Sunday, February 27, 2005

Orwell and Business

George Orwell's novel about a totalitarian society, 1984, was published 56 years ago but still resonates with anybody familiar with American business today. Maybe we don't have an omnipotent Big Brother and his Thought Police watching our every move. But one of the dictator's skewed aphorisms sounds familiar: "Ignorance is strength." In the world of 1984, holding a minority opinion, no matter how sensible, is considered insane and subversive. Individualistic thinking is outlawed.

Today groupthink is pervasive in society. For example, an exaggerated public suspicion of business and its leadership is creating an overly regulated American corporate landscape. Isolated misdeeds at places like WorldCom and HealthSouth have spawned this widespread furor. Now, few would argue against punishing wrongdoers. Yet why punish people with good intentions and make them watch their backs all the time when they should be devoting their energy to building great businesses?

Orwellian groupthink is also found within the ranks of business itself, where it restricts risk-taking and imagination. Independent thought as a theory is relatively easy to embrace, but practicing it is another matter. Winston Churchill, an Orwell contemporary and a foe of totalitarianism, once said, "Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it."

The following companies all embrace original thinking. By no coincidence they each have thoughtful, nonexecutive chairmen who are involved in corporate strategy and are the antithesis of rubber stamps. As a result these gems stand out from the competition and are well-positioned for the future.

The latest proof of Steelcase's imagination is its new ergonomic chair, named, appropriately enough, Think. As Steelcase describes this product, Think is the chair with "a brain and a conscience." The chair's seat and back adjust intuitively to a person's movements, and the chair is 99% recyclable, from the fabric to the wheels.

Steelcase Chair - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

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