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Wavelength100: Higher Aims: From Poverty of Ambition to Audacity of Imagination

By Polly LaBarre

While the financial markets roiled and economic meltdown gripped the globe, our three days nestled in the bucolic tranquility of the English countryside at Wavelength100 might have seemed like an attempt to escape reality. Instead it was an opportunity to engage in some of the most crucial questions on every leader’s plate today—to advance a conversation that just might offer a productive way out of the mess we find ourselves in.

Mixing it up with the incredible collection of progressive business leaders and social innovators (most of whom deserve both labels) at Sheepdrove, I became more certain than ever that this crisis of capitalism is not the result of aiming too high, but of what one of our presidential candidates so elegantly calls “a poverty of ambition.” That may seem strange, given the outsize rewards and Gilded Age excesses now subject to so much anger and recrimination. While it’s hard to equate hedge fund paydays and investment banker bonuses with “poverty”, I’m referring to a fundamental deficit when it comes to defining what winning is in the first place. For far too many companies and individuals at the heart of this crisis (and in the business world in general) the operating principle has been that in order for them to win, others had to lose.

I’m much more interested in a future led by people with what philosopher and reformer John Dewey called “audacity of the imagination.” Individuals and organizations who not only see a new way to win in their industry or area of endeavor (true innovators), but whose greatest ambition is to win precisely by figuring out a way for everybody to win.

That audacious ambition was on glorious display as nearly all of the 100+ participants took the floor, one after the other, to breathe fresh air into that tired cliché, the “win-win solution:”

—A cleaning company that turns low-wage, low-skill, uninspiring work into a vibrant profession and a wildly successful business. —A vision to take the most derelict place on earth and create an Eden out of it, which is reframing the conversation around climate change and revitalizing an entire regional economy to the tune of £900 million. —An educational institution that turns barefoot and illiterate grandmothers from the most remote places on earth into accomplished solar engineers who power up villages by the hundreds (and debunks the idea that the poor are without resources in the process). —A construction company that makes a community out of its workers and views its workers as a vital part of the local communities in which they work. —An enterprise that imagines a world without poverty—and relentlessly invents new business models to make that audacious goal a reality (and has managed to deliver affordable credit to nearly 9 million people in a way that ensures they’ll repay their loans).

It would be impossible to boil down all of the insights and threads of conversations at the event into neat conclusions, but a few themes emerged:

* If it’s wild success you’re after, start with wild dreams. I can’t keep track of the number of leaders and innovators who began their story with, “they thought I was mad. . .”

* CSR is so last year. If you believe that the challenges we face as a global community are so vast, our responsibility is so indisputable, the demand is so urgent, and the rewards of tackling them so apparent, then you also have to believe that, going forward, all innovation is social innovation. Which makes drawing a line between “business” and “social enterprise” or “entrepreneurship” and “social entrepreneurship” less and less productive. Indeed, the room was filled with social innovators from the corporate world and entrepreneurs of all stripes focused on creating self-sustaining, scalable solutions with measurable impact. In other words, we’re all in this together.

* Ultimately, it all comes down to unleashing people. The only resource we have in unlimited (and vastly under-utilized) supply is human potential. At the heart of nearly every Wavelength organization is a clever mechanism for tapping into and leveraging that force.

For a deeper dive into these themes and others, take a look at the video interviews [link to first set] we managed to produce during a few stolen moments at the event. They’re representative of the often-surprising, always-productive collisions we all experienced at Wavelength.

Creating the Future out of Your Past

Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO LEGO with Garvis Snook, CEO Rok

We paired up the CEOs of the 75-year-old iconic toy company and England’s £1 billion construction company, not just because both are ostensibly in the “construction” business, but because both have reimagined the future of their business by delving into the deep roots of their past.

In LEGO’s case, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp was brought on as the first leader from outside the family in 2004 to engineer a turnaround in the struggling business. After getting the company’s financial house in order, Knudstorp turned to the infinitely trickier task of reclaiming the LEGO identity—lost to flailing attempts to catch up with a marketplace reconfigured by globalization and digital technology.

Knudstorp discovered that sense of identity in an unlikely place. First, the ex-McKinsey consultant cautioned, “never use a consultant for figuring out what you’re all about.” Next, he turned to LEGO’s legions of fans. The leadership team created a process to engage the LEGO community in answering the question: “what makes us totally unique?” The iconic LEGO brick, of course. But the answer was deeper than that: “They said, you are creativity. You can say ‘cool’, you can say ‘fun,’ but creativity is your unique position—coupled with systematic thinking.” Knudstorp wrote the words “systematic creativity” in his notebook and set off to rebuild the brand around that idea.

While the customer got that idea immediately, recalls Knudstorp, it was a tougher sell for the leadership team. “I came to the conclusion that we are about hard fun,” he says. “ As opposed to passive fun. We are not easy entertainment. This is not easy listening. We are deep involvement. We’re like reading a god damned book!” The immediate reaction was fear: “Okay, but please don’t tell anybody. . . If it takes more than 30 seconds to explain what our product is about then nobody’s going to buy it.” But ultimately that clarity of purpose—rooted in the original success of the company—unleashed a torrent of new ideas and energy inside LEGO. (It didn’t hurt to have Google co-founder Larry Page on the cover of Time magazine lauding LEGO as the most important technology in his life—the one that taught him to be a creative problem solver.)

That included opening up the notoriously proprietary and vertically-integrated company to a vast community of talent. LEGO’s 120 in-house designers now collaborate with some 120,000 unpaid designers, programmers, and testers from the user community. Says Knudstorp, “We were defined by the community and through that we found our way home again. . . It’s that idea that when you end all your exploring, you end up in the very place you began.” That sentiment resonated deeply with Garvis Snook, CEO of Rok (pronounced “rock”), the £1 billion construction company that he took over eight years ago when it was a struggling regional firm with characterized by tight, top-down controls (the then-CEO approved every holiday and every expenditure over £25) and the testosterone-driven style of the industry.

Snook, a son of a scaffolder who started his own career in demolition, set about reimagining the business—indeed, the whole industry—as one based on service and people, rather than broken relationships (between frustrated customers and contractors and between individual builders, called “skins” and employers) and products. Snook’s drew his inspiration for the future of Rok from the past of the industry. The idea for the “Nation’s Local Builder” was “based on a model that’s been around for centuries,” says Snook. “The local builder was often the local carpenter, right back to the middle ages. He built your house, made wooden carts, and eventually put you in a wooden box and buried you. He was an essential part of that community.” Today, that’s true for the nearly 6,000 builders and tradespeople employed by 63 Rok branches around the country. They live and work in the communities they serve and focus on creating a genuine emotional bond with their neighbors and customers, doing everything from general repairs to medium-size construction. (Rok doesn’t do big, showy projects and shuns subcontracting.)

The secret to Rok’s award-winning approach to customer service is simple: it’s a business that focuses on service and people first in an industry that relegates those items to the bottom of the punch list. “We’re a service business,” says Snook. “We’re about other people achieving their dreams, their ambitions. We come from a very simple place: if we make the employment experience for our people very special . . . whereby they feel value, recognized, rewarded and engaged in something bigger than themselves, and through them we deliver a much better experience for our customers, that will result in a much better bottom line in the long term. And it works.”

Snook truly understands and exercises the iron-clad connection between distinguishing the company in the marketplace and designing a distinctive approach to the workplace. Snook and his team (who, incidentally don’t occupy a headquarters and spend most of their time “hot-desking” and traveling the country to talk about the company’s vision, values, and work experience) are rigorous and relentless when it comes to designing people practices. Instead of the standard two-tier system for white- and blue-collar workers, every Rok person enjoys the same terms and conditions of employment. Every new hire participates in a multi-day orientation called “A Taste of Rok”, and every employee spends days in career development and training sessions (from “Rok Climbing” to the “School of Rok”). Snook participates in nearly every orientation session and many of the training sessions.

The company is so far off the map of industry standard practices that Snook tells every new employee: “You may think you’ve joined a building company and after two days here you’re probably in shock. If you think ‘It’s not for me’ let us know and we’ll pay you for the two weeks and help you find another job. No one has ever taken me up on it.” What’s more, the democratically elected “Rok Citizen’s Forum” meets regionally and nationally regularly, reports to the board, publishes a newspaper, and controls the employee feedback process. Snook maintains an “Ask Garvis” section on the company intranet and promises to answer any question posed by an employee by the following Monday.

It’s a truly remarkable approach to organizing work that has cultivated a unique emotional bond with customers, transformed Rok into an unlikely talent magnet, and delivered results that are nothing short of extraordinary . Snook expects to double the number of branches and revenues in the next 5 years.

Hard Cases into Worldclass Talent

Mel Young, founder & president Homeless World Cup with Maria Bobenrieth, global director of community investment, Nike

Shifting gears to a completely different world with equally extraordinary impact, the Homeless World Cup is a model of a stunningly simple approach to an overwhelming problem: There are one billion homeless people in the world today. HWC seeks to get the hardest cases off the streets and back on track with a simple proposition: “do you want to play football for your country.” The 5th HWC took place in Copenhagen this summer with 48 nations and 500 top players from around the world.

The story is too colorful to be described at length here (for that, check out HWC’s excellent collection of web videos and short films here), but a few quick observations:

Mel Young, founder and president of HWC is insistent when it comes to measuring impact—partly because he was so astonished at the results of his simple solution for homelessness. It turns out that nearly 80% of players who get involved in HWC (from its entry-level training programs to the final cup) find a path out of homelessness, get a job, go to college, and generally improve their lives for the better. Today, HWC has engaged more than 30,000 homeless people around the world—many of them “hard cases” who had resisted all previous job training and shelter programs. “It’s way beyond our wildest dreams—and we have pretty wild dreams,” says Young.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Young describes two critical mindflips. The players themselves undergo a deep psychological change as they shift from a world of “selfish survival” to teamwork and, more importantly, when they observe the lot of homeless people who are far worse off than they. “Being homeless in one country is very different from being homeless in another,” says Young. “But there’s one commonality: exclusion. You can see it in people’s eyes and when they look at each other, they become one. It’s very profound what’s happening.” The crowd gets a new perspective on homelessness too: “Normally homeless people are viewed as outcasts,” says Young. “People cross the road rather than go near them, ignore them, spit at them. And yet, we take the same people and create a football pitch in the middle of the city and the crowds are all cheering them and allowing their children to go up to them and get signed autographs.” What’s more, the HWC players tend to behave much better on the field than most professional athletes.

A second takeaway from the HWC story is the nature of its partnership with Nike. Instead of the usual sponsorship model, it’s a two-way street of innovation and inspiration. When Nike approached Young and asked what he might want from them, he never asked for money, says Maria Bobenrieth, Nike’s global director of community investment. “Mel said, ‘I’m building a worldclass sporting event and a worldclass brand and I need you guys to be my partner in that. Transfer those skills over to us.’” Bobenrieth’s team jumped at the opportunity. While HWC is the recipient of Nike’s considerable brand- and sport-building talents, Nike stands to win even more. According to Bobenrieth, Nike’s association with HWC pushes it along the path to its original mission: “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete.” She says, “we used to have slogans like, ‘If you win silver, you lose gold.’ And recently we’ve gone back to the original idea that ‘if you have a body, you’re an athlete.’”

What’s more, the HWC partnership has unleashed a flood of participation and passion among Nike’s people when it comes to social innovation. The HWC partnership has inspired what Bobenrieth calls “employee engagement 2.0”—a platform for Nike people to work with social entrepreneurs and exercise their own intrapreneurship. “At the end of the day,” she says, “It’s not just the business but the social challenges that are going to require all of us to access the wealth of wisdom in all of our people. We know it’s there and we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Read Polly’s other blogs from Wavelength100: Wavelength100: We Should Be Angry Wavelength100: The Power of the Poor and the Purpose of Profit Wavelength100: Human Organizations for Human Beings

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