The fantasy of business independence

A Google search on “independence” returns 261 million results. It shows 7.5 million results for “interdependence.” “Independent business” generates 6 million search results vs. 27,500 for “interdependent business.”

The results aren’t surprising, although they are telling. Independence is a cherished trait for governments, businesses and individuals, especially in a country whose Founding Fathers didn’t put their lives on the line for a Declaration of Interdependence.

And yet, to be truly independent seems largely a fantasy. Are we ever not subject to the authority of someone else, not influenced by the thoughts or actions of others, not depending or contingent upon something else for existence or not relying on others for support in one form or another?

One reason we cling to the notion of independence is no one likes the idea of being dependent. Who wants to be powerless?

Not Independent, Interdependent

Certainly we all start out in life as dependent upon others. As we grow, that changes. We assert our independence, or so we think. What we really reach is a state of interdependence, where we and others are mutually dependent. We depend on others. Others depend on us. It’s that way in our relationship with the environment. We depend on it. It depends on us.

And it’s that way in business. The quaint idea of the independent business on Main Street has its purpose; namely, to differentiate itself from the faceless, corporate-owned businesses, otherwise known as chains or franchises, occupying blocks of faceless strip malls.

But the idea of any business being truly independent is simply untrue, even self-defeating. Success in business doesn’t come by setting your organization apart from  customers, employees, partners, suppliers, communities and, yes, the environment. Our businesses depend on others, just as we’d like to think others depend on our business. It’s when we dismiss interdependence as a sign of weakness that we get into trouble. Arrogance takes root. We think we know what’s best for us and for others. We stop listening. We exhibit no curiosity about others. And then we wonder why our competitors are lauded for their creativity and innovation.

We don’t succeed alone

Business being a competitive sport long played primarily by men, perhaps interdependence is unmanly. And yet, name a championship athlete that rose to the top on his (or her) own. Certainly, not in a team sport. How about tennis players, golfers, runners, skiers, wrestlers or any other individual sport athlete? They absolutely depend on others. Even if it’s only other competitors. There’s no sport without competitors.

Interdependence isn’t about weakening your position or relinquishing control. I learned early on as a business owner that “being in control” was a myth. Once I started taking on employees and clients, I quickly became aware I didn’t call all the shots. My clients could come and go as they please. As could my employees, especially my best ones. And that’s saying nothing about the economy. None of us can prevent bursting bubbles and recessions.

The best thing we can do in business is to recognize we are not independent actors. Our businesses are who they are as the result of a complex interplay of customer decisions, competitive maneuvering and economic and environmental systems that sometimes work to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. Conditions around us are changing constantly, a response to this endless interplay, which seems to only have multiplied and accelerated as technology races on.

What we can control

What we do have something to say about is how we respond to situations as they arise. It’s not as though everything is outside our control, so nothing that we do matters. We can control the reason we exist as a business, the larger purpose or motivation for showing up to work each day. We can control who we are being as a business — a business others want to come into contact with and benefit from. We can control the values we operate by. We can choose to bring passion and compassion to our work. We can put resilient systems into place. We can rethink our products and services. We can compete like hell to win. In short, we can do everything that businesses have been doing forever.

We just can’t do it by thinking we can do it all alone. There is a world that depends on us. And we depend on it. So let’s take good care of each other.

March 20th, 2012

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