What Will Save Us?

Any time I have a chance to share my story to a good listener, I get to reinterpret the narrative thread that ties it all together. The story I would have told you of, say my Apple work experiences at age 25 would be different than the stories I will pull out now after nearly 20 more years of life and career experience. As any of us get more experiences, we understand our past differently, and more stories to draw on. Certainly, the meaning we draw (and share) from those stories changes.

A few weeks back, I heard myself tell the narrative of why I believe collaboration is so central to our organizations, our economies and ultimately our country. I already shared the video of the talk, as it was done for TEDxNewEngland. Below, I share the essay of the same idea — which I published over at HBR a few weeks back but am only now posting on my own site.

(As I write that last sentence, I have the song, “Breaking up is Hard to do” tune going through my mind but the words are changed to…”Catching up is Hard to Dooo”.)

Let me know what you think…


One of my first memories of America was at a grocery store. At the age of four and a half, I arrived in Palo Alto, California, from India, with my mother and two siblings. I held onto my mother’s sari as we walked from aisle to aisle. I was amazed by everything I saw — the bushels and baskets of fresh fruit all beautifully displayed, the rows of colorful tissue paper, an entire aisle of paper products. I had never seen anything like it. But it was the jams and jellies that really got me. I noted the wondrous variety of jars packaged with checkerboard paper and ribbons around the neck, and I thought to myself: America is bountiful.

 My immigrant mother was able to come to the United States to get an education at a community college and to work hard to support her three children by herself. She was able to build a new life that included one of her children serving in the American armed forces and all of them contributing in meaningful ways. America was abundance: a place that welcomed fatherless children, a place that gave equal opportunity to learn at a reasonable expense, a place that allowed anyone to contribute regardless of their family lineage.

But several years later, when I was in middle school in 1979, I had an experience of America that was almost the opposite. On the same school bus with me were some older kids whose high school was just around the corner from my school. One day, they took me aside, out of sight behind some bushes, before I boarded the bus. I had no idea what was to come.

Every evening for several months, we had all watched powerful scenes of the Iran hostage situation of 1979, in which students and militants took over the American embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian revolution. Fifty-two Americans were held against their will for 444 days.

These high school kids must have thought I was Iranian, which I am not, or that I sided against America, when in reality I cried the same tears over the hostage crisis as every other American did. But these kids only saw the differences between us — the brown skin and foreignness — not the things we agreed on. These kids assumed something about me that day: “If you are not like us, then you must be against us.”

They beat me up — enough to shake me and leave me with some cuts and bruises, but nothing was broken. Later, I told my family I’d fallen down, explaining the situation away.

These two childhood stories reflect my two views of America — we are a land of abundance, but more divided than necessary. I see the divisive “if you are not like us, you must be against us” framework prevalent in both politics and culture, and I suspect you do, too. It is in the split between red vs. blue states, or the notion that 47% of Americans are freeloaders, or the idea that we must tax “the rich” and care for “the poor.” All these ideas embody “us vs. them” thinking, which is quite prevalent, albeit more subtle, in business:

    • There are those that decide strategy, and those that execute the strategy. This is the way to get things done.
    • The company’s job is to define the product, and the buyers’ is to consume it.
    • Organizations must map out discrete activities within the firm to understand how value is created.

These common examples all embody the us/them architecture–but the divisive framework is so embedded in modern business models that it’s difficult to discern. I’ll address these three misguided ideas in order:

    • Those that buy into the deciders/doers divide suggest that some people simply know more than others, thus should tell the others what to do. While this might work for some business models, it defies logic in an era in which information is easily shared and people are highly educated and eager to engage in decision-making. For example, Google reveals its topline direction to everyone in the company and asks that all employees figure out how their work fits into the company’s strategy.
    • The idea of a company creating and buyers consuming is dated. More and more companies embrace consumers as “co-creation” partners in their innovation efforts, instead of as buyers at the end of a value chain. Consumers, traditionally considered value exchangers or extractors, are now seen as a source of value creation and competitive advantage. For example, IBM’s co-created product lines account for approximately 20% of its revenue and many of its innovations.
    • Some organizations continue to divide up discrete activities to understand how value is created, but breaking down those barriers can allow for new solutions to old problems. In the healthcare industry, doctors used to be responsible for value-creation and patients were the recipients of that care — but today, blurring those discrete activities and roles is reinventing the industry. For example, the website PatientsLikeMe.com united patients to share information, which created collaboration on a global scale. New treatments — and, more importantly, change — became possible. Ultimately this kind of collaboration leads to a greater purpose: speeding up the pace of research and mending a broken health-care system.

These stories are indicative examples — on the future edge — of ways in which business models are shifting from us/them architecture to a new way of operating, a more inclusive way of allowing anyone, quite possibly everyone, to contribute. That’s because, in the Social Era, connected individuals can now do what once only centralized organizations could. By tapping into people’s abilities and desires to share, organizations discover many ways of creating new solutions. These organizations have realized that, while us/them architecture allows for neat and tidy ideology, the framework ultimately divides rather than unites, slows rather than speeds, and decreases rather than increases value.

These early leaders show us a path forward in reframing assumptions. IBM, Google, and PatientsLikeMe show us that the world is made better by one subtle shift. Instead of “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” they’ve shifted to “If you’re not against us, you’re with us.” And this oh-so-subtle shift is tectonic in nature, moving us from discrete and divisive positions to more purposeful shared goals. It’s a shift from keeping people out to letting people in. It’s inclusive when it used to be exclusive. It’s getting things done rather than being adversarial. In business jargon, it’s a move from competitiveness to co-opetition.

As in my jams and jellies story, I think of America as being more abundant than not. So are our organizations. So are many things. We have an abundance of talent capable of creating value, as each person brings that which only they can bring. But in order to tap into that abundance, we must change our construct. We have to stop saying that just a few people can play, that some people are more right or more worthy than others. We have to stop the divisive strategies. This shift in thinking could help our organizations, our economy, and certainly our politics — not just in America, but in the world.

When we understand that more connects us than divides us, and that all people can become part of the solution, we will bring in new voices and create more opportunity. We will solve seemingly intractable problems by finding new solutions. What will save us — the education of our children, the health of our people, the peace of our world — is all of us.


As is true for all my HBR / Harvard work, I ask you to write comments on the original posting site (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/11/what_will_save_america.html) since that lets me manage one conversation and helps honor the work that Sarah Green (and in this case Deb Milstein) do together.

3 Replies

  1. Nilofer, another stunning piece, thank-you for sharing. I think America is abundant because its creativity and talent is not confined to American soil. As a Canadian, my collaboration with U.S. clients and colleagues continues to enrich my experiences, career, and life. And your point about companies creating and customers buying is in fact old news but so is hoping customer service begins at the exchange. Internal customer service along company lines, supply lines, and customer lines, is more important than ever.

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