The Trip Takes Us (III of IV)

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith

POSTED ON DECEMBER 16, 2011

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"We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip, the trip takes us." - John Steinbeck

These four blogs are striving (OK, struggling) to express what may be wrong with the conventional wisdom around how companies should be managed.

Corporations are all about rationality and control. They set clear goals, clear strategies and tactics, and employ a host of processes and policies so that employees, in servitude to these ends, know exactly what is expected of them. It’s all about shareholder value and predictability.

But there are two reasons why it doesn’t work as well as it should. First, obviously, people don’t want to be in servitude. They want to be a part of something that is meaningful to them. Our intellectual side is far more effective when our passionate side is fully engaged (the ‘half mental/half being mental’ thing). Shareholder value, systems, and top down control don’t exactly cut it. Doing something you love, or something that brings meaning to your life, does. Everyone knows this, but corporate leaders, with their uncompromising focus on structure and the bottom line, mostly refuse to consider it.

The second reason, I believe, is Steinbeck’s insight. The trip takes us. We keep trying to control everything (especially in companies), but things won’t be controlled. Bad stuff happens. Good stuff happens. Pain and joy happen. Shit happens. The other great line is John Lennon’s: ‘Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans.’ One of the great EllisDon people says that our company motto should be ‘Bob and weave, baby, bob and weave.’

So, what if the objective, measurement oriented rationalists who run the corporate world could ever acknowledge that the poets and the zen types have a point. We aren’t in control; the trip is taking us. What if we figured that out now, ahead of time, instead of after years of struggle? Wouldn’t that change everything? It doesn’t mean we don’t strive (both objectively and passionately), it means we acknowledge that reality in the way we plan, the way we react, the way we treat each other.

Zen adage I just picked up: One must seek his destiny as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond. So, with all the passion and meaning and determination we can muster, can we still recognize that to a large extent we are forever seeking, not selecting, our destiny? As companies, and as individual employees who give the company its life? Can a company ever be run that way?

Thanks.