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A New Strategy for Business Success in the 21st Century

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A small Atlanta design firm is attempting to redefine success for corporate America.

Unboundary, which lists companies such as FedEx, Coca-Cola, AT& T, IBM, HP and Charles Schwab as clients, believes the way to change the world is to re-think and broaden business strategy.

The Power of Purpose

In the 20th century, business success was often defined in terms of profit and growth. Ironically, such a limited definition in the 21st century can constrain potential profit and growth and worse yet, endanger a company's ability to stay in business.

Unboundary -- which often works with companies in the midst of change -- believes that society expects more of business today, that firms with true loyalty and support are those who pursue purpose as well as profit.

Unboundary says this new world demands a new business standard for success. They call it significance. By that unboundary means significant to society as a whole. In other words, companies must consider creating and maintaining a meaningful relationship with everyone effected by the company's operations, not just shareholders.

"We've seen the power of companies when they pursue a well understood purpose. Our aim is to use our talents for the greatest good, on behalf of our clients and everyone whose interests and lives they touch. "

- From the unboundary website

If the quote above sounds to you remarkably similar to something you might hear from civil society, then you have picked up on a key point. Unboundary's new focus on significance rejects last century's for-profit/non-profit dichotomy. It suggests that good business in the 21st century will be business that is good for humanity.

Constant, Conscious Evolution

Tod Martin is the CEO of unboundary. He's led the company for 12 of its 24 years, always with the aim of pushing the edge of design, strategy and communications.

Martin says unboundary chose to stay small and resist being put in a niche.

Somewhere along the way, probably in 1997 or '98 , we were this mustard seed-sized company [16 people] which had had a pretty amazing impact -- on the turnaround at IBM, helping [ Roberto] Goizuetta quadruple the market value of Coca-Cola -- so some fairly significant things. And lots of people were attracted to our work, so opportunity was ripe and yet we were trying to figure out... what is it that we've created and how do we make sure we don't lose it. And I think it was a great moment of reflection, conscious introspection, but also a recognition that it wasn't about trying to stay what we were. It was about trying to know what was valuable about what we were and how would we evolve with that... And that's an important part of the operational story internally here -- that we can and should constantly, consciously evolve.

The Path to Purpose & SignificanceMartin gave me an insight into how unboundary found its current business approach. Here are some of the key points:

  • Where Businesses Get Stuck -- Umair Haque, who blogs on the Harvard Business Magazine, wrote: "Most companies have only ever conceived of themselves as being in business." This may sound self-evident, but Martin says it's very important.

    "They've never really thought of themselves as citizens. They have citizenship programs, and corporate social responsibility and philanthropy but ... most companies never deliver on what really counts -- making people, communities and societies tangibly better off. This is where businesses get stuck ."

  • Declaration of Purpose -- "There is a need... to be declarative about what it is you're trying to create -- a sense of purpose," says Martin:

    "There is probably no greater example than the Constitution of the United States of America which is actually a document created out of a certain bit of anarchy. The Constitutional Congress was actually an illegal meeting, done in a backroom. Ratification was a fairly crazy part of the life of the country where you had Federalist against anti-Federalist ... This whole sense is that purpose doesn't necessarily come about in a completely orderly fashion, that someone has to ... push for something more and defend why it might be good."

  • The Great Re-Think --

    "We believe there is a great re-think going on in the world, that people are questioning lots of things and that the questioning is driven by technology... People once thought [they had] isolated or individual opinions. They're now discovering that actually lots of people think like them and it's driving a conversation about capitalism, education, health care, transportation, energy, right down the line. And in that context, there are a lot of companies who are beginning to say we have a conventional way of doing things, but we either see that things are changing or we believe that there's a better way of doing it."

"Spear Through the Chest Epiphany" -- The InterfaceFlor ExampleMartin tells the story of an unboundary client, InterfaceFlor, the world's largest manufacturer of carpet tile, to illustrate how purpose can transform a company. In this case, the epiphany of a CEO turned InterfaceFlor into a leading green manufacturer. What does that mean? Well, InterfaceFlor has promised to ensure its operations have no negative impact on the environment by 2020.

"A group of InterfaceFlor's sales people were starting to get asked about their policy on the environment. This was back in the late 80s. And they set up a meeting with CEO Ray Anderson where they wanted him to tell them, a group of sales people, what Interface's position was on the environment. And he's thinking, I don't know what to say except compliant. Compliant with whatever the government tells us we need to be... Somebody leaves on his desk a copy of Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce. He reads it through the weekend and describes it as this spear through the chest epiphany. He realizes that what Hawkins is talking about is a company like his, a take-make-waste, entirely petroleum-based business. And literally in that weekend, he comes to [the realization] ... that I'm robbing from my grandchildren. Comes in on Monday and everybody's a little floored [no pun intended] at what he starts saying ... which is that InterfaceFlor is going to become the first sustainable manufacturing company in the world... What he started doing then was sharing the epiphany with everybody." -- Tod Martin

TedxAtlanta

Tod Martin loves evolutionary ideas and the sharing of those ideas. So when Chris Anderson announced the Tedx concept in 2009, Martin jumped at the chance to create it in Atlanta, becoming the first city in the Southeast to do so.

He says he did it for three reasons:

  • To enable his staff to enjoy TED's stimulating experience of ideas and people.
  • To create "one of the most unique audiences in Atlanta," a "cross-pollination" of business leaders and local creative folks.
  • To give back to his community. "I worry about whether our thinking is agile, modern, forward-thinking enough ," Martin says. He wants to provide the stimulus to consider new ideas, solutions and innovations so Atlanta can be a "great, brilliant, wonderful, sustainable place to live."
Martin says the latest one, focused on creativity and featuring singer/songwriter India Arie and others on March 16, was an "amazing success." Not surprisingly, Martin talks about the event as a true believer, with conviction and passion. Oh, and with purpose, too.