Commentary

2 Steps To Change The World

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 23, 2022
A lot of startups talk about changing the world. We’re going to democratize this! Transform that! Accentuate the positive! Eliminate the negative!

Big companies and organizations do it, too. LinkedIn wants to “create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.” Patagonia is in business “to save our home planet.” Oxfam envisions a world “that is just and sustainable.”

All wonderful, all laudable. All possible. All requiring a fundamental understanding of the two steps required to change the world.

Step one: We have to change the playing field.

Some companies articulate their vision in terms of an existing playing field. Puma has a vision of being “the most desirable and sustainable sport lifestyle company in the world.” The playing field is clear and well established; it’s a sport lifestyle company, and it wants to be the best one in the world.

Let me be clear: I’m not here to throw shade. It’s an awesome vision. It’s clear and memorable. I imagine it inspires the team and keeps them focused.

What it does not do is change our model for sport lifestyle companies. It doesn’t alter the way we think about sports in general, or capitalism, or life. It says, very clearly, that they’re playing an existing game and they want to win at it.

But playing an existing game doesn’t change the world. It keeps things the same. Even if we’re successful in achieving our vision, the only thing that changes is who’s at the top of the leaderboard. If we’re serious about a “change-the-world” vision, it has to start with a new playing field.

Step two: We have to invite everyone else to join us.

This one is counterintuitive. We get taught that it’s critical to have a competitive advantage that nobody can copy. To create a moat. Even, if we can get away with it, to have a monopoly.

But the world doesn’t change if only one organization is on the new playing field. Yvon Chouinard giving Patagonia to charity is an extraordinary act of generosity -- but as long as it’s extraordinary in the literal sense (“out of the ordinary”) the wheels of extractive capitalism will grind on as before.

To change the world, we need the new playing field to become the playing field.

Take Tesla. While I’ve been clear on my views that a lot of Musk’s behavior is problematic, what is also true is that, in creating an affordable, super-popular electric car, Tesla changed the playing field and forced every major car company to come along for the ride.

Prior to the Model S, old-school auto manufacturers could be excused for thinking it wasn’t worth investing in electric vehicles -- that nobody would want them, that range anxiety would be too hard to overcome, that the infrastructure didn’t exist, and that people loved the growl of a V8 too much to ever trade it for silence.

But Tesla proved all those ideas false -- and now the world is well and truly changed. EV uptake is happening faster than anyone imagined. By the beginning of 2021, Morgan Stanley had noted that “the market [was] ascribing zero (or even negative?) value for [internal combustion engine]-derived revenues at GM and Ford.”

This second step also means that joining someone else’s new playing field is as valuable as creating a new playing field ourselves -- sometimes more so. When we become a B Corp, we strengthen the pull and power of the B Corp movement. When we articulate not only the specific sustainable development goals we’re working towards but also the specific targets that sit underneath them, we strengthen the pull and power of the SDGs.

Two steps: change the playing field, and then invite everyone else to join. Simple enough. Now we just have to do it.

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