Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Bottom Line on Bottom Lines

I am fortunate, in that I know some wise, interesting people. And some even answer my phone calls. One of them is Jill Bamburg, who is one of the founders of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and who has both a broad knowledge of sustainability and many deep, provocative ideas on what needs to happen to "Change Business for Good."

Jill talked to my class today about her book, "Getting to Scale," and shared some ideas on what she thought needed updating, and what was still very relevant. Good stuff. One of the things she mentioned was that she was thinking a lot about the usefulness of the "Triple Bottom Line." She thinks that People, Planet and Profit are all important aspects of a good business, but that sometimes it tugs entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs) in multiple directions. It makes it hard to determine trade offs. What if, she asked, there was just one "P" of purpose,* and the other P's were viewed as constraints? Would that be a more useful model for designing a beneficial business model?

Well, it's hours later, and I am still thinking about that extra "P". I have used the triple bottom line for years as a way to initially analyze a business idea or design a business model, but it does lack the crispness of a single focusing factor. Recently, I have been questioning what seems to be the deep seeded need of homo economicus to have a "bottom line." I mean, I lived for several decades without knowing what a bottom line was, and am not sure I am better off now that I know about three of them.

And if focusing on the bottom line got the planet into this mess, is focusing on three of them going to get us out of it? Maybe. But is a periodic reckoning what business is about? Are bottom lines what drive the innovation we need? Do people get up in the morning inspired by bottom lines? To me, entrepreneurship is more about route finding and adaptation than score keeping.

Maybe it is my outdoor background, but I respect businesses that take the cleanest line.** It requires practice, it requires crux moves, it requires trusting partners, it requires adapting to changing conditions, it requires economy of movement and it requires persistence. Not sure it requires metrics, or lots of people watching or offering advice from below. But it does require focusing on the journey, not just the destination.

Once you have locked in on "why," "how" becomes very important. While the end often does not justify the means, the means almost always affect the end. If you "fudge" on your eco-friendly product or act inconsistently with your values, you get knocked off line, and end up at a very different place than you intended. The ability to recover, and stay on line, separates the best from the rest. This is not to say, however, that having a clean line avoids difficult, high risk or chaotic periods. But with proper focus and training, I think it improves the chances of avoiding the the most dangerous threats, and recovering from mishaps.

As you scope out your line, keep in mind who it is for. It must motivate your team, and it must resonate with your customers. Investors? Do you need them to make it happen? If so, be sure they understand and support your line.

While expeditions used to take dozens or even hundreds of people, and large business ventures (railroads, Ford, IBM) took thousands, much lighter venturing is possible now. In the mountains and in business, the size of the venture and scale of its impact are delinking. Some may even see an inverse relationship. So choosing the right partners and packing light are important. Lean is the watchword.

So my botton line? Focusing on a clean line helps entrepreneurs think about making both the journey and the destination worthwhile. It can be helpful to use those triple bottom lines to design and train for your clean line, but once you have that line, you may be able to lighten up by tossing out all those bottom lines, and instead focusing on how your venture is going to get to where it needs to go.*** Plain. Simple. And very hard to do.
* Jill does not claim "purpose" as her discovery. Peter Drucker, Jim Collins and Rick Warren have all tread the "purpose" path. And I hear it was the buzzword at the recent Net Impact conference.
**not even original.
*** might I suggest a BHAWG?
P.S. I also like her idea of design constraints, which are often great ways to enhance creative problem solving. Perhaps another blog topic.
P.P.S. I am also bothered by attempts to out "green" others. Adding new lines or new adjectives to the old lines. Blended bottom lines, integrated bottom lines, quadruple bottom lines... is this really helpful? Or are these merely attempts to sell consulting services or yet another book on the topic?


Daniel said...

One friend suggested that triple bottom lines are most important for Star Wars fans. After all, if you are trying to work on all three bottom lines, then the person in charge of this should be a Chief People, Planet, Profits Officer. Or for short: C3PO.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for giving a good opportunity to think about the meaning of the clean line.

If the clean line can be represented by a vector with head and tail, it may get to have a causal relationship. More importantly, the line that is simply described in terms of people, planet and profit would be changed into a touching story. Maybe, all of us would like to hear the touching story, not a business model.

Bopreneur said...

Daniel- Love C3PO! What about R2D2? May the force be with you!

Touchyourdream- Great point. Hope you check out some of my other posts on sticky story telling. But us business geeks need to remember that phrases like "business model" don't resonate with everyone, and it is our job to make sure our ideas are designed to spread. I appreciate the reminder! And to riff off your idea, a line is a connection of points, and so much about the clean line is how you connect those points- be they people, places, partners, pinchpoints, etc...