The Seven-Generation Perspective

Foundation_HeadingI had the good fortune recently to hear the Chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe speak to the local Chamber of Commerce.  The tribe is big business in our area with a recently-enlarged casino east of town, a golf course and activities center on the west end, a medical center directly in town, and more.  In addition, they have an expansion of the activities center in the works as well as plans for a resort to go with the casino.  The Chairman is a passionate man.  He is passionate about the tribe and their welfare.  He is passionate about the community.  He is passionate about education.  He is passionate about the environment.  And he is passionate about the future.

What resonated most for me was his passion for the financial foundation the tribe has laid over the past twenty years.  They have managed to do this extremely well, making them much less dependent on Federal funding.  This was particularly fortuitous during the recent government shutdown.  The goal continues to be to make the tribe self-sufficient, but not at any cost.  All decisions and everything they do must be from a seven-generation perspective.

This concept is profound.  Instead of focusing on short-term profits, the tribal leaders are concerned with both the welfare and the perspective of their descendants.  Will our descendants be able to look back and thank us for a job well done or will they curse us for a horrible legacy resulting from our greed and arrogance?  It is a concept that goes against corporate practice.  Many companies have long-term business plans, some as long as five years.  But the focus is usually quarterly performance.  There seems to be no place for a seven-generation perspective.

On the one hand, this is perhaps understandable.  Most companies are more about profits and shareholder equity than families and descendants. Unquestionably that was a provocative statement, but allow me to defer qualification for a bit.  I will return to it later in this article.  Nevertheless, the statement also bears a certain truth.  Decisions are made routinely on the basis of profitability as opposed to people, on the basis of financial value as opposed to human values. Downsizing is just one prevalent example.  It is good business.  Well, maybe.

Given the fact that companies come and go, perhaps a long-term perspective isn’t useful.  Think of all the big companies of the twentieth Century that are no longer with us for reasons of merger, acquisition, or simple failure to remain relevant.  These would include DEC, Studebaker, Gimbals, Arthur Anderson, Pan Am, Woolworth, American Motors Corporation, Standard Oil, Enron, and Bethlehem Steel. How would a seven-generation perspective have helped any of these?

I think the answer is in the nature of the questions that the seven-generation perspective forces one to ask.  These are questions that drive right to the foundation of value and values.

  • How does this decision increase value for my customers and employees?
  • What does “value” mean?
  • Does this decision make the world a better place or a worse place?  How?
  • What are the possible implications of this decision a year from now?  A decade from now?
  • What are the economic and human implications if this company were to fail because of this decision?
  • What would my descendants think of this decision?  How could it affect them?

I am by no means an expert on corporate failures, but certainly two of the now defunct companies listed above might still exist if questions like these had been asked routinely. The concept is by no means fool proof because we as human beings cannot guess the future.  But we can use due diligence and judgment in making decisions that satisfy the seven-generation questions.  Using core values to steer our actions provides the best possible defense against an uncertain future.  Could it have saved Studebaker or Bethlehem Steel?  I don’t know, but how about Arthur Anderson and Enron?

The most compelling argument in favor of the seven-generation perspective is that a successful businessman advocated it.  The chairman is the CEO of the entire operation.  He is university-educated and a member of countless business and advocacy organizations.  All of the tribe’s business concerns are thriving and employ hundreds of local people, which benefits not only the tribe but also the community at large as well.  Clearly there must be something in it.

It is also clear that this is not just a leadership philosophy.  It is too well grounded for that.  It is a life philosophy that permeates the organization.  It exhorts that everyone think long-term even when acting short-term. This means that everything we do is, in some form or another, foundational.  Everything we do, every act we take, and every decision we make has the potential to ripple effects into the future. Indeed, some of these effects could easily ripple into the seventh generation.

I was discussing this idea with a colleague whose initial reaction was that thinking about our business decisions in the light of consequences two hundred years from now is unrealistic.  And yet one simple example comes immediately to mind.  Right here in Sequim, we are experiencing an increase in instances of Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning in our local shellfish.  This is caused by naturally occurring bacteria in the algae upon which the shellfish feed.  But two external factors are causing huge increases in the amount of algae, and thus the bacteria.  One is the increase of agriculture in the area, resulting in the runoff of fertilizers and other nutrients that feed the algae.  The other is the gradual increase in the water temperature that is a consequence of global warming.  Both of these factors are the results of decisions and actions that go back more than a hundred years.  Some are local and some are global.  And while the case can be made that knowledge of these consequences was not possible a century ago, it is today.  I argue that thinking about the consequences of our decisions with a long-term point of view is both realistic and beneficial.  In the case of the shellfish, the negative impact is to health, the economy of the area, and the environment.

But what about the dynamic new businesses that must pivot their game plan every few months in order to remain relevant and ahead of the curve? I think the answer still lies in the concept of foundation.  If every decision is considered in terms of enhancing a foundation that is robust, extensible, and flexible then an enterprise should be able to remain nimble and vibrant.  As in all things, though, it is no guarantee.  From a technology standpoint, we have no idea what the look of computing, data, and analytics will be in five years let alone two hundred.  As my shuttle driver Pete said on a recent trip, “Life is messy.”

So what value is there in adopting a seven-generation viewpoint?  What is the practical application?

  • Foundation:  Foundational thinking delivers solutions that are built to last.  Foundational thinking is interested in something that contributes to lasting value in some form or another.  Even if the enterprise should fail, if the effort contributed materially to an industry, community, or body of knowledge then something foundational has been delivered.
  • Integrity:  The questions raised by a seven-generation perspective enforce integrity in our thinking and actions.  They force us to examine material and human consequences outside our immediate sphere of interest, and to take responsibility for decisions and actions.
  • Value:  The seven-generation perspective asks us to examine our notions of value and values.  What is the nature of value itself, and how do our values affect the value we deliver to our customers, our colleagues, our families, and our communities?  This perspective exhorts us to view value as a continuum that we each have the power to increase or decrease.
  • Legacy:  Why ever should I care about what the seventh generation might think of me two hundred years from now?  As a genealogist my perspective is naturally biased, because I care deeply how my ancestors paved the way for me and I see an obligation to continue their effort.  As a citizen of the United States, I am grateful for many of the decisions and actions of countless fellow citizens who came before me.  The seven-generation perspective only serves to prove this viewpoint.

I took a pretty broad swipe at companies and profit earlier in this article. I recognize that there are companies that do put their employees, their customers, and their communities high on the agenda. Many companies today are expanding the range of benefits and services available to employees and their families.  This is an enlightened viewpoint and while it is tied directly to the retention of top flight, experienced, and well-trained employees, it demonstrates a longer-term perspective. Many other companies contribute generously and materially to their communities and the world. But imagine the value that could be accumulated if these actions could be adjusted to a seven-generation perspective?

For me, the concept of the seven-generation perspective has coalesced several key personal threads or themes that have been a part of me most of my life.  It connects with my innate antipathy – bordering on disgust – for leaving a mess behind for someone else to clean up be it at home, in a hotel room, or a public landfill. As mentioned, the genealogist in me bonds as much to my unknown descendants as it does to my great great grandfather Samuel Ayers Annin (to name but one) who serves as a role model not unlike the Jamestown S’Klallam Chairman.  Perhaps this perspective explains why I eschew consumerism and prefer to buy (or make) things that endure.  The perspective ties to the values that I hope I have given my children.  Lastly, it aligns with a seminal piece of wisdom, and one of the better ones actually, that I took away with me from my years in Scouting.  “Leave the campground better than you found it.”  That’s foundational.

Do you think the seven-generation perspective can transform business?  How do you see the past and its effect on us today?

8 thoughts on “The Seven-Generation Perspective

  1. Kevin Lommen says:

    Good article, Steve. The concept might work for business but it is, in my opinion, a really good fit for government. Please send a copy of this to Washington, DC. They could really use a seven generation perspective. If they had put something like this into practice our national debt wouldn’t be what it is. I apologize to my children for piling on a massive debt with not much to show. Thanks for writing.

    • bimuse says:

      Thank you, Kevin. I try to be an optimist about most things. I think that some local governments can use this perspective but my perspective on the Federal government is at best cynical.

  2. Ruth Fisher says:

    The basic problem you’re considering in this column is worker self-interest and the principal-agent problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principal-agent). The vast majority of people don’t care about the big picture; rather, they only care about what’s in it for them. In this case, the trick is to establish the right incentives (e.g., compensation package) to encourage workers to do what’s in the interest of the firm. But even then, who designs the incentive packages? Is it the people who care about the long-term interests of the firm (e.g., stockholders) or is it people who care about maximizing their own compensation (e.g., CEO)?

    Self-interest makes the world go round.

    • bimuse says:

      The questions you pose, Ruth, are as excellent as they are complex. For me, the understanding of the term “self-interest” has evolved significantly over the past thirty-five years. It has its antecedents in and is still very much grounded in Ayn Rand’s objectivist definition of rational self-interest. By the same token, it must now also take into account the dynamics of human interaction in a community or society. For instance, it might be in my short term interest to pay for a survey and erect a fence between my property and my neighbor’s, understanding that that boundary is not the only point on which we disagree. But now I have established a foundation of animosity and enmity that could be very costly over the next several decades. Is it not more in my self-interest to build a bridge based on transparent dialog and shared values that can lead to the resolution of the boundary dispute for lower cost and long-term good will?

      For me, self-interest goes far beyond my immediate desires and needs. It is interlaced with the desires and needs of my family and my community. It was when I began to contemplate those dependencies that I came to realize the inner nature of self-interest. Even in business, it is a two-way street. When my employer prospers, I prosper. When I and my co-workers and my customers prosper, my employer prospers. I think that the coin of that realm is more than merely compensation or benefits. The solution is more in the inherent culture of the organization than in something a clever H.R. executive could invent.

      I would challenge the assertion that the vast majority of people do not care about the big picture. There are days that it seems that way, sometimes, but maybe I’m an optimist. I do believe that many people have been discouraged for one reason or another from considering the big picture. Perhaps that is also a cultural consideration.

      Thanks, Ruth. This is a great addition to the conversation.

  3. Christopher says:

    Honestly, I think it’s a little weird that, at the very least, blue-chip corporations – as a matter of company strategy/policy/culture – *don’t* take a longer view than they do. Once you establish something like a Kraft or a Heinz or a Disney, something that’s stable, that’s big enough to live through lean years, and that provides a service which has obvious relevance to humans into the foreseeable future, you’ve created a system that has the real, probable potential to outlive the involvement of any of its current principals. At that point, seven-generation thinking becomes directly relevant, even from the perspective of the corporation (rather than “merely” its constituent human beings and the society in which it moves).

    And yet, it doesn’t happen. There’s niche work that’s nonetheless critical to a company’s success, and yet they don’t get on training the next generation of people who’ll be doing that work until the current generation is about to retire. Going back to the Bethlehem Steel example (a company that lasted for nearly seven generations itself), it was harried, not only by the manufacturing problem (which perhaps couldn’t have been helped by a long view), but also by unsustainable pensions and an unwillingness to adopt new technologies (which absolutely could have).

    Then again, perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing. If the board of a corporation intends to pass their stock down to the seventh generation, all of this matters. If they’re there to get in, make a buck, and get out, then even if the corporation will survive a century or two, it’s not like the corporation has feelings of its own on the matter. Which, of course, brings it back to the question of the priorities of the humans involved.

    • bimuse says:

      Thank you, Christopher, for your well-considered thoughts. I do not think you are anthropomorphizing at all. Corporations are founded, managed, and staffed by people. These same corporations have customers (people) and exist in communities and societies (people again). And the one thing most people have in common is that fact that they have values. These values might differ radically from person to person, but they are powerful motivators. Which is not to say that making a buck is a bad thing either. It’s just that values may force us to ask questions about how and at who’s expense. Many of the companies I have worked for over the years — either as employee or as consultant — do ask these questions to some extent. What is beautiful about my example in the essay is that the tribe has tuned in to a profound level of questioning.

      I agree that having once established a company with the potential to last seven generations or longer, it seems obvious to have that possibility in mind for the short-term decisions. And nice perspective on Bethlehem Steel.

  4. Naidu says:

    Steve,

    Very well written blog so far, my friend Thank you. Think global – act local, think long-term – act in short-term without violating the long-term thinking are the basic tenets that keep us on responsible and sustainable paths. As you correctly referred to rational-self interest is objective not subjective. Thoughts, concepts, words and actions when not initiated or based on “appropriate” premises the results cannot be expected to sustain – whether for one or seven generations. I love to mention here the book of noted American economist Henry Hazlitt – “Economics in One Lesson”. The entire book propounds the consequences of short term versus local and immediate context versus big picture perspective in the realm of economics making his work time immemorial.

    I enjoy your blogs, please keep them coming!

    – Naidu.

    • bimuse says:

      Thank you for the kind thoughts, Naidu. I agree that rational self-interest must be objective. In other words, it must consider all of the dependencies and inter-dependencies. So often, though, self-interest is treated as if it were (or even could be) something subjective. I look forward to perusing Hazlitt.

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