The Poetry of Business


Some years ago, I wrote a satirical but unpublished novel called Watershed about a recently privatised, fictional water utility called Devalish Water (riveting subject?) that was ‘awash’ with cash and run by well meaning former civil servants who didn’t have a clue about how to manage a profit making business. The Chairman, a huge, fat man, lived for his long lunches. They all thought they were terribly clever and sophisticated until they were taken over by a German conglomerate who tore the business to pieces and made half the employees redundant – including all the old retainers. Unable to recover from the shock, the Chairman expired at his desk.

There is an inexorable logic about making money, a relentless determinism that cannot be ignored.

Wrapped around the logic are the people, many of whom don’t realise it even exists and who are just trying to get by. They don’t understand the decisions that affect their lives.

There is no room for altruism or kindness or sympathy unless it furthers the aim of making money.

If it generates more sales then be altruistic, kind and sympathetic – maybe by burnishing the company’s image – because a return can then be calculated on the investment. Any emotional fulfillment as a result is incidental and not a reason for doing it.

Fairness – humanity itself – is dictated by regulation and the law. These are the checks and balances and, so long as they are effective, a kind of acceptable equilibrium is maintained for at least cursory observers.

To pursue a noble path that endangers making money will test the patience of shareholders very quickly and the CEO will be removed or the business will be bought by another company that will set it back on the right path. Any act that deviates from this logic is only tolerated if it is too insignificant to be material.

This does not mean that a clever interpretation of the logic cannot be elegant, even beautiful. The greatest products and services are created by needing to please more buyers than your competitors so their design draws on human needs, both emotional and practical. But they are, nevertheless, servants to the logic and nothing more.

So, emotion contained in a kind of vacuum is an essential element. It uses our appreciation of excellence to generate greater profits.

Arguably, then, everyone wins?

Coincidentally, yes, but the moment profits begin to fall, the logic reasserts itself and sweeps away the veneer of emotional satisfaction before asking it, again, to come up with a better product or service.

In this way, are our pensions paid for, our livelihoods afforded and government is funded.

The water utility was a wonderful company to work for, but it could not last, it could not be sustained.

When I worked in business, I was always looking for the poetic. I found it, sometimes, in strategy, making all the moving parts work together cohesively. I enjoyed that (but not much else) and it found favour so long as it was concomitant with business success.

But I never once used the word ‘poetic’ in any presentation.

I don’t work in business any more, but I might write about it again, whether satire, humour or tragedy, they are all there, but usually unnoticed and almost never described as such. Oh, and delusion. There’s an awful lot of that.