One is enough

Business and the world are changing fast. High tech has been the impetus for this and serves as a model for rapid adaptation. The music business, the long distance business, the mail order business, the broadcasting business, the publishing business: there are many examples of business models that have radically altered in the last few years. Not all the changes have been easy for business or even wanted by business. Some companies have dragged themselves kicking and screaming into new ways of doing things.

All it takes is one successful effort. One site successfully and legally selling songs for 99 cents is all it takes. One long and demanding waiting list for hybred cars is all it takes. One overwhelming response to a political fund-raising website is all it takes. Change follows.

I’ve talked about Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things before. One of the stories in this book is about a Ford Motors plant where they planted grass on the roof, opened the windows for fresh air on the assembly room floor, and discovered that they not only saved a bundle on energy but had better productivity and happier employees. I notice that Ford is the only American auto manufacturer willing to make the leap into hybred techology. If they are successful, change will follow.

There are businesses that resist change and don’t seem capable of looking for new ways of doing things. The oil companies seem to fit that category. It is as if oil companies don’t breathe the same air or drink the same water that everyone else on the planet does. It is as if oil companies have no emotional intelligence. Remember the book Emotional Intelligence : Why It Can Matter More Than IQ from 1997? One of the stories in this book was about how researchers set out a treat (for the sake of argument, we’ll say it was a marshmallow) for a child. Then they told the child that they were leaving the room for a minute and if the child would wait until they came back there would be more marshmallows. Or they could eat the marshmallow immediately. If they chose to grab the one there now, there would be no more later on. The researchers considered it a sign of emotional maturity for the child to wait for the promised marshmallows instead of grabbing the one that was immediately available. Oil companies seem to want that marshmallow right now, and the future is forgotten.

Somehow we have to show these folks the way. All it would take to help the oil companies out of this immature attachment to a brain-dead business model is one successful gas station with a pump dispensing biofuel and a line down the street of eager customers. All it would take is one energy company selling fuel made from soybeans from Missouri to be more profitable than an energy company selling oil made from petroleum drilled in the Middle East. All it would take is booming sales of energy efficient cars or energy efficient homes or energy efficient applicances. If business can’t exercise the emotional maturity to do something because if is right and good for the population in general, we have to win them over with success.

A new book is In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century. This book talks about contextual intelligence, or the ability to understand the period in which you live and exploit its opportunities. Here’s an example. I sometimes drive across Texas from San Antonio to El Paso through the heart of nowhere on Highway 10. My XM radio works fine the whole trip. My Sprint phone service is spotty at best. Should my car break down in the middle of the south Texas desert, would I want to listen to music or phone for help? That’s a failed opportunity. One successful phone service that works everywhere is all it will take to change things. What is that one thing: VOIP, wireless-everything-everywhere? Whatever it is, it’s coming from some company with the contextual intelligence to figure out what’s needed and provide it.

The petroleum industry, the boxcar-sized auto makers, these are businesses that don’t show much contextual intelligence. They are like politicians who shoot themselves in the foot by making statements like "the Geneva Convention only applies to them, not to us." Leaders with such a startling lack of contextual and emotional intelligence are doomed to failure. Grabbing for that one visible marshmallow while refusing to turn just slightly to the side to consider other ideas is not successful problem solving behavior. Clinging to an old and harmful paradigm is like diving over a cliff along with the other lemmings running beside you. Stop and look for that one new way, just one, that will work and be a change for the better.

Accessibility, CSS, standards: these ideas are not harder and more expensive to implement. They are current best practices and should be taught as such. But once you’ve finally figured them out, don’t insist that they are the only way, because that one new thing may come along and stand the web design world on its head at any moment.

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