I am a hiccup. I didn’t know it until I read a university official’s email about a grant I had gotten. He was discussing the turmoil the grant created because it involves treasurers and CEOs rather than students. Meanwhile, it has taken weeks of discussions and budget corrections to get the thing processed, mainly because they couldn’t figure out where to put the money. During a weaker moment, I came close to telling them. Now, this guy was congratulating his team for their ability to work together “when hiccups arise.”
The timing couldn’t be better, because I am working on a presentation for a conference in Nairobi on “business as noble vocation,” and I was stuck. How is business a noble vocation? The phrase comes from Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si’, On Care for Our Common Home, and refers to business being directed toward the common good through the creation of wealth and a better world, mainly jobs. I was trying to think of a logic that could support this twofold purpose of self-interest (wealth) and public-interest (world).
Now, I have it. Unlike this official, I recognize that business, at least the entrepreneurial side, is about hiccups. It is about expecting the unexpected and thinking creatively. Even the managerial side understands this, which is why you see seminars on thinking outside the box, taking deep dives, and disrupting paradigms. Sure, the language is ridiculous, but at least these people try to be different.
For years, management theory focused on order, structure, discipline, systems, conformity, and an unquestioned devotion to the social sciences. This was the Prussian version. The American one added a pinch of individualism and initiative, although, like cayenne pepper, just a pinch. Otherwise, you’d have people trying to process all kinds of grants, and then where would we be?
Conformity is still the hallmark of the modern organization, which achieves results by imitating machines. Acting like machines, organizations are able to manufacture on a massive scale, increase efficiency in supply/distribution, adapt to markets, manage people, and, most importantly, provide for their succession. Their underlying logic is mechanistic.
Creativity is the hallmark of human beings. We create, which means our model should not be the machine but a living organism able to recreate itself and produce creations on a higher level. And, while we’re at it, why not imitate the Creator by following the creative process from Genesis: creating, judging the creation, and then resting? The underlying logic is generative.
I know the objection that will come up in Nairobi: “This may be fine for small business, but what happens when you ramp up?” It’s a fair question, but there are already examples out there, and they’re not all startups in Silicon Valley. Today, organizations realize that, instead of being anomalies, hiccups are the stuff of business.
If hiccups are the stuff of business, they are also the stuff of life. I like to think that we are made for uniqueness, for shooting stars and counterintuitive truth. For that once in a lifetime event that marks a lifetime. There must be a destiny in our DNA that lies beyond the particular makeup of our genes. In the meantime, the meetings will continue until morale improves.