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A few ways to stop intellectual load shedding

[Panorama]-Partial-BlackoutThere are many places in the world that have regular “load shedding,” or rolling blackouts. It’s a fact of daily life.

When I travel with my wife and in-laws to India, we stay in a small townhouse in Nashik, Maharashtra. Load shedding is as much a part of our daily planning as what we need to get at market. It effects shower schedules (water is heated by an individual, portable “geyser” that runs on electricity), which cascades into breakfast schedules, which cascades into when we can leave the house, which cascades into when we’ll be able to meet with a visiting relative, which cascades into where we need to be for lunch (the main meal of the day), which inevitably bumps into the next scheduled load shedding.

The system is such that these rolling blackouts are fairly predictable. But not always. And I can’t help but think of the amount of drain this causes a society, particularly its business. Not that the people in these places are somehow disadvantaged, or can’t manage it. They aren’t, can, and do. But it’s impossible not to conclude that it distracts people from the general getting on with things.

I sat in a darkened coffee shop in Denver, Colorado as I wrote this. The power was out for blocks. Word was that a semi truck hit a power pole down the street. Predictably, this caused consternation among the shop owner and we, the entitled patrons. As if it was intentional. Like the truck driver wasn’t put out as well.

Coincidentally, I had Seth Godin’s blog post cached. A call to arms, of sorts, for the kind of “pro business” policies we should demand of our politicians in the 21st century. What government and politicians are talking about are actually “pro factory,” and that today’s policies should instead facilitate innovation, invest in solid infrastructure, and put an end to the race toward a cost-cutting bottom.

Godin’s thoughts aren’t necessarily new (here’s but one guy that’s been at this for a while). They’re well articulated, succinct, and (as always) thought engaging. It’s sustainable development Godinized – the balance of economic prosperity with environmental integrity and social justice. And yes business needs forward-thinking infrastructure, clearly (my friend the coffee shop owner can probably feel the dollars tick away with every moment the power is out.)

All of us in the coffee shop will survive this outage I’m quite sure. But I sit here listening to the rants and complaints around me, thinking of Nashik, and how we take our infrastructure for granted here in the U.S. You rarely hear a complaint about load shedding in India. You just work with it. But here, reliable power is expected.

I’m asking myself: when will sustainable development be that to business? When will it be the ticket to play? How much longer do we need to talk about it?

Seems to me that what we really need is momentum with the kind of thinking Godin writes about. Turning these thoughts into action. We have, it seems, a kind of intellectual load shedding in business, among our leaders, and within each and every one of us.

You can almost predict when factory thinking and sustainable-change thinking flow and when they ebb. Earnings reports are due (we cut costs with layoffs); someone is up for election (it’s the economy stupid); I need to please my new boss (that’s an unsustainable approach but I’ll wait to challenge it until I’m well ensconced in the senior team); I’ll propose the safe idea to land the client (sure, I can help you brand yourself as Green despite no Green initiatives in sight).

You might say Godin’s ideas aren’t innovative. They’re necessary. And just like energy-challenged places like India need to develop solutions to the burden put on their infrastructure, the U.S. needs our sustainable development discussions to migrate into the mainstream and into action for actual change.

And as Jim Collins will tell you, change isn’t an event. It’s a slow, deliberate process that involves real people making decisions, choices, and putting their shoulder to the flywheel for the long haul.

So what can we everyday dilettantes do? I’m not sure. But some thoughts:

Use our talents for good. Choose clients that align with non-factory thinking. Challenge our existing ones to move in that direction, despite the risks to our own bottom line. We make choices about who we share our value with every day. Will they pay me? Can I add value? Will they recommend me? Is it in service toward my business goals?

So why not: Is this client making the world a sustainable place? Do they care about what they’re doing to our community: developing the talent in it, the state of the environment around it, and the long-term economic viability of it?

Find inspiration in – and celebrate – those who do it now. I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of the executive who found a conscience after pulling bags of money from a corrupt system. We all know unsung people who have always worked for good. Followed their values. And do it every day. Seems to me that people like my interfaith dude Tim, my musician hero Rudresh, and everybody’s favorite film maker Erik can offer us more guidance toward a sustained approach to business than someone who never did it until they felt financially comfortable.

Be bold and challenge the status quo. You read Seth. The middle isn’t safe for our careers. It’s soul-sapping and we won’t make a mark anyway. Take a stand. If our sense of upward mobility doesn’t convince us, it’s time our sense of ethics does. Just like we won’t sit quiet if someone makes a racist or misogynistic comment in the workplace, isn’t it our job to say something when we see factory thinking infecting business? Isn’t our future worthy of a top priority in the moral mix?

There’s another ethical issue here. It’s our professional duty to help our employers or clients stay competitive in today’s landscape. In the end, it’s what they’re paying us for. Let’s give them a Whole Foods case study. Point them to Newmont Mining. Hip them to the bona fide, numbers-crunching reasons why they need to kill factory thinking.

Cut your cable T.V., remove the satellite. Honestly. We know CNN does not represent the future way by which we as citizens will be informed. It’s almost uncontroversial. So cut it. Go to the local movie house again. Watch YouTube. Comment on blogs: call out the bullshit, share the good stuff. Start being a part of the new right now – it’s an ever-changing environment that you can take part in shaping – and unplug from the toxic matrix that Big Media is a part of.

Reuse stuff. It’s almost as if recycling has become our “out,” a cleanser for our guilty consumer souls. It helps us blissfully ignore what we know to be true: it isn’t enough. The theories of obsolescence are as irrelevant today as Victor LeBow himself. I’m always surprised at how much longer something lasts compared to my desire to have a new thing. And when we skip a few iterations – like when I finally traded in my first generation 4 GB iPhone for the iPhone 4 – it’s actually more satisfying. Damn this thing is nice.

It’s time to step off the consumption merry-go-round. Let’s close that ride. It isn’t sustainable.

What else can we, as professionals who make decisions and act, do to move us from load-shedding thought into actual change?

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