In all things which have a plurality of parts, and which are not a total aggregate but a whole of some sort distinct from the parts, there is some cause.
Aristotle, Metaphysics 8.6 [1045a]
A short history of profit in western culture
The concept of profit has been part of western culture, in different forms, since the origins of commerce. It had, at first, a very negative connotation, very close to greed.
Aristotle defined the idea of Pleonexia as the desire of having what rightfully belongs to others. The New Testament “equates pleonexia with idolatry, because it replaces God with self-interest and material interest in things” . Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan defines the Arrogant Men: the ones that desire more than their share.
Something changed in the XVth century with the Lutheran Reform, as noted by Max Weber in his “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Protestant work ethic favored the rational pursuit of economic gain and created a foundation for the “Spirit of Capitalism”. Building on this new work ethic and four centuries later, Milton Friedman laid down a positive, economic view of Profit. Profit is the only responsibility of business, and business must maximize profits and value for shareholders. This approach has been later defined as Shareholder Theory. The problem with this new approach is that, it leads to short term thinking, and it tendentially conflicts with a focus on customer needs.
At the same time, an opposite view of the organization’s world popped up in literature and academic journals. It then created the basis for the Stakeholder Theory, as later condensed in the R. Freeman book “Strategic management: A Stakeholder approach“. The Theory suggests that organizations should create value balancing the interests of internal and external stakeholders, with social, environmental, and financial goals.
Moving a step further in year 2015, 195 countries agreed on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a number of objectives to be pursued by governments, businesses, media, institutions of higher education, and local NGOs to improve the lives of the people in their country by the year 2030.
Now the story comes full circle. Profit is good, but Organizations who wish to survive in the long term, should focus on both internal and external perspectives, understanding that we live on a planet with limited resources. Thus, organizations -and individuals- should also hold themselves accountable for making good use of them. Incidentally, we also reconnect now with the concept of the whole greater than the sum of its parts, already present in Aristotle’s Metaphysics 🙂
Business Agility and Sustainability
So, what’s the connection with Agile and Business Agility?
Business Agility is built on interconnectedness and systemic views and sustainability has been part of the Agile Manifesto from the start.
Agile processes promote sustainable development.
The sponsors, developers, and users should be able
to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
(Agile Manifesto, Principle #8)
Even though the initial focus of the Manifesto was about a sustainable pace of work and respectful interactions between team members, caring for one another as human beings, it’s time now to consider the bigger picture of the costs and benefits of our work on the entire ecosystem. Indeed, we are nowadays well aware that only with a systemic holistic point-of-view we’ll be able to “maintain a constant pace indefinitely.” as required by the Agile Manifesto Principle #8. Thus, a culture of purpose and empowerment and internal and external accountability is foundational for any agile framework and is also perfectly fitting across the 17 SDG goals.
Thus, in my view, fully embracing agility at any level, means being aware and respectful of the position of individuals and organizations in the eco-system. How can you practically act in that direction? Agile Organizations will set for themselves sustainable goals and processes, in order to deliver outcomes characterized by clean energy, reusable materials and components, reduced waste and resource consumptions. Teams will strive for work-life balance, inclusion, good health and well-being. Individuals and teams can act changing their behaviors towards sustainable consumption.
The 17 SDG’s and the related 2030 agenda are a good starting point both for individuals, teams, businesses and organizations. You can learn more and take actions starting from the UN Sustainable Development website.