IBM recently released a report, “Capitalizing on Complexity” describing the results of interviews it conducted with CEO’s around the world. Executives, they report, believe that business is going global, that customers are harder to secure and retain, and that leaders need to be creative. The IBM researchers frame these responses as part of the growing complexity of the world of business with its new and intense interdependencies among regions, industries, and markets. One result is that executives need to be more creative.
Reading the report raises the question of why the rhetoric about change has itself changed so little over the last 30 years. When Donald Schon wrote, “Beyond the Stable State” some 30 years ago, or Alvin Toffler, the book “Future Shock, these ideas of about pace, complexity and unpredictability were front and center. The continued repetition of these themes feels ritualistic, akin to a mantra.
Mantras can be invoked to stop thoughts. So the natural question becomes what is that thought that has not been admitted into this rhetoric. Perhaps the terms “interdependency” and “complexity” mask a more difficult question; what is the appropriate integration of society and economy, when is one subordinate to the other? Olympus, the Japanese camera company, fired its British CEO after only 6 months because he ran roughshod over its consensus culture. However, urgent were its problems-- net profits had fallen 85% -- the social context imposed constraints on how decisions were to be made and at what pace. Japan is in fact the test case of the stalemate between society and economy. Its last two decades were “lost” economically, because the state could not abide the destruction of the country’s banking system and all the economic and social relationships this system supported.
Of course, each CEO when looking at his or her own situation has to be more nimble and creative. And there is little doubt that deregulation over the last two decades has unleashed creativity. But if the IBM researchers are serious and want us to confront the new interdependencies, they should be asking; “what are the collective challenges we face.” What systems should we use to regulate our many sided relationships, economic, social and psychological, with each other?
Wilfred Bion, the psychoanalyst who studied group dynamics said, “man is at war with his own groupishness.” We need the group to acknowledge our worth, but we hate the group for being able to do so. This conflict results in unconscious dynamics. Perhaps the repeated mantra of “interdependence and complexity” is a psychological defense against really looking at our fundamental dependence on one another for the fulfillment of our individual lives.