Good intentions, ego and other hazards for operational and strategic impact
Impact is at the core of engageSPARK. Sometimes we're very outspoken about it, at other times the topic more in the background of a busy day, but it's always there. After all, having an impact is the point.
Recently, I've had fruitful discussions with colleagues and friends. I thought it's good to collect these thoughts in time, for my later recollection and maybe your benefit, too. And if we can have a discussion, you and me, that'd be fantastic.
The following is a mail reply to a colleague. I edited it a bit, so it can stand for itself, and corrected a misconception. Obviously, as anything else on this website, this post reflects my personal view at the time only, not the view of engageSPARK.
apologies, this took me a while. :D I've been pondering your mail and the whole topic of positive impact in general, and I did not feel like I had made a step yet. Today, finally, I feel I did, and it closed the circle to your mail.
Earlier, I was looking at impact investment. I find the idea fascinating: both the concept and that it's not the only type of investment. Basically, you want to find a way to invest your money in something good, or at least in something that doesn't makes the world a worse place. Every company has some impact, and you'd be looking for companies with a positive or neutral net impact.
Thinking about it, there are two kinds of impact. Strategic impact is the one that you get by implementing the long-term vision. The strategic impact of Opportunity Labs for example is fantastic in my eyes, the strategic impact of engageSPARK … remains to be seen.
Why? Well, think of a knife. It would have been a crime not to invent it. From the scalpel of a surgeon to the scythe of a farmer, we use knives everywhere. We might not have survived without them. And yet over millenia, with swords, katanas and cutlasses, we've perfected the art of killing by knife. A knife is a tool; it can be used for good or evil alike. In a black and white world, engageSPARK is as colorless as a knife. The impact of engageSPARK then depends on the intentions of its people, on us.
Funnily enough, you mentioned intentions, too. Why do they count? After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions! This proverb itself offers an indication to its weakness: the road is paved with, not paved by, good intentions. As soon as you do something you're risking failure, you're risking to get things wrong. And when a hundred people try, some will fail. That's simple math.
Another reason for this pavement is more subtle, but you mentioned it already: ego. Ego fuels a lot of our society. The desire to own (and ideally own more than others) drives capitalism and consumerism. The desire to show off drives countless hobbies. And the same goes for doing good: we love to be seen doing good. We love recognition. That's a drive many NGOs use in their donor programs to keep people engaged, with donor passes, certificates, public mentions. It works: people help, they do good. Unfortunately, now there's a disconnect between the goals of the donors and doing good. The goal changed: Doing good is no longer good enough.
When the goals of persons and doing good are no longer aligned, bad behavior starts: If for example you reach a point, where doing good requires to do nothing at all, then that's really hard, because you want to be seen doing good. If doing good means seeing a bitter and hard-to-sell project through to the end, where's the gratification in that? Doing good then is a distraction from the goal of the person. Uh oh, right? An alternative version of the proverb above says it well:
Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works.
There are some companies who avoid this disconnect, where strategic goals and doing good is aligned, where it is the same. For example, a startup could create a bio-degradable plastic bag from carbondioxide and sugar. That is an awesome company to invest in: the bigger it gets, the more CO2 you convert into safe plastic bags. Even if their entire leadership team turns nasty and evil, they will still do good. So, by all means one should pour money into that company and grow it. (As I mentioned, engageSPARK is not such a company by nature. :) )
And then there is the operational impact, and that's another one of those distractions. You could create those plastic bags and not care about how that sugar is grown, how you're abusing workers in poor countries, or if you're producing toxic waste along the way. The devil is in the details, and taking care of the impact of your details costs you dearly in terms of time and money. Do less harm … you said it's not a new idea. But at the end of the day, many companies are simply judged by their earnings reports. (Though it does not need to be the only thing.) And it's simple, too. Hard numbers, easy to track and compare. But impact—suddenly, there is another goal and you have to find an elusive equilibrium between the two of them. That is hard.
And it turns out your competition may not care about doing good. The cost above is still on you, the cost that binds your resources and slows you down. Startups can't afford to be slow. At all. I heard about a company whose goal it is to improve the lifes of farmers in the Philippines. To survive the initial stages of the company, how the produce is grown at first may not be ideal for the environment. Not everything can be changed at the same time. The company will improve their lifes though, and in the long run, they'll go completely ecological. So you end up in a situation, where you do less harm, but later.
And that's where intentions come in! Because while you're on your road to your strategic goal, there's an ugly detour, lots of bumps in the road, and, oh, you're gonna get distracted.
I can tell you, there are moments when decisions have to be made, and I swallow hard and question not the goal but the operational impact, the impact along the way. In those moments (and nights before) I'm asking myself: Are we taking the detour too far? Is this decision necessary? Could we survive as a company without? Would we maybe just slow down a bit, but not so much as to hurt us badly? Recently I realized, that this conscious of mine, asking black and white questions in a gray world, is about the only thing that will keep the detour short and guide me back onto the road towards our goal.
engageSPARK has a road ahead of it that will be riddled with detours. And the only things keeping us on course, and making sure we're not part of that paving, are our intentions—and ultimately people like you and me, because engageSPARK at the end of a day, is just a bunch of people, dreaming.
Thank you for being with me on this road!