I’m going to take a philosophical position here as a cautionary tale about the future of retail. “Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not.” Is this a new edict from the ever-more-intrusive analytics team? A proclamation from anyone under the age of 35 roaming the cubicles? A chapter on marketing in an MBA classroom?
The Past as Prelude
No. It’s Galileo. Centuries ago it must have been breathtakingly innovative, whispered about in the corridors of the Vatican and debated in the salons of Florence. Or not. Perhaps just a random thought by a soon to be excommunicated polymath, scribbled in a diary and only later enshrined as wisdom.
What can it mean to us today? Let’s just say we seem to have taken it to heart. Ask anyone with a list of Key Performance Indicators in her job description. Ask anyone with a Fitbit or Apple Watch. Ask any teacher whose professional assessment is based on student reading and math scores. Any television executive awaiting word on the overnight ratings for a new show. Ask any stockroom worker at an Amazon facility. Measurement ‘R’ Us.
Perhaps our frenzied rushing about in search of profit margin is actually a way to send more employees’ children to college, to ensure productive and long-lived retirements, to encourage the cultural understanding offered by travel to far-flung ports of call, to enable a healthy and stable standard of living for the next generation.
What Measures Matter?
And what we measure matters. Right? Retailers watch comparable store sales vs year ago. Retail brands focus on the vexing space between cost of goods sold and, of course, price of goods sold. Therein lies the gold or not. Promotions, bonuses, stock options: all hang in the balance. We don’t speak of it in the Galilean term ‘measurement.’ For us, it’s all about KPIs and metrics. Same old, same old, different day.
Granted, we live and work in a consumer culture in a capitalist society. Our world is driven by profit and loss statements, quarterly earnings, stock price gains and losses. As Walter Cronkite used to say to close out the nightly news: “And that’s the way it is.” Unless it isn’t.
New Purpose-Driven Measures
During the past decade some different shoots have begun to appear in the mercilessly manicured garden of the market, wild buds appearing from hybrid root stocks: The highest profile of these has been the movement towards Environmental, Social and Governance policy-based investing, morphing into a desire for an ESG balance sheet, or at least an ESG addendum to the business-as-usual version. Some of this has been rightly termed ‘greenwashing’ to ensure firms’ actions appear defensible in light of scrutiny; some of this has been authentic.
I have been considering lately the second part of Galileo’s edict: the ‘make measurable what is not’ bit. I have also been thinking – not to stretch the garden metaphor too far – about the inadvertency of bees. By which I mean, bees don’t start out thinking about how nice it would be to flit about in a gorgeous flowering garden and fabulous fields of produce and grain. To the extent they think at all, they are worrying about getting pollen from which to make honey and feed the hive. It’s just that the pollen sometimes sticks to their wee feet as they buzz about and they track it from one flowering plant to another. And thus does a garden and a well-nourished bee population grow.
Bees, like us, measure success by how much they make. It seems inadvertent, but it is intentional in the natural order how they inspire the world with color and fragrance, while ensuring a bountiful harvest. To their eyes, it’s about honey. To our eyes, the honey is the byproduct of their industry. Something like that may be at play in our business pursuits. We may believe the goal is to sell more ways to clean and soften clothes, to condition our face and body, to anticipate and wipe up messes with a dizzying array of paper products, to quench thirst with sugary beverages, and to clothe bodies in other people’s initials. But seen from another angle, perhaps our frenzied rushing about in search of profit margin is actually a way to send more employees’ children to college, to ensure productive and long-lived retirements, to encourage the cultural understanding offered by travel to far-flung ports of call, to enable a healthy and stable standard of living for the next generation. Typically these social benefits are viewed as nice-to-have by-products of successful business practices, but I suggest they are actually the point of the exercise.
Design Your Future
I think occasionally of Faith Popcorn’s personal and professional mantras: Futurist to the core, she wants “To lift myself and others into their best futures,” and her company works to be “cool, hot, visionary, fearless.” Taken together a classic case of working within the world of the “unmeasurable” and hoping to make it measurable.
Seen through this lens, for example, guidance on the portfolio investment potential of Procter & Gamble is not based on last quarter’s or even last year’s earnings, but rather on the company’s ‘best future’ ability to employ, train and fairly compensate ever more blue- and white-collared staff in ever more locations throughout the planet? And on its historic capability to lift (traditionally) women from the “elbow greased” drudgery of their house cleaning rituals. It would remain a ‘buy,’ albeit due to different metrics.
Our ‘best future’ recommendations on Campbell’s Soup could be reliably based on its demonstrated ability to do away with food deserts in communities in which it does business, and we’d recommend USAA because of its earnest and honest ability to protect and defend its military insured from calamity while returning bonuses to those insured after year after year of good corporate management.
Might we not also consider that these companies’ ability to contribute to the best future of our communities and our world is based on good management of the human capital over which they hold sway. Of course. And is that not the measurement which matters most?
A Best Future
Ergo: What if – rather than being an episodic surprise and delight in the landscape – a best future social impact became our prime metric? We can create a metric that brings real value to our communities. Big businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurial startups. Everyone will continue to produce stuff, but stuff which also ratchets up to a ‘best future’ civic purpose.
Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But there are early entrants already at work to forge a better future.
- Take the case of fledging entity f3. The three ‘fs’ stand for female, founders, and funders. Imagine. A band of young women who founded their own tech start-ups, ran them, and ultimately sold them, deciding to redeploy their resources not in pursuit of bespoke sportscars, private island retreats and literal moonshots, but rather to fund other women’s tech start-up dreams: All in service of imagining the creation of a new way of doing business, a matriarchal, collaborative one.
- Consider Title 9, the retailer created for and by women sports enthusiasts. After more than 30 years in business, the company decided to ‘bet the farm’ it could make a difference by plowing profits into purpose, in this case agreeing to make up the difference in salary paid between male and female soccer professionals. It was a promise heard ‘round the world, prompting pay equity to become a reality. Well, in one sport, at least.
- Think about Newman’s Own, created by pioneer Paul himself who understood a best future. The company is now recommitting to generate profits not for profit’s sake, but in order to give 100 percent of it away to charities that mattered to the founder.
- Ponder the recent headlines about the undeniably visionary founder of Patagonia. A different approach to P&L creates inevitably a different company, corporate culture, and sustainably positive environmental impact. A different and better world.
A Metric That Matters
What might such a best future metric mean, not as a nice bit of serendipity, but as the point of our working lives? Businesses could adopt as our unifying principle the goal of lifting ourselves and others into our best future. It could reverse the Great Resignation and its passive-aggressive corollary, quiet quitting. But wait, there’s more.
- We wouldn’t have retail buying offices decide at the national level what fashion statement women as distant in taste and geography as San Francisco is from Peoria, and El Paso from Fargo, making those judgements based on low-cost producer status and cut-throat negotiations that ensure the manufacturing of our clothing must be done offshore.
- We wouldn’t have utterly confusing recycling bins in massive apartment complexes, public venues, and fast-food chains. You know the ones at which consumers are left clueless about what goes where, defaulting to a best guess and defeating the purpose of the recycling program. It’s such an easy fix with better signage.
- We wouldn’t have major midwestern bedrock manufacturing companies upping stakes and moving their HQs to more tax-friendly climes and their assembly lines to robotic labor, while their once robust and now former communities shrivel.
- We wouldn’t have corporate tax chicanery resulting in the bankruptcy of crucial public services: 911 calls going unanswered, teachers afraid to teach because of gun violence, nurses poorly paid and over-worked.
- We wouldn’t have the decimation of the Rain Forest or the furious denials of climate change. Indeed, we wouldn’t have most the headlines we read with alarm every day.
And guess what else we might have. As Galileo also wrote, “All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered. The point is to discover them.” Business-as-usual won’t help us here. It’s time to ruminate on bees as role models as good industrious citizens of the planet. Perhaps we can discover our new way of making honey aka money, one that enchants our days, enhances the world, and ensures a better – even best – future.
Perhaps with another Galilean credo as our signpost, our North Star: “You can’t teach anybody anything, only make them realize the answers already inside them.” We know what we should do to create our best future. The question is, “Will we?”