Some questions have what I like to call a catalytic quality. That is, they do for creative problem-solving what catalysts do in chemical processes: they dissolve barriers and accelerate progress down more productive pathways. Take the question that has lately been put on the political table because of the prosperity bind facing so many mature economies. Innovation abounds (especially in technology) and new value is being created hand over fist — yet the resulting wealth gains go to the few, while the many wind up financially worse off. Case in point, even if everyone benefits from the freer flow of information allowed by the internet, information alone can’t pay your heating bill or buy a new transmission for your car. As the costs of things like phone calls and televisions have dropped, the cost for basic necessities like food and housing has soared.
This vexing global challenge causes me to wonder, “What if the world’s innovators turned their sights on solving this problem? Could we make growth more inclusive?” That’s a huge question, and I hope it’s a catalytic one.
This article is one in a series related to the 9th Global Peter Drucker Forum, taking place in November 2017 in Vienna, Austria.
Many people are already trying to answer it. There’s Zeynep Ton’s path-breaking work on “why ‘good jobs’ are good for business.” There are people in the business community launching initiatives like I4J, a group that challenges the Silicon Valley tech community to “innovate for jobs.” Scholarly publications like the Journal of Management Studies put out calls for new research that could inspire enterprise-level change. Perhaps my favorite example is the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge. Now in its second year, it distributes cash prizes to inspiring organizations who “are using technology to reinvent work and create economic opportunity for people below the top rung of the economic ladder.”
A top prizewinner for 2016 was a company not too far from MIT geographically — but in an industry that seems 100 years distant. It’s an apparel manufacturer called 99Degrees Custom. In a wonderful bit of symbolism, it is located in the historic Everett Mill in Lawrence, Mass., which the company does not exaggerate in calling “the birthplace of the U.S. Industrial Revolution.” In the midst of a new, twenty-first-century technological revolution, no workers are being made redundant by machines. Instead, by using robotics, lean processes, and agile systems, 99Degrees Custom is allowing new jobs to be created using “sew free and wearable technologies, on-demand manufacturing, and fastest-turn development and production cycles.” Company founder Brenna Schneider told The Boston Globe: “You hear a lot of fear about machines replacing our jobs and excitement about robots… But I see there is an incredible sweet spot between the machine and human side.”
I’ve always been a believer in the principle of celebrating what you want to see more of. This prize competition does that. But there is something more that a well-constructed “challenge” gets right. Whether it’s Open IDEO’s ongoing challenges, or Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Challenge, or any of Peter Diamandis’s amazing, annual XPRIZE competitions (to name just a few), their power lies in posing a provocative question, and then flinging the doors wide to whoever can respond to it. The creative energy unleashed not only produces one winner — it engages a whole spectrum of people in a quest, and galvanizes the collective conviction that a solution must be found.
Peter Drucker, long before me, championed the power of questions as the critical fuel behind high-impact challenges. “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers,” he once observed. “The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.” (And since the lion’s share of my work is with corporate clients, this one also resonates: “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”) I think that if Drucker were alive today, he would see this question—how can we ensure that we not only have growth, but that growth is inclusive?—as the right one for our times. It’s the kind of question that anyone can engage with, and one that may well require everyone’s engagement to solve and at the core, inquisitive leadership is ultimately inclusive leadership. Wouldn’t it be fitting, if our society’s biggest question about inclusion could only be answered through inclusion?
This post is one in a series leading up to the 2017 Global Drucker Forum in Vienna, Austria — the theme of which is Growth and Inclusive Prosperity.