Open questions on the Crisis of Confidence

Giant shareholder meeting courtesy of

The business case for the service economy is written into the fundamentals of capitalism: divide labor. specialize. trade.  Consultants, lawyers, landscapers, hair dressers and, yes, ad agencies all exist because it’s inefficient for people to build their own talent for many specialized functions.  It’s far easier to hire out.  In the immaculate zen of oversimplified market ideals, we all do exactly one thing perfectly, trade for everything else, and live happily ever after.  Adam Smith rests in peace.

But anybody who’s ever made a buck walking a dog or writing a contract or selling an ad campaign knows that reality is rarely so rosy.  I’ve long been unsettled by how easy it is for these basic market relationships — between clients and agents, buyers and sellers, co-workers and company partners — to break down to painful inefficiency.  I’m starting to believe that these disconnects aren’t just the symptoms of mismatched engagements.  I think there’s something more fundamental going on.

I believe the service economy, at its heart, depends on a crisis of confidence.

The extremes of specialization, designed to make everyone feel like an expert in one specific field, have the unavoidable effect of leaving too many people feeling like clueless novices in everything else.  This insecurity is what drives the demand side of the service economy, and in the clean white pages of economic textbooks the system turns smoothly on the wheels of mutual trust.  But trust is a hell of an assumption to make in a model of human behavior.  All too often the real world resorts to far less efficient tradeoffs: battles of ego, layers of decision-crippling bureaucracy, unhealthy obsessions with quantitative metrics.

The crisis of confidence (and the overcompensation it incubates) can be particularly acute here in the industry of cultural influence.  From movie studios to brand consultancies, artists and theorists and MBAs form awkward alliances based on the mutual interest of shared resources and reapable profit.  But the exchange of trust and respect between specialists is hardly common currency.  The complex politics of taking credit, displacing responsibility and jockeying for authority are an endemic ramification of a systemic lack of self-assurance felt by individuals and organizations alike.

The crisis of confidence is what leads to drawn-out decisions by overly cautious committees.  It kills brilliant ideas with numbingly dull research and pits partners against each other in silly scenarios of feigned realpolitik.  It is a form market failure that, ironically, is deeply fundamental to the function of the market in the first place.

No, I don’t have an immediate solution.  Sure, this is a rant.  But the point of recording it is to do more than vent; to reach a point more productive than frustrated rhetorical questions.  If the crisis of confidence is indeed rooted in the overspecialization of the service industry, then there are more important assumptions to challenge.  I’ll save the “can’t we all just get along?” for a more bitter evening, and instead pose a series open questions to self and industry:

What if we all tried something new?  What if we made good on the sales pitch of liberal arts educations, and started weeding focused specialists out of the service economy?  What if we started stocking it with a force of savvy generalists instead?

Would we work more efficiently together?  Armed with a broader set of skills and self-assurance, would we be more likely to admit insecurities?  Would we trust each other more?

Or would we devolve into even more complex skirmishes of overlapping ego?  Are insecurity and overcompensation just a basic cost of business in the macroeconomic balance sheet of specialized services?

It’s out of character for me, but I want to be an optimist on this one.


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thoughts at the collision of business, brand and creativity

I'm Ryan Cunningham. I help companies and culture play nice with each other. At CREATURE we call this Brand Strategy, a term that carries a nice halo of reliability and structure. Here, I'm just another guy who thinks about the world and writes it down from time to time.

The result is a pile of knowledge to be used in, and for, the future. Feel free to sift through the heap for useful connections.

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