A question we’re not trained to ask

What is enough?

Good question. And one businesspeople rarely consider. I asked Massachusetts-based consultant Jen Cohen why.

Because you are trained to ask ‘How do I get more?’ You are not trained to ask the question (of enough). Success in business has historically meant constant accumulation. So why would you ask ‘What is enough?’ It is a heretical question, in the frame of Wall Street or the current business model. We need a model where there is room for that question.

Cohen and her business partner Gina LaRoche co-founded Seven Stones Leadership to help businesses and individuals explore the question of enough. They base their practice on the principles of “sufficiency,” an emerging area of consulting that proves to be a natural complement to sustainability.

Jen Cohen

Jen Cohen

I’ve had the good fortune of working with Cohen and LaRoche, both as a branding consultant and a client. I’ve learned that sufficiency, like sustainability, defies easy definition. LaRoche comes at sufficiency from multiple perspectives: “It’s a practice. It’s an inquiry. It’s a way of life. A challenge, a business model.”

Author Lynne Twist inspired an ongoing conversation on sufficiency with her 2003 book, The Soul of Money. Writing from 20 years experience as a successful fundraiser for nonprofits, she lays bare the myths of scarcity that most of us tell ourselves: there’s not enough, more is better, that’s just the way it is.

Cohen sees these myths play out daily in her work.

There’s not one person who comes into my office and tells the story about how sufficient they are. Not one person. The story that every single person who comes into my office tells is how they are swinging on the pendulum between inadequacy, not having enough, and excess.

Gina LaRoche

Gina LaRoche

LaRoche says businesspeople avoid the question of enough as they do many tough questions. It comes down to what LaRoche calls “the diffusion of responsibility” prevalent among organizations. We tell ourselves, LaRoche says, “That’s not my problem. There’s someone else in charge. Someone else who can make that decision.” All the way up to the CEO who defers to the board.

The scarcity in sustainability

The language of the sustainability movement is often couched in terms of scarcity and excess: not enough clean air and water, not enough forested land, too much carbon pollution, not enough political will.

It isn’t a myth to say we live on a planet with finite resources. But that’s not the whole story, according to Twist. “Abundance is a fact of nature,” she writes. “It is a fundamental law of nature, that there is enough and it is finite.”

Seeing the world as abundant and finite, we revere the earth’s limited resources and pledge to manage them in a way that does the most good for the most people. From a mindset of scarcity, businesses and individuals believe there’s not enough for everyone. And may the fittest survive.

In a self-fulfilling act, the scarcity mentality drives us to make and consume more to be among the survivors, ensuring there indeed won’t be enough for all.

Marketers routinely capitalize on the pervasive sense of scarcity: Act now, supplies won’t last! Harvard marketing professor John Quelch is one proponent: “Creating the illusion of scarcity can be a smart marketing strategy.”

Valuing depth in business

Many companies are struggling with the loss of revenue, customers and employees as the recession wears on. If scarcity is our default setting, most businesses are in default mode right now.

One way to flip the switch is to imagine what operating a business from a sense of abundance, of having enough, of being enough would be like. Cohen says it would be fundamentally different. You would no longer privilege breadth or expansion, or be ruled by the axiom “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

I would say in a sufficiency model where the infinity rests is in depth: depth of richness, depth of interdependence, depth of creativity, depth of serving people. You can stay in the infinite possibility of your work making a difference in the world, or your work reaching people or your work mattering or your business mattering.

The practice of sufficiency works hand-in-glove with sustainability. Those of us striving to operate our businesses sustainably will not succeed if our constant guide is the experience of fear, scarcity, not enough. Even if I’m wrong, what’s the point of joyless sustainability?

So what is enough? Twist answers, “Each of us determines that for ourselves, but very rarely do we let ourselves have that experience.”

What better time than now?

October 28th, 2009

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