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?