The business of thinking – applying practical philosophy to decision making

Written by
David Baker

06 Nov 2019

06 Nov 2019 • by David Baker

Applying philosophy to business can improve decision making. But how can we make practical use of this theoretical tool? 

You don’t often hear talk of Socrates or Aristotle in the boardroom (nor Chomsky or de Beauvoir), but if Brennan Jacoby has his way, philosophy will soon be a key part of strategic discussions at every level of business. 

“I’m in the business of helping companies and their people think the best,” says Jacoby, founder of Philosophy at Work, a consultancy that helps people in the corporate world use philosophical tools to make better decisions. “Thinking is basically doing stuff with knowledge. We live in the information age and businesses that can do better things with information will have a real leg up.” 

A little research reveals that a surprising number of leading CEOs have studied philosophy, including Flickr co-founder and Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield (who has both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in the subject), LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman (a philosophy graduate of Oxford University) and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina (who majored in medieval history and philosophy at Stanford University). 

Transforming business decisions

However, Jacoby is careful not to scare off those chief executives who don’t know their Heidegger from their Hegel. 

“It’s not intellectual, ivory-tower stuff,” he pledges. “It’s about the quality of the thinking we do every day.” But he does argue that the insights of philosophy, developed, in the West, over 2,000 years of discussion and debate, can transform the quality of the business decisions we make – many of which, though few executives will admit it publicly, are based on intuition (frequently dressed up as “experience”). 

He advises: “First, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What assumptions are we making about the options we have? 

Are they correct?’ Often people think in terms of ‘what we have always done’, which closes off the possibility that other options may be just as valid.” 

Then, he continues, with a nod to Sartre, executives need to ask themselves how free they are to follow a different route. After this, they need to explore what those other possibilities are. As an example of this in action, he cites budgetary meetings, which often begin with allocations that stay fixed from year to year.

“Maybe people have been told that research and development (R&D) always has a certain budget in an organisation, which then leaves a certain amount to be divided between other activities,” he explains. 

“A more thoughtful approach would be asking whether the world has shifted, if the efficiency of a company’s R&D has changed and whether or not the budget could be changed with it. That way, we can test assumptions that sometimes feel set in stone and discover that, actually, there are alternatives.” 

The idea that philosophy helps organisations to challenge the status quo and to see things differently is hardly new: after all, ‘the man who invented management’, Peter Drucker, was known to draw on his interests in journalism, art appreciation, mountaineering and reading (particularly the novels of Jane Austen) to inform his thinking. He was described as “the modern Aristotle of the business community” in a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Management History. 

However, in today’s complex times, the perceived value of philosophy in business appears to be growing. As business consultant and former philosophy lecturer Robert Rowland Smith explains: “Clients used to look upon my expertise in philosophy as something arcane or irrelevant. These days, they are confronting questions of such a fundamental nature that they call me for help.” 

Ben Wilberforce-Ritchie, a project manager at BAE Systems in Glasgow (and philosophy graduate), sees huge opportunities around embedding philosophical thinking in business decisions. Philosophy, he argues, is fundamentally about stepping back and seeing the bigger picture, then coherently expressing arguments to come to a conclusion. 

“These are skills that are so lacking today in business, with people focused purely on, say, the financial or communications aspects – pieces that, in the past, have really driven business, but which cannot sustain a modern business in the long term,” he says. 

“If you look at a lot of the big FTSE-100 companies, they’re getting to the 60- to 70-year mark and are starting to decline because they don’t understand how to sustain their businesses. They don’t know how to help people see the interconnected opportunities around the globe.” 

The value of philosophy in teams

What’s more, he argues, philosophy gives people the skills to work more effectively in teams. “In business, we’re often very good at focusing on our task, but not on the importance of that within other people’s tasks. That’s where philosophy comes in: it gives people a chance to lift themselves out of their role and ask where it fits within the bigger picture.” 

While Wilberforce-Ritchie acknowledges that decision making and innovative thinking are already staples of HR training programmes, he maintains that philosophy brings something extra to the table. 

“If you have a group of individuals in a room who are all thinking the same thing, you won’t get a difference of opinion or of ideas. What I bring, as a philosopher, to a room of experts in HR, engineering or project management is the ability to question, ‘why are we doing that? What’s the motive? What’s the purpose? Does this have an environmental spin, a cultural spin?’. 

“Businesses have to be more than just ways of making money, but without a philosopher on board, without someone who’s thinking about the wider aspect, you lose sight of a business’s place in the world and that’s I think why so many businesses are going under at the moment.” 

For many in business, the idea that organisations need to identify their wider purpose can feel counterintuitive; it certainly goes against Milton Friedman’s belief that the only role of a company is to deliver shareholder return. However, it is gaining traction.

Larry Fink, chairman of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, has been very public in insisting that successful companies in the future will be the ones that understand what, in a very philosophical turn of phrase, he calls their “fundamental reason for being”. And that, says Colin Mayer, Peter Moores professor of management studies at the Saïd Business School in Oxford, takes business back to a place the ancient philosophers, concerned with the workings of the world, would have approved of. 

“It’s only over the past 60 years that this notion that the one purpose of business is to make money has arisen,” he says. “Business needs to conceive itself as a way of producing profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet. The best businesses do exactly that.” 

Wilberforce-Ritchie adds that philosophy, by its very nature, enables businesses to think far into the future. 

“Philosophy is about connecting the future with the present,” he says. “Often companies hire a management consultant when they want to deal with a particular problem and that may give a quick fix – maybe one or two years of financial growth. But the reason so many firms are seeking help at the moment, 20, 30, 50 years into their life, is that they haven’t looked long term. One thing you learn from philosophy is how to deal with that future now and prepare for it. Philosophy brings up sustainable ideas that we can embed now to gain future benefits.” 

This concept of a wider role for business brings up another key philosophical idea – ethics. Roger Steare, visiting professor in the practice of organisational ethics at Cass Business School in London, has worked as a consultant to many big companies, including BP, Nationwide, Barclays and RBS. He is scathing about what he sees as a kind of corporate myopia in this area. 

“Most businesses operate on a pretty poor combination of Newtonian determinism – understanding the whole by reducing it into its component parts – and a feudal, medieval mindset, which gives rise to command-and- control structures,” he says. “So, you have people not thinking about how those parts fit together and get a poor foundation for traditional business, which is at odds with a world facing catastrophic changes in terms of climate, environment, society and politics.” 

He highlights the September 2015 diesel-emissions scandal in which Volkswagen engineers programmed engines on its cars to activate their emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing. This enabled the vehicles to meet US standards during regulatory testing but emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxides in real-world driving. 

“That was not only about climate change, it was about respiratory disease,” he asserts. “The number of people who have died preventable deaths as a result of nitrogen oxides is significant. When people manipulate software to cheat emissions tests, they’re doing it to comply with financial targets. They don’t see or understand the systemic effect of their actions on other human beings or on our ecosystem. They are saying that the question they are being asked is, ‘how are you going to achieve your target?’ and the answer is to do this without considering the knock-on effects.” 

People in business often baulk at taking responsibility for what they see as wider global problems, such as climate change or social and political unrest, saying that these are matters for government or NGOs to consider. This is an argument that Professor Steare hears often. 

“After I’ve picked myself up off the floor, I say to them, ‘are you a slave? A child? Do you not have a conscience? Don’t you care about your own family and children?’ Almost all my work is a combination of getting people to think things through and make ethical or moral decisions, to see the world in its complexity, its richness.” 

One way he does this is through ‘MoralDNA’, an online tool he has developed to help people audit their ethical stance available free in a simple format or as a paid-for version for corporations. It uses a series of questions to tease out how much (or little) we like, or feel able, to do the right thing both at home and in the workplace. 

A tool for self-reflection

For some champions of philosophy in business, such tools demonstrate how much philosophy can help individuals with their in-work self-development. Olga McSweeney, director for strategic projects at accountancy and business-advisory firm BDO UK, studied philosophy as an undergraduate but then “sort of forgot completely about it”. However, during a period of maternity leave, she reconnected with the discipline. 

“You reach the point where you are established in your life and career and you’ve experienced enough to start asking the big questions about how you want to live your life,” she says. “It helped me make some important career decisions and come back to work in a different way.” 

McSweeney’s academic focus was on the idea of power and she found this invaluable in navigating the complex relationships of a big firm such as BDO. “In law and accountancy firms, you’re often working for a partner, an individual who manages everything and who also owns the business,” she explains. 

“I think these environments are particularly challenging in terms of being able to influence people to do the right thing, so I decided to study what philosophy says about power (writers such as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler). That transformed my relationship with what was happening at work. I saw the power dynamics in a very different way and was able to be more assertive and to express myself.” 

As part of its engagement with philosophy, for three years now, BDO has been running training on the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s concept of “slow thinking” (McSweeney is quick to point out that the distinction between psychology and philosophy is a very recent one: “philosophy covers everything, really,” she says.) She believes companies could build on programmes like this with one-to- one coaching. 

“Good coaches, who don’t just train people to get through a promotion, genuinely disrupt your thinking and help you realise that you don’t really know what you think you know,” she says. 

Some organisations have gone further to integrate philosophy into their thinking, Google, Apple, LinkedIn and Microsoft have, in the past, employed philosophers to help with high-level decisions, especially about the effect of their actions on the world, while (post-2008) Citigroup has intermittently consulted an “on-call ethicist” to tackle abstract issues around banking and morality; The Pentagon’s AI centre recently hired an ethicist to help it explore the complexities of modern conflict. 

However, these initiatives do not always go well: Google disbanded a board of experts established to look at the ethics of artificial intelligence, machine learning and facial recognition, which included Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information at Oxford University after just two weeks, following complaints from Google staff about one of its members. (Professor Luciano Floridi supported their cause.) 

The company says it has no plans to reinstate it. And, although there are calls (not least from philosophers) for companies to create a ‘chief philosophical officer’ to advise the board on ethical decisions, no large company has so far put that into action. 

Wilberforce-Ritchie is optimistic, however, that companies will begin to see the advantage of embedding philosophical thinking at every level of the organisation and believes that the success of diversity and inclusion (D&I) programmes provides a useful model for them to follow.“ I think people can be trained in, or just have their minds opened up to, philosophical ideas, as has happened with D&I initiatives,” he says. “You have D&I executives at the top driving strategy. But equally, D&I is being included at yearly workshops, conferences and other discussions.” 

Encouraging meaningful conversation

D&I initiatives have tended to succeed in companies that allow all their people to express opinions, no matter their position in the hierarchy. Professor Steare sees this as a starting point for introducing philosophical thinking into the workplace. “I focus very simply on getting people to create a safe environment within which to have good, honest argument and debate, where people inside the room forget who has the biggest job title,” he says. “It’s actually the role of the person with the biggest job title to stop dominating the meeting, allowing less senior people to speak their mind.” 

Meanwhile, echoing Jacoby’s point that business is about managing information, he argues that everyone in corporate life needs to become more curious about the world and see how business fits into the wider picture. 

“It saddens me that so many people have such a narrow vision,” he says. “You have to think about everything from astronomy to anthropology, from quantum physics through to honeybees. Spend time reading about what’s going on outside your bubble. It’s very simple. If you want to be like a philosopher, you need to love wisdom. That’s what the word means.”