When Business is Incontinent

No, not that kind of incontinence.

The term is also used in philosophy to describe a certain situation (I’m reaching back a few decades on this one, so someone check me) roughly like this:

He knows what the good is; he knows that he ought to do the good; there is nothing standing in the way of his doing the good; and he wants to do the good. Yet he does that which is wrong.

As I recall, Aristotle’s explanation was, roughly:

That’s silly. If he didn’t do it, then it’s just because either he didn’t really want to do it or something prevented him from doing it.

Plato’s—which I greatly prefer—was:

That’s life. That’s the beauty and the idiocy and the pain of being human.

David Maister’s recent post What Gets Fat Smokers on the Diet? reminded me of this issue. David’s topic had to do with what prevents organizational change.

My take on the subject is that both personal and corporate change are similar to dealing with addictions: it takes repeated attempts, which in aggregate show improvement, but which in particular instances are weak. And there are no guarantees.

Best practices, in personal as well as organizational life, probably include:

> envisioning—constantly keeping in mind goals, outcomes, tangible pictures of the desired to-be state of affairs

> specific next steps—tactics, mantras, tips and tricks that move the ball in the generally right direction

> no-no’s—things that are warning signs of "bad" behavior, a la if you don’t want to get hit by trains, don’t play on the tracks

> values—a clear set of guiding principles, enunciated frequently by people who understand them and practice them

> a medium-to-long-term view of the world that infects all behaviors—negotiating, pricing, relationship management, compensation, investment evaluations

> a strong preference for intrinsic motivational approaches over extrinsic approaches. Getting people to behave in ways that support others by giving them money (in effect, paying them to be unselfish) is as close to oxymoronic as you can get.

> at the suggestion of Stuart Cross I’d add one more: A sudden shock – for an organization this may be a decline in profits, the loss of a customer, the entrance of a serious new competitor, a price war, or a rise in costs. In addiction, it’s a divorce, a disinheritance, a DWI, a death in the family (ever notice how many disasters being with the letter D?).

For change in corporate life, the challenge is to generate the powerful motivational effects of, say, a tragic car accident—but through genteel, socially acceptable means like corporate training programs.

The mother of the new boy in kindergarten says to the teacher, "Johnny is very sensitive. If he does something wrong, just slap the child next to him—he’ll get the message."

But Johnny Adult isn’t quite so sensitive. And the Adult Next to Him tends to hit back. It’s hard to change habits; it’s hard to change thinking; it’s hard to change incontinence.

It’s almost enough to believe Aristotle.


But not quite.