The importance of ambitious compromise

OPINION: The business and politics of division won't ultimately triumph. Instead, a new era of purpose awaits.

by Ben Brabyn
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2018

‘I don’t want judges. I want border patrol.’ ‘No deal is better than a bad deal.’ ‘Expulsion is needed’. Quotes from political actors in the US, UK and Italy in the last 12 months show the direction of travel for public rhetoric. 

Political discourse has veered towards populism, polarisation and polemic. Amidst social and economic division, the vocabulary of public leaders now speaks to the constituencies to which they are most beholden. From Brexit to Italy’s immigration policies, Trump’s protectionst tariffs and withdrawal from international agreements, we have seen the result is success at the cost of consensus and the entrenchment of deep divisions.

However, I believe that the frontrunners in the race to become 52%ers are set to be overtaken by those pursuing the 90%. In business, as in politics, we are about to see a dramatic pivot towards inclusion and owning the middle ground. 

Just look at the millions of viewers of England’s thrilling World Cup campaign. Human instinct is social and after years of division, we are desperate for things that bring us together and unite us, whether that is in the world of politics, business or sport. 

Facebook’s journey over the past 12 months is testament to this pendulum swing from populism to pluralism. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a reminder that Silicon Valley’s most successful company was contradicting its company values through aggressive data mining in the pursuit of profit. 

Now, it has overhauled its privacy and advertising policies and launched a new international advertising campaign with the strapline ‘Hello Everyone.’ The company is trying it seems to move away from echo chambers, fake news and political interference.

Facebook is far from the only scandal inspiring a long hard look at our values, principles and methods. As the heroes of previous eras – government leaders, tech giants, banking chiefs – start to fall it’s never been more apparent that a new approach is required. 

The age of purpose

Earlier in the year, Larry Fink, the CEO of one of the world’s largest investors, BlackRock, wrote in the New York Times that ‘every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.’ 

Whether it is the rise of financial inclusion products, companies revising their environmental and sustainability policies to join the B Corp movement or corporates publishing their gender employment ratios, social impact is at the heart of a new generation of businesses. 

What we are seeing is a balancing act between profit and purpose. I would define this as ambitious compromise, and it is designed to appeal to the 90% of the population.

The cynical will claim this is just about PR and CSR. But it doesn’t require an MBA to realise that there is a much bigger audience out there to target, or the possibility to recruit from a talent pool, of 90% plus, rather than a market of 52%. 

This is about the combination of what is right and what makes sense. As Larry Fink says, this is about realising that in the new world order, we are all public servants. 

I predict that the business success stories of the future will be those who marry ambition with compromise, and the future of the UK.

Britain is in a period of sustained negotiation in which ambition and compromise must be delicately balanced throughout. Theresa May has already spoken of a ‘bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ but the success of Brexit depends on the government’s ability to portray compromise as something other than failure.

This presents an opportunity. Whilst we battle with huge division and conflict – whether that’s between Britain and the EU, the values of different generations, climate and commerce or online privacy and cyber-attacks – the great leaders of the next 50 years will be the people who help secure ambitious compromise.

The UK has been a champion of individual rights from Magna Carta in 1215 to the present day, and as societies around the world wrestle with the ethical dilemmas presented by technological advance, we have an opportunity to establish a new shared vision of our public duties and private rights. To provide a beacon - and a standard - to those who love liberty and self-determination while supporting collaboration and convergence for public good.

Technology can prove the concept of ambitious compromise. The culture in Silicon Valley is slowly changing, and the products and services created by our fast-growth tech startups can showcase the best of British innovation – globally relevant, finding answers to social challenges and generating significant revenue. There is every chance the next generation of tech entrepreneurs will answer some of the biggest challenges facing society rather than focusing how to get a taxi a few minutes faster or receive a takeaway a few minutes earlier. And my bet is they will dwarf the financial success of their predecessors in the process.

Rarely have British politicians and business leaders faced problems that were as urgent or as similar. The country’s future position in the global community as a political power and hub of digital excellence may well both depend on their ability to take down walls rather than build them and give back control to others. I urge them all to remember that compromise must no longer be seen as a dirty word.

Ben Brabyn is head of tech hub Level 39.

Image credit: Hafiez Razali/Shutterstock

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