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"Profit". When you hear that word, is your gut reaction "Yeah!" or "Yuck!"? Or, like me, do you have both reactions simultaneously?

For "Yuck!" people, the word "profit" brings up negative feelings along with images of heartless "big business" executives aggressively enriching themselves without giving a hoot about the consequences of their activities for other people. This attitude views profit as mostly a win-lose proposition.

For "Yeah!" people, the word "profit" brings up positive feelings along with images of smart, disciplined businesspeople reaping well-deserved rewards for being creatively and efficiently responsive to what other people (customers) want. This attitude views profit as mostly a win-win proposition.

Many of us have been conditioned pretty strongly with one attitude or the other. The professional, political, and personal communities we choose often reinforce our conditioning. It is challenging for us to engage productively with people with the opposite attitude. Too often, we don't even try.

To effectively create and promote resilience tech (tech that helps users boost their psychological and biological ability to bounce back from adversity), I think we need to get past the win-lose thinking associated with the "Yuck!" attitude, and cultivate win-win thinking at a deeper level than is usually associated with the "Yeah!" attitude. This requires that we integrate wisdom from both attitudes.

The "Yeah!" attitude wisely points out that, to maximize our positive impact, we need:

  • Outward Focus: Seeking profit forces us to be responsive to the people we want to help, since our profits depend on how they respond to what we do. Yeah!
  • Quantitative Focus: Numerical measures of success really matter, and seeking profit forces us to take them seriously. Yeah!
  • Self-Funding Products: Successful profitable products fund themselves as their impact scales up. Yeah!

The "Yuck!" attitude wisely points out that, to maximize our positive impact, we cannot allow our desire for profit to lead to:

  • Narrow Focus: Seeking profit can narrow our focus to helping people who are able and willing to pay, or who are desirable advertising targets. Yuck!
  • Superficial Focus: Seeking profit can lead us to cater mainly to superficial desires that make people open their wallets, while neglecting their deeper needs. Yuck!
  • Short-Term Focus: Seeking profit focuses us on short-term concerns, often to the exclusion of important long-term considerations. Yuck!

By integrating these points we can cultivate a wiser relationship to profit, opening up a deeper win-win basis for creating and promoting resilience technology.

How? When the topic of profit comes up, notice how your own attitude arises as feelings, words, and images. Appreciate the wisdom it contains, then gently remind yourself of the wisdom reflected in the opposite attitude.

If you tend toward the "Yuck!" reaction, remind yourself that the real source of that "Yuck!" feeling is not profit itself, but the narrow, superficial, and short term focus often associated with it. Seeking profit can actually result in helping more people more effectively than well-meaning nonprofit efforts that are not forced to focus outward, take numbers seriously, and make their products fund themselves.

If you tend toward the "Yeah!" reaction, remind yourself that short term financial profit is just part of what you can win in business. By focusing also on broader, deeper, and longer term objectives and measures of success, you can achieve the short term profit you need along with a whole host of additional "winnings," such as a resilient brand, grateful and loyal customers, and deeper personal satisfaction.

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  • Jill:  Interesting point that the wish to limit others' access to and use of one's inventions could be motivated by the desire to prevent harm, not just the desire for profit.  I wonder whether laws about trade secrets, intellectual property, etc, require that the motive for protecting these assets be profit, or if it doesn't matter what the motive is?  Perhaps both benefit corporations and nonprofit organizations could choose to use their legal ownership rights strategically to minimize harmful uses of their innovations?

    An important caveat of course is that these legal protections have time limits which are designed around profit motives - e.g. to allow pharmaceutical companies to profit sufficiently from drugs they invent before generic versions are allowed.  However, an inventor who wishes to ensure that their invention does no harm could at least use this time period to encourage society to debate and reflect on how to maximize benefits and minimize harm after the inventor's legal protections expire?

  • I was thinking about this topic the other day. And I did a thought experiment about what if a very powerful technology with unknown potential was discovered today. I used nuclear fission as my example.

    Scenario 1: fission is discovered in the non-profit sector. This is what happened. It was discovered by scientists in academia without any thought to its potential application. And, as we know, is used freely for weapons of mass destruction and energy. The weapon application to many of the scientists involved in the discovery was personally devastating. They would have preferred their invention did not result in harm.

    Scenario 2: traditional share holding corporation. I believe, in this scenario, if a wildly profitable defense contract came along to a corporation that had nuclear fission technology, it could not be turned down for risk of being sued by shareholders.

    Scenario 3: share holding benefit corporation with a mission statement to do no harm. In this scenario, they could turn down defense contracts as a violation of their mission statement without being sued. And the technology could be hidden as a trade secret. The company could attract investments to hire scientists and stay at the front of innovation and in this way actually protect the creation of any harmful technologies from the invention.

    In this thought experiment and this scenario, it could be argued that a for-profit model for ownership of the innovation could do more good than non-profit model!

    Is this too good to be true? Am I missing anything?

  • I just tweeted about an interesting and closely related HBR article: Tri-sector leaders integrate conflicting perspectives of for-profit, non-profit, and gov sectors @HarvardBiz

  • Thanks Janxin and Jill for your comments. I think benefit corporations and flexible purpose corporations are great steps toward integrating the best of the “Yeah!” and “Yuck!” attitudes to profit. Colorado, where I live, is one of the latest states to pass legislation making benefit corporations possible. I agree that managing and distributing risk are key challenges. One of the reasons it's so important to integrate our conflicting attitudes about profit is that we need a lot more people who both (a) are talented and uninhibited at making profits and (b) care deeply about truly benefiting others. That will create a bigger pool of people with the ability and inclination to take on manageable slices of the risks involved in potentially high-impact resilience tech projects.

  • Hi Michael,

    Great thread.

    I think the tricky bit is the scaling part. Often there is a huge amount of risk early stage and a lot of iterating to find a market that responds. And some projects are just big by design. What if the ideas are sound but the innovator run out of steam before they hit the organic growth phase?

    I think there is still a need to distribute risk and find outside funding that is consistent with the 'yeah!'. Perhaps these new corporate types that modify the corporate charter can help:

    It will be interesting to see how early stage funding goes for these companies!

  • What a great reminder to not live in binaries, Michael!  For me, coming from an academic background, I admit I lean towards the Yuck attitude.  I'm smiling to myself as I read your blog to remind myself that I am thinking too narrowly.  And that what I don't like about for-profit entities is not profit, but rather the superficial and short-term focus that are sometimes associated with profit.

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