated by the desire to make a difference in the world, so the mission of an organization and how it lives up to it are critically important for attracting and retaining millennials customers and employees. As digital natives, millennials are also often more comfortable with new, virtual forms of collaboration, more flexible workplace cultures, and less hierarchical organizations.
At the same time, like no other generation before them millennials are affected by the negative effects of digital technology: volatile employment, social and economic uncertainty (they are the first generation in modern time that is economically worse off than its parents), “Fear-Of-Missing-Out” (FOMO), hyper-competitiveness, and the need to build and manage a personal brand online.
I wouldn’t say though that my message resonates with millennials more than with other demographics. Perhaps due to their relative youth they are inherently more open to experimenting with new concepts and to merging their personal and work lives, but I have also met many seasoned business people who felt touched by the idea of business romance because it reminded them of why they originally went into business at all.
So, in my experience so far, business romance is a universal theme that people in all age groups, sectors, and industries can relate to. As modern knowledge workers we spend up to 70 percent of our waking hours at work. That is a strong incentive to create and find meaning in what we do for a living. I believe we all want material gains and social security through our work, but we also all have an innate desire to connect with something greater than ourselves, to believe in something.
To which extent are innovation and disruption two manifestations of the “romantic” spirit at work”?
Innovation is a very romantic act. Being a romantic means always seeing more: more meaning in everything, more possibilities. It means being able to imagine other worlds. To be foolish, bold, and daring. To see the world as it is not, but could be. And that is indeed the core trait of every disruptive innovator.
When I was working at the innovation consultancy Frog Design for seven years, we had a lot of Fortune 500 companies coming to us wanting to know how they could “do what Apple did” or asking us “how to get better at innovation.” They were eager to learn about innovation methodologies, customer insights, open innovation, innovation ecosystems, “design thinking,” and all the other buzzworthy techniques and tools that seemed key to “solving innovation.”
But innovation can’t be solved. Like life, it is a mystery to be experienced, to use Kierkegaard’s words. There are some cues and best practices, perhaps, but there are no formulas. Disruptive innovation is always a leap of faith, a big bet on something outlandish, an idea that often starts with a joke (e.g. consider the “crazy” idea of Airbnb: “Renting out your apartment to strangers via the Internet”).
What only a few companies understand is that innovation is a factor of culture, a certain way of viewing the world. If you are a disruptive innovator like, say Elon Musk, you must be an adventurer, and a dreamer who risks being laughed at by others: in other words, you must be a romantic. People like him are driven by creating something new, something different, just because they would love to see what it will do to the world as they know it. They love innovation because it allows them to tell new stories and create new meanings.
That’s what disruptive innovation is all about, in the end: giving things new and more meaning. It is the product of an insatiable desire for more meaning, more love, more truth.
There is also the definition of romantic as someone with an idealized vision of reality, if not “rebels” or “contrarians”. Do you think that companies are looking now for that kind of profiles?
I’m not sure they’re actively looking for them because most organizations—designed and rewarded for mitigating risk—are probably afraid of them. But surely they need them! If they want to encourage and foster disruptive innovation, the better create space for the “misfits”—the rebels and contrarians who challenge the status quo, have “crazy ideas,” and derive great joy and satisfaction from the act of creating. Those who disagree with the present often see the future more clearly.
Some companies have established internal forums for these rebels, a growing number of firms have created “internal disruptor” roles such as “entrepreneur-in-residence” or “artist-in-residence,” and firms such as Virgin or Accenture are supporting initiatives such as the League of Intrapreneurs.
Apart from these internal mechanisms, companies are confronted with another trend that forces them to the fringes of their networks: the fragmentation or even dissolution of the traditional workplace. The rise of co-working spaces gives those a home who don’t fit in the mainstream corporate culture. Super-flexible work is beginning to supersede more formal arrangements, and soon the rebels and contrarians of today will be the majority of the workforce tomorrow. We might look back on the 20th century and consider the office worker a regretful aberration of human evolution. The sooner a company can embrace this new reality and start operating as an amorphous network, in an osmotic relationship with the tribes inside and outside of its institutional borders, the more talent it will be able to tap.
Yet all these initiatives are still motivated by the goal to harness and channel the fringe’s creativity into the conventional business process. While even this might be difficult for many companies, it is arguably even harder for them to embrace those who question some of the fundamental beliefs of mainstream business: efficiency, quantification, pragmatism, bottom-line orientation. This is why an even greater act of rebellion than merely opposing a company’s strategy or policy might indeed come from romantics who consider marketplaces communities for social exchange, vehicles for creating and finding meaning. I believe that’s the ultimate rebellion in a world of “whoever has the numbers wins.” To say “I know the data, I understand what they’re telling me, but here’s what I feel we should do.” The sweet spot for the romantic is when what’s the right thing to do intersects with what feels good to do. Still, acting on those two motives requires courage and discipline.
In the end, at some point during its growth, every company will have to decide between efficiency and soul, between growth by all means and character. Companies who manage to maintain a romantic spirit will always create and protect space for the intangible, unquantifiable, and inexplicable, and it is for that very reason that they will have loyal, loving customers and employees and will win in the long run.
You point out that “disengagement” is a virus in our offices. What can the average worker do feel more engaged in his daily routines?
Remind yourself that business romance is hard work but entirely in your hands. You can start on your morning commute: Chat up a stranger on the train to get yourself into the right zone of discomfort for the day. Then at work, call an ad-hoc “mystery meeting” and give an improvised talk. Launch a secret email list or even a secret society. Swap desks, swap roles. Visit another team across the hall. Invite a colleague to lunch, ideally one outside of your department. Then have a “Thick Day,” and lock yourself into a room with one colleague and no distractions to really flesh out a project that was stalled. Or simulate unlikely events such as an “alien” crashing an offsite (exactly what the World Economic Forum did in Davos to a group of world leaders). Use “Dialogues in the Dark” to foster empathy. Start doing the one thing you would be doing if you knew you were only staying at the firm for another six months. Like nothing else mattered. Think about the greatest gift you can give to your organization and its customers—and start giving it.
Romance is all about the “small moments of attachment”—little irritations, deviations from the norm and unexpected intimacies: everything that puts you off kilter and forces you to take a different view of the world by way of immersion. The moments we lose control are the moments we fall in love. Simply be open to them!
And what could an average company do to promote a more “romantic” and creative attitude is his workers?
In my book I propose ten “Rules of Enchantment” that provides business leaders with specific tools to close what I call the “’enchantment gap”: the gap between lofty mission and day-to-day routines, between inspiration and bureaucracy, between the promise of a brand and its reality, and between the “magic” inherent in some consumer product experiences and those experiences many of us still have at the workplace (just think of the uncanny gulf between an Apple product and the many clunky IT systems within organizations). These “rules of enchantment” allow businesses to “hack” their day-to-day routine. It helps them create small pockets of wonder and attachment to infuse their workplace and customer experiences with more romance.
The rules range from the importance of micro-interactions and intimacy (“Find the Big in the Small”) to generosity (“give more than you take”) to distortion, rebellion, and curiosity (“Be a stranger”) to vulnerability and pain (“Suffer a little”) to mystery and secrecy (“Keep the mystique”), nostalgia (“Take the long way home”), and solitude (“Stand alone, stand by, stand still”).
These rules are not based on typical business case studies, and they don’t attempt to problem-solve; they won’t provide silver bullets, and productivity is not their only goal. Instead, they will challenge you to seek out new perspectives, to value your own idiosyncratic intuitions and emotions, to embrace conflict and friction, and to celebrate your humanity. They will help you lead a more wonderful life in and with business.
And finally your favorite romantic or writer with a quote.
Since I’m German, I have to go with a German romantic poet, Novalis, who once said: “Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.”
Translated from an interview originally published in Spanish in the newspaper El Mundo. The interview was conducted by Carlos Fresneda.