Monday, February 25, 2013

an uncomfortable truth: bad businesses are just as successful as good ones

Many people argue that businesses should be ‘a force for good’ - adopting behaviours and practices that would be widely recognised as ‘good’: minimising environmental impact, being generous employers, supporting local community initiatives, and so on. But research from the US would seem to suggest that the correlation of doing good on the success of any business is…zero. In order words, it doesn’t matter how ‘good’ you are, ‘bad’ businesses are just as likely to prosper (and they’ll likely spend a lot less money in the process too).

Now, when I shared this research finding on twitter recently, lots of people responded with alarm, suggesting that the research must somehow be flawed, that it didn’t ask the right questions, or that it somehow doesn’t matter because it looked at US companies only.

I took a different perspective on the findings of this research: I used it as an opportunity to reflect on the way that I try to do business in an ethical and values-based approach, and if/how its worth the effort of my continuing to do so.
I know from surveying my clients that my business practices make no difference in their decision to award me contracts - my (professional) attractiveness is perceived through the lens of the quality of the service being offered, not the ethics of the enterprise offering them. However… I also know from the same surveys I undertake that clients tend to maintain the relationship with me because they like what they see and hear about me (which ‘doing good’ helps to re-enforce). And, as a micro-enterprise, knowing that I’m making a positive impact helps to assure me that I’m ‘living out’ the values I ascribe to, and so keep me motivated.

The real benefit from this research from the US is therefore perhaps an encouragement and reminder that we shouldn’t be ‘doing good’ in our businesses to make us more profitable and commercially successful, but to ensure that we remain honest with ourselves (both our strengths and our weaknesses), and we’re able to continue contributing to a generally shinier, fluffier, lovelier world for all of us.