Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Philosophy the key to good business

Looking for an innovation injection and a business boost? Philosophy can be transformational

In brief

  • Philosophy is a discipline that helps us to make better sense of the world — including business
  • Apply some critical scrutiny to your own beliefs and the values that underpin your business
  • A mission statement is useful guiding slogan, but purpose speaks to the values that underlie it

By Tim Dean

Too often, business leaders dismiss philosophy as a trifling dalliance. But actually it could be the path to overcome all sorts of business problems, both large and small.

I’m going to hazard a guess that you’re at least a tiny bit cynical that philosophy might not have anything to offer your business. Maybe even more than a tiny bit cynical.

But the thing is, you’re already doing philosophy. Every time you think about ideas, what they mean or how they fit together, every time you reflect on your values to help guide decisions, every time you formulate an argument, every time you tackle an ethical dilemma, you’re doing philosophy. The question is: are you doing it well? And could you be doing it better? 

Philosophy isn’t just the musings of long dead white guys. It is a discipline — a set of thinking tools — that helps us to make better sense of the world around us.

Twentieth century British philosopher Bertrand Russell spoke of the power of philosophy to challenge assumptions and to cut through prejudices, habitual beliefs and the unexamined dogma that passes for common sense. To the degree that our decisions are informed by our beliefs and values — or by unexamined common sense — then we might benefit from having a clearer understanding of what those beliefs and values are.

One of the primary applications of philosophical thinking is critical examination of the assumptions we hold about the world. Philosophy encourages us to wonder how things could, or should, be different.

We all normalise the world around us, transforming from the wide-eyed children marvelling at the strangeness of the world to complacent adults who take the way things are for granted. Yet if we allow ourselves to become stuck believing there is only a single way of thinking, or one way of doing things, then we constrain the kinds of decisions we can make, and this can often have detrimental effects on responding to the challenges posed by a dynamic business environment.

Innovation boost

According to John Armstrong, who spent several years as the philosopher-in-residence at the Melbourne Business School, taking assumptions for granted can also stifle innovation.

“When we see step changes in an industry it’s often because someone has come up with a much better insight into what you can offer people and what they might want. We often think of that as a marketing or creative issue, but it’s basically philosophical: what is the good, what is the kind of happiness that we are offering as a business,” he says.

A crucial step in understanding the way we assume the world to be is to clarify our beliefs and values. Often our beliefs and values are buried just under the surface of our actions, directing our behaviour even though we might struggle to say precisely what they are.

Socrates was famous for teasing out the implicit ideas buried in people’s judgements, often surprising them with how fuzzy and inconsistent they were. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend practicing brand of dialectic in the workplace — it’s a great way to make new enemies — there is value in employing some critical scrutiny on your own beliefs and those that underpin your business.

When he was philosopher-in-residence, Armstrong ran a series of events that sought to encourage reflection on hidden beliefs and the fuzzy ideas that inform them.

“The key thing is trying to get clear about our ideas, particularly when those ideas have a kind of inbuilt messiness to them,” he says.

Armstrong recently put this process into practice when he consulted for a design firm that was struggling to understand its values and communicate them effectively to clients. Its existing mission statement was bland and generic, and didn’t represent what truly motivated the business.

“They were really struggling to get big contracts, because they were struggling to explain how their design could grip their client’s imagination.

“Their aim wasn’t to do it on the cheap, but to produce a product that people really wanted. And they were losing out because they couldn’t convey, in a really compelling way, what it was they stood for.

“Despite being architects, they were really unimaginative about what they were offering. They had just never thought about it, so they couldn’t communicate it. They couldn’t work out what it was, about what they loved, that they wanted other people to love, and they became really dumb when they wanted to talk about it. So that meant they couldn’t sell the best of themselves to the big developers they wanted to work with.”

Armstrong used the tools of philosophy to successfully help them uncover the values that really motivated the business and then how best to articulate them to clients.

There is research that shows longer-term profitability is far better inside an ethical organisation rather than a non-ethical organisation.
Philip Wright St James Ethics Centre in Sydney

Higher purpose

According to Philip Wright, who works with the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney, misaligning a mission statement with the ultimate purpose of a business is a common trap.

“Whenever I ask people about purpose they usually come back with a mission statement. But we’re looking for something higher than a mission statement. What is the higher purpose?”

A mission statement might be a useful guiding slogan, but purpose speaks to the values that underlie it.

“The difficulty is if you don’t have a clear sense of purpose, then sometimes your values don’t make a lot of sense, they become disconnected from purpose. One of the things that happens a lot is when people lose sight of the context they’re working in then there’s a potential for error to creep in, or more importantly, ethical blindness.”

Wright finds that a business might often articulate one set of values while their processes exemplify a different set.

“For example, they might have a value of ‘we trust our people to do the right thing’. But then you find they have policies and procedures that imply they don’t trust their people, because they have a thousand processes and policies and procedures detailing every single move they make. So there’s a disconnect between what is espoused and what actually takes place.”

Which brings us to the chestnut of ethics. All businesses are bound by ethics, both at the professional and the personal level. There are many regulations that guide how businesses can operate but there are also deeper values that inform how we make personal decisions within that business. Philosophy can help us understand those values, how to communicate them and how to resolve conflicts when they are arise.

This is particularly important because the business world is rife with tension between ethical behaviour and short-term rewards, and it takes a strong moral compass to steer clear of the ethical shoals and reefs.

“Many years ago there was the notion that business had to have more than just profit as their bottom line — the notions of triple or quadruple bottom lines came up,” says Wright. “But the reality is the system doesn’t really reward that. So when an organisation wants to do something, it’s pulled in other directions by short-term reporting, need for profit, shareholder return.”

Is there a philosopher in the house?

Employing philosophy in your business and conducting it ethically can also boost your bottom line.

“There is research that shows longer-term profitability is far better inside an ethical organisation rather than a non-ethical organisation,” says Wright.

Armstrong agrees that philosophy can yield tangible benefits.

“The ultimate test for any business is whether it can hold its own in a competitive environment and continue to make money,” he says.

“The idea that philosophy could make a difference in every single business is clearly not going to be right. But a great many enterprises are fundamentally about human relationships, quality of information, how well people understand one another, how well they make decisions in complex situations, what are their values, what are their ambitions. These translate into the profitability of a company.”

If you suspect that philosophy might be of help to your business, there are a few ways you can introduce it. If you’re big enough — say, the size of Google — nothing beats having a philosopher-in-residence, says Armstrong.

“In principle that could be great, but it has to be designed carefully if you’re to extract a lot of value from it. In terms of getting the best value, an organisation has got to be willing to give some time to understand its own problems as philosophical, to notice the bits of their problems that they’re really not addressing.”

While clearly an in-house thinker is not for every business, you can also turn to external consultants.

Armstrong is also Philosopher in Chief of the independent School of Life, which is headquartered in London but operates throughout the world. It has a business arm that can put you in touch with philosophers who know how to work particularly with businesses.

The St James Ethics Centre also runs ethi-call, a free hotline in Australia (1800 672 303) that can help you specifically deal with ethical issues.

Finally, you can embrace philosophy yourself and encourage your co-workers to do likewise.

Cultivating questioning, reflection, critical scrutiny and rational discourse can improve ad hoc information flow and create an environment that encourages experimentation, innovation and learning from past experience. If you’re already employing ideas in your business every day, you might as well do it well.

Tim Dean is a philosopher, editor and science writer.

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of Acuity magazine.