Once upon a time . . .
A group of friends stumbled on Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, a book written in 1999 by the iconoclastic writer Daniel Quinn. In it, Quinn tells the story of a newspaper in rural New Mexico that he started in the 1980s with his wife and two friends. While the paper was only a modest financial success, they soon realized that a higher priority was their pleasure in working together. Looking back on the experience, years later, Quinn saw the newspaper as the model for a new kind of “tribe,” based not on traditional notions of kinship and physical proximity but, instead, on work environments that offered a shared sense of mission and community.
To the group that read the book, Quinn’s vision made a lot of sense. Since work dominated the best hours of most of their days and the lion’s share of their energy, why not make it a primary place of friendship, belonging and emotional sustenance? Instead of being an unfortunate exception to their most deeply held values, why couldn’t work be a place where their deepest aspirations could find vital expression, in concert with people they liked, admired, and trusted?
So they decided to go into business together. The type of business didn’t really matter. It could have been a financial planning firm, a computer software company, a chiropractic office or, even, a farm. What was important is that, having spent years at typical mainstream companies, they were determined to operate differently.
Like any other business, profitability was essential. So they made it Priority 1A, really important but nevertheless – and this was key to their vision – clearly subordinated to Priority 1: A commitment to Radical Decency in every aspect of their business and lives.
It’s easy to embrace Radical Decency in theory but a lot harder to apply day-to-day, especially in the pressured-packed environment of a profit-making business. So in the beginning they went slowly; exploring their fundamental ideas in detail, allowing the group to evolve organically. Eventually, a core group of people emerged that understood the philosophy and were eager to organize their work lives around it.
Getting the company off the ground was wrenchingly difficult. In addition to all the problems that a new business must face, the organizers had to figure out what it meant to actually run a radically decent business. From day one, big, really complicated questions had to be answered:
- Who “owns” the company and what rights are associated with ownership?
- Who should participate in the firm’s profits – and risk of loss?
- How do you price products when the goal is fairness both to the company and its customers, and not simply to charge whatever the market will bear?
- How do you compensate owners and workers alike in ways that reflect Decency’s 6th and 7th Values – fairness and justice?
- How do you make decisions in an environment where collegiality is not just a hoped-for result, but is at the very heart of the company’s mission?
- How do you effectively follow through on a commitment to be truly decent in the larger world?
What also became apparent, early on, was that “little” things mattered.
Virtually everyone involved had long experience working at “business-as-usual” companies. As a result, mainstream ways of operating were what they knew, and what they instinctively fell back upon in times of stress. And on the flip side, there were no manuals to guide them as they worked to create a radically decent business. So many things were new, complicated, and perplexing.
For this reason, one ever-present danger was that business’ day-to-day pressures would drag them back to mainstream ways of operating, one small compromise at a time:
- Overpromising what they could deliver, in order to make a much-needed sale;
- Overlooking small indecencies when the person in question – say, a top salesperson – was making a major contribution to the bottom line;
- In the face of pressure to get things done quickly and efficiently, allowing top-down, authoritarian attitudes to erode their commitment to collegiality and cooperative decision-making;
- Pulling back on contributions to the larger community when profits dipped.
The group found that the best antidote to these sorts of temptations was intense and detailed – even obsessive – attention to the company’s mission in all things, large and small. So in the early days, participants spent a lot of time figuring out what Radical Decency had to teach them about running meetings, talking to each other (and to customers, vendors, and competitors), dealing with co-worker conflict, and even how to keep the lunchroom and bathrooms clean.
These seemingly endless conversations were a frequent source of frustration since “important” work had to get done. But it was time well spent. Eventually, it all became easier. Like a baseball player obsessively practicing an improved swing, these new, more decent ways of operating eventually became the group’s ingrained, taken for granted business practices. And, with that, their sure-footedness in putting Radical Decency into practice grew, month by month, year by year.
As this process unfolded, good things started to happen at an accelerating pace. Word began to spread among potential employees. This is a place where talk about worker well-being isn’t just a lot of empty words; where a fair living wage and good benefits, open and collegial decision-making, and work/life balance are authentic priorities. As a result, the company was able to attract an unusually capable, imaginative and loyal group of employees.
Similarly, customers came to understand that they could rely on the company to be open and honest about what it could (and could not) do for them and to always deliver a quality product at a fair price, fully disclosed in advance. The result: An ever-expanding group of customers were powerfully drawn to the company as a place where people were decent in word and deed, and operated with unusual sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and thoroughness.
To their great pleasure and surprise, the group of friends also found their success extending beyond the four walls of their company. Following through on their across-the-board decency commitment, the partners worked hard to find suppliers, lawyers, accountants, marketing experts, and other consultants who had a similar commitment to decency. Before long, they found themselves at the center of a growing group of collaborators who not only “got it,” but also were eager to recast their own businesses in values-based ways.
At an income-generating level, this emerging network of radically decent businesses worked really well. Because their relationships were anchored in a shared set of values, referrals occurred far more frequently than they do in typical marketing networks, based solely in economic self-interest. In addition, their philosophical compatibility meant that referrals turned into customers on a much more regular basis.
And the network’s success didn’t end there. It grew to include new, creative contributions to the larger community as well. Acting alone, the social justice initiatives of the network’s individual companies tended to be isolated and intermittent. But bound together by a full-throttled commitment to Radical Decency, the change initiatives of these diverse businesses – retailers, manufacturers, schools, entrepreneurial start-ups, mission-driven nonprofits, health care entities, legal and accounting firms – became far more imaginative and far-reaching. Before long:
- Landlords were collaborating with trauma specialists to offer respite housing to victims of abuse;
- People with employment challenges were being placed at radically decent businesses by like-minded career and business consultants; and
- Investors were funding new Radical Decency initiatives that, because they drew on the diverse experiences and skills of network participants, were both financially sound and unusually creative and effective in their impact.
In time, a wide variety of articles and seminars also started to appear reflecting on lessons learned and additional steps that might be taken to craft even more effective ways to implement Radical Decency, not just in business but in every area of living.
And the original group of friends? Well, things evolved and changed. Some stayed at their widget company, the business that got the whole thing started. Others, intrigued with other aspects of this ever-growing network, moved on. But bound together by their shared values and supportive community, they maintained the intimate connection they’d forged in their early years; brothers and sisters, warmly supporting one another as they each crafted their unique journey through life.
And they each lived – ever after – with an ennobling purpose and energizing sense of possibility.