I just finished Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable The Swerve . Professor Greenblatt guides us through the wanderings of the main character, book hunter Poggio Barcciolini, who finds the lost manuscript of Lucretius’ poem “On the Nature of the Universe” that was to influence the start of the Renaissance and scientific and humanistic thought for centuries thereafter. The book’s key underlying theme, the unexpected collisions of tiny particles as a foundation for the universe, leads this blog to ask how events and people engaged in business, the non-profit sector, or academia (organizational atoms) handle unexpected collisions. In terms of organizational ethics analysis, three types of swerve emerge: (i) swerve that isn’t swerve (i.e., unexpected collisions that should have been expected); (ii) swerve that is really changing times (i.e., evolution not collision); and (iii) genuine swerve (i.e., the truly unexpected collisions that rigorous, forward-looking ethics oversight helps organizations and individuals sidestep or address gracefully).First, several types of unexpected swerve should be expected:
- a known error that was left unaddressed to surface unexpectedly at a later time, for example when a zealous regulator energizes a search or a competing NGO or doctoral student aims a spotlight on the organization
- failure to integrate ethics analysis into strategy, governance and accountability on an on-going basis, a sure bet that an ethical dilemma will emerge at some point
- ignored or under-addressed known ethical challenges, for example, teen suicides following social media bullying…enough said
These are not swerve. They are poor ethics oversight (and probably poor governance, strategy, and management). Proactively, or if too late, reactively address these non-swerve events.
Second, some events labelled as swerve are really just examples of changing times:
- Commonly accepted practices that over time cease to work, prove ethically questionable (or at least no longer best or even good practice), or become regulated, for example, investment banks’ distribution of initial public offering shares to preferred clients, sub-prime mortgage procedures, deducting any part of a charitable evening that brings value to the donor (e.g. dinner), inappropriately meddlesome donor control of non-profit programs…
These are not swerve. They are evolution. In my ethics consulting practice and research, I explore industry-wide practices that involve both commercially useful and ethically questionable elements. Together with industry experts, we tinker with them to retain the positive benefits but proactively prune away ethically risky elements. This is in part to pre-empt overly burdensome regulatory responses (e.g. the extensive non-profit self-regulatory efforts) and in part to encourage a vigilant, proactive ethics culture within the organizations I work with. The venture capital industry is ripe for this kind of analysis, both at the level of the funds and at the level of portfolio companies (often erroneously considered too small to need ethics oversight and/or managing technologically complex products with unforeseen ethical consequences). Proactively follow any grey area practices with potential regulatory, operational, and reputational evolution in mind.
Third, much of the time, it’s all swerve.
Boards and management should assume high risk of internal and external swerve. Effective management integrates decision-making that expects the unexpected…and the unexpected consequences of the unexpected…and the ethical consequences of every collision along the way. This is more than governance and strategy. It is a fundamental ethical obligation, especially in light of the often organizational life-changing (or even life-threatening) consequences of unexpected “swerves”. It is particularly critical in today’s increasingly complex, rapidly changing, and social media driven world. 2012 swerve is faster and far more contagious than the collisions Lucretius faced: sub-prime, Lehman, LIBOR, cholera outbreak in the wake of Haiti, racist Olympians or violent provocation in India on Twitter, rogue traders (Société Générale or UBS), allegedly rogue regulators (Standard Chartered)… Proactively manage your ethics oversight with the realistic expectation that you cannot anticipate your organization’s potential collisions. That is, manage the swerve.
As always, comments and questions are welcome.
The title of this blog is borrowed from, and its theme is inspired by, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011. I do not in the least do justice to Professor Greenblatt’s treatments of Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of the Universe”) or the related philosophical/religious debates in this blog, but I highly recommend the book.
Copyright© 2012 Susan Liautaud. All rights reserved