By William C. Miller, Director, Values Centered Innovation
I still remember the chair I was sitting in on July 21, 1969, as I watched astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. I was thrilled and enthralled. But little did I know how much that moment would change the way we see our lives and our work today.
Imagine having the opportunity to travel to the moon and see the Earth floating in space... What impression does it make on you? What thoughts and feelings do you have?
In 1971, Edgar Mitchell was another astronaut to actually have that experience. Years later, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with him at length about his round-trip journey. The most poignant moment of that conversation was when Edgar shared the personal transformation he experienced as the astronauts were returning to Earth:
“Seeing Earth and our whole solar system against the background of the cosmos had a very profound effect on us-– an overwhelming sense of being connected to all things.”
“What came out of that experience was an enormous sense of responsibility that goes with the power of creativity. And that means letting go of fear. Automatically that brings this deeper sense of love and responsibility for one's self, surroundings, environment, and planet.”
He summed up the conversation by saying:
“We went to the moon as technicians. We returned as humanitarians.”
For me, Edgar’s statement could refer not only to astronauts but also to humanity as a whole. For the first time ever, a representative of humanity stepped far enough off the planet’s surface to see ourselves as fellow passengers floating in space on what Buckminster Fuller called “spaceship Earth.”
The shift from technician to humanitarian is a powerful portrayal of what it looks like to innovate with a conscience– innovating not just as technicians, but more so as humanitarians who:
- are connected to all things.
- accept the responsibility that goes with the power of our creativity.
- are proactive rather than reactive… willing to let go of fear.
- feel a sense of love and responsibility for one's self, surroundings, environment, and planet.
A Crucial Choice Point
As technicians, will we act without giving due consideration to the larger interests of humanity and the environment as major stakeholders?
If so, an innovative hell of unintended negative consequences can break loose.
As humanitarians, will we put our good character and conscience in charge of what we innovate, why we innovate, and how we innovate?
If so, that will bring out our best as human beings and generate healthy, sustainable solutions. This choice point involves every one of us!
In a simple definition, to be innovative is to strive to do things new, better, easier, or different, and generate a positive benefit. In that framework, we all have the potential to be creative and innovative in our life and work. It’s in our nature.
But I’ve asked myself many times, “What is being taught by society, business schools, and others that have taken us off course to innovating as technicians, without the humanitarian impulses spurring us on? And what is the antidote?
How to be Led by the Invisible Hand
My research has led us back to Adam Smith, the 18th-century grandfather of modern capitalism. He once famously wrote that as people pursue their own interests in business, they are “led by an invisible hand” to have a larger impact that was beyond the focus of their own “micro” intentions.
Adam Smith was firstly a Scottish moral philosopher. He had a stringent stipulation about what is needed to guide that invisible hand, to have positive rather than negative impacts... to follow our morals!
“Our moral faculties were set up within us to control all our senses, passions, and appetites, and to judge how far each of them was either to be indulged or restrained.”
“By acting according to our moral faculties, we pursue the most effective means for promoting the happiness of mankind…”
“This disposition to admire, and almost worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise or neglect persons of poor condition...is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
“ ’All for ourselves' and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the dominators of mankind.”
Adam Smith was saying that the “invisible hand” must be guided by our moral faculties– our conscience– and not by our self-centered “passions and appetites.” This is what we have overlooked, neglected, and ignored over the past decades and centuries.
Innovation Shift From Shareholder- to Stakeholder- Centered
There is evidence that a shift towards innovating with a conscience is slowly sinking in with business executives. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from over 180 major USA corporations, declared that “stakeholder primacy” had taken over from “shareholder primacy” as the core, fundamental purpose of business. In essence, shared benefit rose ahead of self-centered profit.
While it takes time for this kind of shift in principles to form into sincere policies and practices, the evidence is emerging. We not only have “triple bottom line” reporting for financial, social, and environmental performance, but also a new interest in “purpose-driven” corporate paradigms.
For example, when Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia in 1973 to make outdoor sportswear and gear, he set a single purpose in motion: “Patagonia is in business to save our home planet.”
Mary Barra, Chairperson and CEO of General Motors, has stated GM’s mega-purpose this way: “To create a world with zero crashes, to save lives; zero emissions, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet; and zero congestion, so customers get back a precious commodity, time.”
Neither of these purpose statements can be achieved by a single enterprise. And that’s the point! They’re having to work with other partners– businesses, government agencies, NGOs, etc.– towards a higher social good that intrinsically motivates people to give their innovative best.
From decades of conversations we’ve had with business leaders around the world, we can confidently say that executives like Yvon Chouinard and Mary Barra are becoming more and more common. And that transformational moment of seeing ourselves as passengers on spaceship Earth is becoming more and more a part of our daily consciousness.
Innovation with a conscience (i.e., innovating as humanitarians, not technicians) is becoming an unstoppable force in the evolution of humanity.
So, the call now is to follow our conscience in what we innovate, why we innovate, and how we innovate. And as we all face opportunities and challenges for bettering our life, work, organization, and society, we can frequently ask ourselves:
Where am I coming from as I seek to make things new, better, easier, or different? Is it scarcity, fear, and self-interest... Or... is it responsibility, love, and feeling connected to all?
Does your company aspire to become a great humanitarian?
VCI is the conscious innovation expert.