Companies should allow society’s needs to drive their strategy, says Ben Walker.

In their new book Super Signs, the Hua brothers cite ancient Chinese wisdom: we should care more about the sowing than the harvest. This dynamic duo in East Asia is revered for their insights into branding, R&D and consumer strategy. Core to their ethos on corporate strategy is that organizations should seek to do good for society, and let other concerns follow. Results should be what they suggest they are – a follow, not a lead. Endless battles to achieve results wear down a company, even when they are successful. “Your goal should be to leave others in the dust after just one step,” they write. Citing the military classic Wuzi, they add: “Those who win five battles find disaster… those who win one become emperors.”

The Hua way suggests that companies find a niche that creates advantage for society and select that as their one key battle, having already won it. Doing good for society can certainly include producing products and services that achieve a classic societal benefit – be it environmental, social or economic. Yet it need not be so lofty or high-minded. The Hua brothers’ definition of societal benefit is broad and simple: if that product or service disappeared, would society think it had lost something?

“Compare Apple with Nokia,” they write. “One could argue that losing Nokia wouldn’t be much. Losing Apple would be really losing something.” Their second test speaks to a hierarchy of loss: “Without Apple, we might be okay with a Samsung. But without Google, we wouldn’t have just lost a search engine – the whole of humanity’s progress would slow down.”

This thinking is challenging. Until relatively recently, Google’s own motto was ‘Don’t be evil’, which reflects understandable societal nervousness about its power and reach. Yet we would doubtless miss it, were it gone – which suggests that it does benefit society, and that, as a business, it has a handle on humanity’s needs and thus a ticket to almost irrepressible success.

Not everyone can be the size of Google, nor should they strive to be, yet Hua & Hua hit on something important when they urge companies to think first of their benefit to society. Nail that, they say, and strategy itself becomes secondary. “Policy is extremely important to a company,” the brothers write. “Many problems are poorly handled by companies because they have no policy and thus no principles when dealing with a situation. When deciding whether to launch a product or whether to keep a business, you shouldn’t be looking at sales metrics. Look at your policy and decide if the action will affect your social responsibility.” Those that care more about the sowing than the harvest will succeed; those who do the reverse will fail. Societal benefit is different to corporate social responsibility, the Huas stress, however noble and valuable some such schemes might be. They highlight the woes of a Chinese dairy company that seemingly forgot that its societal benefit was the supply of clean, good milk for the Chinese public – and wound up embroiled in a tainted milk food-safety scandal.

The Hua way is compelling. How many of the great companies that have fallen on hard times might have enjoyed a better future had they stopped to consider their societal benefit while things were still going well? Defining that benefit, applying it and testing your every act against it will bring the outcomes you want, eventually. “Management is like life,” the brothers suggest. “It can take a long time for karma to get you.”

An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.