The New Economics: Harnessing Complex Adaptive Systems for Business Growth

The new science of complex adaptive systems in economics has transformative potential for business. This new science reveals how competitive entrepreneurial exploration of new technologies, products, and services can drive continuous economic growth. Think of it as a new law of economics, centered on the roles of value and selection in evolving entrepreneurial systems.

Traditional economics has struggled to identify unifying laws. However, the science of complex evolving systems provides a fresh perspective. An evolving system comprises many interacting components that increase in diversity, distribution, and patterned behavior over time. This seems to contradict the second law of thermodynamics, which states that natural phenomena become increasingly disordered over time.

A New General Law of Economics

By applying the principles of complex evolving systems, we can identify a new general law of economics: the emergence of new economic value over time, driven by competitive entrepreneurial discovery.

Characteristics of Evolving Systems in Economics

Analyzing the economy as a complex evolving system reveals three key attributes:

  1. Resource Configurations: There are countless ways to combine resources and inputs into new configurations.
  2. Discovery Processes: These processes generate new configurations.
  3. Selection: Certain configurations persist due to their value.

Increased order in such a system results from selection: some configurations have advantages that make them more likely to endure. Similarly, the economic system evolves through the selection of advantageous configurations.

The Economic System as an Evolving System

In economics, new configurations emerge from the diverse resources and capital structures. Entrepreneurship drives the discovery process by experimenting with new combinations. The end-user market then selects for value, ensuring that only the best configurations survive.

Therefore, the three characteristics of evolving systems—component diversity, configurational exploration, and selection—are fully demonstrated in the economic system and underpin the law of increasing value. This law can be generalized: economic systems with many interacting agents display an increase in diversity, distribution, and patterned behavior when numerous entrepreneurially generated configurations are subjected to value selection pressure. Value is the universal basis for selection in economic systems.

Three Orders of Value Selection

  1. Foundational Value: Configurations evolve to a point where they can self-maintain, with no need for reorganization or recombination. This value is associated with reliability, repeatability, trust, reputation, and ethics.
  2. Adaptive Value: Entrepreneurship drives knowledge building and information processing, supporting the creation of new configurations. Economic entities adapt dynamically to market changes, leading to growth, innovation, and competitiveness.
  3. Evolutionary Value: In complex systems, entirely new functions can be imagined and created, opening up new possibility spaces. This value is associated with the ability to invent new functions continuously.

Selection as the Key to Evolution

Selection is the primary enabling constraint in this model. A system will evolve, or increase value creation, if many different configurations are subjected to selection for value. For this to occur, markets must be free to select, entrepreneurs must be free to innovate, and selection pressures must be allowed to intensify.

Underlying Principles

  • Information Richness: Greater and faster flows of knowledge and data can open new possibility spaces for value creation.
  • Selection Pressure: The competitiveness of the market system is crucial for driving value creation.
  • Potential to Evolve: Systems vary in their potential to evolve. Increasing current value can enhance future value potential.
  • Rate of Change: The evolution rate can be influenced by increasing the number and diversity of interacting agents, the number of different system configurations, and the selective pressure on the system.
  • Interdependence: Evolving systems are overlapping and interdependent. Information transfers within these systems create an “information field.”
  • Value Selection: Systems that select based on Foundational, Adaptive, and Evolutionary Value will see increased value creation.

Understanding and applying these principles can help young professionals navigate the complexities of modern business economics and drive continuous growth and innovation.

Components Of The New Management Paradigm.

The traditional methods and ways of thinking of strategic management are no longer viable.

They assume that exogenous causes and causal interrelationships can be shaped and utilized to produce objective factors of business performance. Superior management can result in superior performance through identifiable combinations of observable causal factors.

The modern science of complex evolving systems, represented by Austrian economics in social sciences, compels recognition that business outcomes are emergent rather than resulting from identifiable causal factors. Human action, by both customers and employees, occurs in complex interactions of dynamic interpersonal coordination, the results of which are unforseeable. It is the beliefs, perceptions, expectations, imagination and intentions of individuals that combine and interact unpredictably in business reality. Strategic business success is highly uncertain in this context and impossible to sustain.

A new strategic management paradigm is called for.  The components are:

The philosophy of subjective value. Human beings seek value, defined as an improvement in self-perceived well-being. They constantly seek a desired state to replace a current state that is deemed less than perfectly satisfactory. Businesses thrive when they are able to facilitate customers’ feelings and experiences of value. The performance of a firm, and any structure or methods it adopts, are 100% determined by the perceptions of its target customers. Any change in these perceptions will result in changes in firm performance. Dynamic business energy emanates from customers, not from strategy. 

Converting knowledge into value. It follows that customer knowledge and understanding are the vital, scarce resource of the business firm. There are no structural competitive advantages, but it can be the case that the combination of people in one firm share knowledge and understanding that is more functional for the task of conversion into value via innovation, service and relationship. The law of increasing functional information guides the market systems selection of the best value-facilitating firms.

Entrepreneurship (rather than management) is the business function for conversion of knowledge into new value. It is a non-linear, non-processual act of co-ordinated and creative imagination. It can be advanced and accelerated by identifying and continuously renewing insights into customers’ motivations, purposes and values, and composing and recomposing new value propositions for them to choose from. Entrepreneurial capacity consists of skill in designing business propositions and in stimulating customers’ choice of those propositions. During the act of designing the value proposition, the customer’s choice lies in the future, and so is unknown and unknowable. Entrepreneurial imagination is the cognitive connection of the present offerings and future choices. It does not result from traditional strategic management or planning.

Innovation is a necessary condition for business persistence. In the dynamic swirl of rapid change and inscrutable complexity, continuous innovation is required to stay relevant to customers and to stay coherent with the environment. This is continuous improvement in a value proposition to match continuously increasing knowledge on the customer’s part of what they can want and demand. There are opportunities beyond persistence – adaptive innovators can respond to the changing environment with new value propositions that exceed the expectations of customers, i.e. incorporate new knowledge before it’s widespread. And the truly evolutionary businesses can make leaps of innovation that introduce true novelty to the market. The market may select the novelty or reject it; successful new businesses and new products are those that qualify for selection. The market is always evaluating and always selecting.

Nothing in this process can be predicted or projected. Strategic planning is powerless. Discovery, not planning, is the dynamic of innovation in business.  Discovery requires the humility of relinquishing certainty and control, and the creativity of generating new ideas and combinations for testing and experimentation. There is joy in discovery, and we must learn to love feedback loops, the conduits from the customer and the marketplace that tell us how our experiments perform in evaluation. Humility and empathy are not the central focus of traditional strategic management. We hear much more about heroic business leadership and the intellectual superiority of planners and strategists. But discovery is not driven by intellectualism but by action – run lots of experiments, gather fast feedback, determine what works, and incorporate it into the next epxeriment, until a new value prososition emerges that is robust enough to commercialize.

Complexity is the overarching organizational metaphor. Complexity can’t be tamed or managed. Simple imagery fails to convey any meaning. For example, when there is discusion of market share, or growth rates, or 5-year total stock market returns, or even quarterly revenue, it’s meaningless in the context of complexity. Complexity is a swirl of ongoing interactions between people and their contexts, constrained by rules, norms, institutions, events and things, with emergent and unpreditable outcomes triggering new emergent responses which further accelerate change and make it even more chaotic. Businesses can’t snapshot the swirl of complexity, or choose just a few developments to respond to. They must act intuitively to find islands of order in the raging sea of chaos.

The new form of organization for complexity is autonomy. In the new paradigm, firms gradually learn how to auto-organize, eschewing structure and hierarchy and management authority in favor of self-management by employees and team members. Teams self-assemble around functions like marketing and branding or operations and delivery or finance, and role map the collaboration that will optimize the combination of specialist talents in pursuit of a shared purpose. Purpose is the binding force, rather than position in a hierarchy or on an org chart or the authoritarian directives of management. 

Subjective value, knowledge conversion, entrepreneurship, innovation, discovery, complexity and orgnizational autonomy – these are the components of the new management paradigm. 

The Dawn Of The Post-Managerial Era.

In Aberrant Capitalism, Steve Denning and I chart the ascent, dominance and now decline of managerialism, the approach to running business corporations through bureaucratic systems of management control. Happily, we see the end of the managerial age and the dawn of a new post-managerial era.

Aberrant Capitalism begins with a quote from economist Ludwig von Mises:

Those who confuse entrepreneurship and management close their eyes to the economic problem. The capitalist system is not a managerial system; it is an entrepreneurial system. 

Ludwig von Mises (Human Action 1949)

Business has been confused about this problem for over 100 years. In the golden age of entrepreneurial capitalism, which we can locate in the second half of the nineteenth century, at least in the US, the great corporations were led by entrepreneurs, not managers. The unicorns of their time, these fast-growing corporations harnessed new technologies on behalf of customers to elevate the quality of life. The entrepreneurial leaders of the time saw the market-generating potential of steam engines, railroads, electricity distribution grids, oil refining, long-distance communications, mass manufacturing, packaged food, and advertising. They turned these inventions into commercial innovations and built an audience of happy customers enjoying new experiences ranging from affordable illumination to trans-continental travel. The range of goods and services available to customers expanded, quality went up, and prices went down. 

This was a pre-managerial age. The individual owners and founding partners of the great corporations were visionaries who imagined a great and happy future of high achievement and fulfilling lives for Americans. John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil, for example, consciously aimed at producing and distributing “the best illuminator in the world at the lowest price” because “we are refining oil for the poor man, and he must have it cheap and good[1]”. He viewed the kerosene he manufactured as a civilizer, “promoting among the poorest classes …a host of evening occupations, industrial, educational and recreative …(carrying) more cheap comfort into more poor homes than almost any discovery of modern times” (The Myth of the Robber Barons, Burt Folsom)

This is the entrepreneurial mindset: placing the highest priority on customer needs and devoting the entire supply chain to their purpose. Standard Oil required staffing and organization, of course. Rockefeller paid higher than market wages and gave long vacations so that he could attract the right people and then delegate responsibility to them. He knew that good work and good ideas were priceless.

In the twentieth century, the entrepreneurs exited their businesses due to old age or death or via a sale. Professional managers took over, ushering in the managerial age. They changed the function of management from the mass production and mass distribution that made civilizing innovations and the experience of well-being available to all. They focused instead on control, which is a benefit for managers, not for customers. The tools of control included:

Central planning: managers believed that business plans and resource allocation decisions should be made by a planning and budgeting committee or group following the direction of the top officers of the company. There were some feedback loops, but they were slow and data science was not far advanced and so the feedback was low in information and high in noise. Nevertheless, central planning advanced, even though CEO’s like Reginald Jones of GE admitted that he “could not achieve the necessary in-depth understanding” of his own planning department’s plans. (Aberrant Capitalism, p37)

Hierarchy: The transmission mechanism for the centrally-developed plans was hierarchy.  The top officers told the VPs reporting to them, who communicated to their directors and managers, and front-line employees. Dissent (which we might also call creativity or what John D. Rockefeller called good ideas) was discouraged. Hierarchy was the reason for slow, noisy feedback.

Bureaucracy: To administer both the implementation of plans and the management of the hierarchical organization, management introduced bureaucracy, which had, hitherto, been a method of government rather than business. The purpose of bureaucracy was not customer service or satisfaction, or even an observable contribution to corporate profits, but compliance with rules and regulations. There are no rewards in bureaucracy for initiative or innovation. The goal is not to adapt to changes in the marketplace, but to try to constrain the marketplace to follow the bureaucracy’s rules. 

Financialization: Over the course of the twentieth century, managers became more reliant upon the financial sector for debt and credit, and delegated some of their control powers as part of the trade. The short-termism of quarterly earnings targets, the allocation of funds to share buybacks and dividends rather than to R&D investments, and the adoption of the mantra of shareholder maximization – which stands in sharp contrast to the customer-first ethic of entrepreneurship – are all consequences of ceding primacy to the financial sector. 

Management Slack: Nobel prize-winning economist Oliver Williamson used this term to describe the discretion acquired by management organizations to use resources for their own benefit rather than for the customer or for company profits. The range of slack is wide, from oversized offices and managerial perks, to lavish salaries and pension, to the use of corporate jets. Williamson suggested that managers would deliberately add costs to hire unnecessary staff because the increased size of a department would result in more prestige and power for the department head. Management slack became a form of insider self-dealing: more for the managers and less for customers, investors and employees.

The late twentieth century demise of big, bureaucratic corporations like GE and IBM can be attributed to internal developments along these lines: the accumulation of greater weight of bureaucratic, hierarchical management eventually over-burdens the creative engineers, operators and salespeople. They can no longer function as well as they need to for the benefit of customers.

What will change in the 21st century

The end of the managerial era is a consequence of the new business models that are made possible by digital enablement. Customers are now directly connected to the firm – think of amazon or Airbnb as examples – in such a way that their wants, desires and preferences are instantly and effectively implemented. The customer is the boss, not in the sense of sitting atop an authority hierarchy, but in the sense of controlling the fate and operations of the firm. Economists have always recognized this role for customers in theory: here’s a passage from economist Ludwig von Mises in 1949:

The real bosses, in the capitalist system of the market economy, are the consumers. They, by their buying and by their abstention from buying, decide who should own the capital and run the plants. They determine what should be produced and in what quantity and quality. Their attitudes result either in profit or in loss for the enterpriser. They make poor men rich and rich men poor. They are no easy bosses. They are full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. They do not care a whit for past merit. As soon as something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors. With them nothing counts more than their own satisfaction.

This is a passage of incredible vision. It has taken 75 years for business practice to catch up to Mises’ theory of the market system. The mechanisms for the catch-up are digital enablement of the direct connection to the customer, A.I. processing of the resulting data flow, and the interconnection of people and functions in the firm who can respond to the insights from the data flow with hyper-personalized service and precise targeted innovation.

In this digitally enabled world, there are three new dimensions of the economist’s “boss customer”:

The customer can command and receive a personalized experience

The old management method was to try to predict what customers might want in the future, by asking them questions about their dissatisfaction with today. But customers are not in a position to imagine and design the future; they don’t have the expertise or the information. 

The new method is to deduce the customer’s preferred personalized experience from their present-day behavior: the searches they conduct, the purchases they make, the websites they visit, their offline behavior as they work, shop and travel. All these activities generate behavioral data, and hyper-automation can instantly energize a supply chain to deliver on the needs highlighted by the resultant data patterns. It is digitized customer behavior data that provides the energy for the system, not their expressed attitudes or opinions.

The customer can add many layers of expectation to their desired experience.

Through their behavior, customers can express not only what they want but many other dimensions of how they want it: where and when and how fast, in what kind of packaging, using what kind of delivery method, accompanied with what level of messaging, with what kind of service wrapper (e.g. insurance), with what kind of return policy and what level of ease-of-return process. These and many more expectations are to be met, or the customer might look to alternatives on all those dimensions. The customer is the selection engine for best service and best experience, and operates with the confidence that alternatives are available.

The customer is the creator of value in the new value system.

The hyper-personalized experience plus the continuous layering and raising of expectations constitute value for the customer. It’s an ever-changing value benchmark because the customer is able to change it. They feel that they can always raise the bar. 

So now, when we talk about value creation, we must reverse the mental flow model that that term usually suggests. Value creation, traditionally, has been defined as firms creating value for customers. Today and tomorrow, customers will create value in their personalized experiences, based on their own requirements and expectations. 

The role of the digitally- enabled firm is facilitation, making the value experience easier, more convenient and closer to expectations. The concept of ’the digital friend”, a digitally enabled brand that knows the customer well and demonstrates empathy via a hyper-personalized experience, will be the model for value facilitation.

Central facilitation replaces central control.

Traditional management is a control concept. In this concept, resource allocation is controlled through the planning process, and then hierarchical organization structures and the command authority of title and position are deployed to ensure that subordinate employees follow orders to deploy the resources through implementation. Value creation resides in the plan, and the role of implementers is simply to ensure that value is not eroded through imperfect action.

This control-through-command won’t survive. The customer now commands. The structure of the firm must be flat and networked so that the customer’s commands can flow to where they can influence internal functions. Those functional centers respond to the customer, not to an authority structure. 

The post-managerial era has arrived, only 75 years after economists predicted it.


Digitally Enabled Harmony: The Organizational Model For The Post-Management World.

There is a deepening appreciation of the business firm as a complex evolving system (CES). The behavior of such systems can be understood through the lens of universal laws that have been discovered over the past 75 years or so of systems science studies. The findings of these studies point in a very different direction for the optimization of performance of firms than the traditional processes and methods of direction and control that fall under the heading of contemporary business management.

The mental model to replace management direction and control is harmonization – the unburdened harmony both of the firm interacting with its external environment (markets, customers, suppliers) and harmony within the firm between producer teams. The harmonizing catalyst is value – creating value for customers, and value and meaning in work for employees. Value acts as a coalescing unity (it’s what brings the firm and its markets into alignment) and provides a congruent shared meaning (everyone in the firm is devoted to value creation for others, and customers, partners and suppliers are collaborators in this purpose).

In the language of systems, value is the governing constraint. Constraints are a favorable influence on systems, shaping their development in the direction of collaboration, co-ordination and coherence. Constraints can be norms or cultural guidelines, or feedback loops, or conceptual frameworks, or even standards or processes, that lower barriers to value creation. Constraints bring about effects by channeling and facilitating value flow. They are the conceptual opposite of management structures and command and control philosophies: they are freeing rather than restricting.

The right governing constraints result in harmony, the productive emergence of (1) collective shared meaning (cognitive and emotional harmony) and (2) collaborative unity (behavioral harmony). This harmony unites both the internal and external environment: customers, suppliers and partners are as aligned as are internal functions.

The organizational unit for the harmony model is the team. Teams are deployed to develop solutions to problems that an individual can’t achieve. The members have multiple, complementary skills and a common task or goal. They collaborate to discover how best to work together for the common goal. They can exist within an assemblage of teams – teams of teams- embedded within the larger context of a firm or a corporation, and they are self-organizing in that context. The firm provides the governing constraint of shared intent and shared norms, while the teams operate in a bottom-up mode to affect the whole firm and improve system performance. 

Harmonized teams

Teams develop a capacity to act as a network of people, things and narrative (shared meaning). They are characterized by fluidity of interaction and exchange. Individuals on a team are interdependent, and multiple teams can be interdependent with each other in the team of teams. Interdependency can cross boundaries (e.g. the marketing team might embrace both finance and operations) and between levels (e.g. combining planning and execution) because it is the quality of interactions that matter, not the structural arrangement of resources. 

The Data Layer

The critical resource for teams to achieve high quality interaction is data from the environment. When information is rich and free-flowing, the quality of team interactions is increased; knowledge gaps are rapidly closed and feedback loops enable error correction and adaptation. In systems theory, higher team performance resulting from the flow of data is termed The Law Of Increasing Functional Information (LIFI). 

In the context of firms needing to achieve competitively superior delivery of value to customers, they are called upon to continually improve their value function. To do so, they gather and process functional information – the data that tells them how to create value, how well they are creating value at present, and how to improve value delivery in the future. The more functional information they can collect and flow through the company, and the better they can process it, the higher their value creation performance. There is a selection process at work: the market selects those firms and value propositions that are most functional – most valuable – for them. 

Digitally enabled harmonization

A new organizational model has emerged to make harmony the catalyst for firm-level performance: digital enablement. It has the following components:

  • A direct connection to the external environment – to customers, partners, suppliers. This is the key transformational influence: the direct connection to customers and markets is the factor that has unleashed new business models such as those of amazon, AirBnB, Netflix and many of the exponential growth businesses of today.
  • A data layer to collect and organize the inflow, applying A.I. and machine learning to identify patterns and insights, before human factors are applied. By routing data through the data layer and associated analytical software and models, insights can emerge spontaneously before the application of human judgment. 
  • An unstructured assemblage of functions that utilize the insights from the data layer to elevate value creation in their own domain: operations, commerce, service delivery, customer relationships and engagement, marketing and brand building. The functions develop a collective intelligence that increases the value performance of every project, team and individual.

The core components of digitally enabled harmonization are:

  • Philosophy: all good businesses start from sound philosophy. Digital harmonization is founded on a philosophy of value, nurtured by customer information, and enabled by the direct connection from customer to firm, without intervening barriers or distorting judgment.
  • Information flow: in information theory, more data, processed more quickly and analytically, can drive value, so long as noise and equivocation are eliminated or reduced. The direct digital connection to the market supplies the flow and the A.I. and M/L processing provide the clarity of insights. Speed of response is important but not primary: clarity is the key.
  • Self-organization: teams self-organize by identifying entrepreneurial goals for pursuing new customer value, combining knowledge, skills, resources and tools. The science of self-managed teams in the pursuit of customer value goals has become well-developed in agile software development, and the principles are fully transferable across all functions and projects. No central control is required, and improved results stem from the bottom up, rather than from top-down strategies or planning. The higher-level intent of the firm is realized through lower-level initiatives.
  • Value: the primary governing constraint is value, the experience of greater well-being. This is what customers seek, so value creation by the firm generates the positive feedback loop – through the data layer – of revenue and profit as well as customer satisfaction and loyalty. It’s also what employees, associates and partners seek: meaningful work, creating value for customers. 
  • Generative culture: the critical human-in-the-loop component is active in functions at the team level, where creativity and imagination harnessed to insights generate new initiatives and implementations for testing and expanding in the marketplace. Performance-oriented teams are motivated and united by shared meaning and enjoy the collaborative participation in the pursuit of new customer value, and the collective learning via the active feedback loop. Interoperability across teams and across functions further strengthens the generative collaboration. 


Alicia Juarrero: Context Changes Everything: How Constraints Create Coherence; MIT Press, 2023.

Johan Ivari, Annette Nolan: Team Up For Success: Harnessing Participatory Sense Making; Swedish Defence University, 2024.

Cooperative Consulting: Digital Enablement: Helping growth-minded clients accelerate into the Automated Economy, 2024

Read Aberrant Capitalism To Understand How Corporations Give Capitalism A Bad Name.

In Aberrant Capitalism, Steve Denning and I ask why perceptions of and opinions about capitalism have eroded to the point that some young people are willing to say they would choose socialism in its place. That’s irrational based on the objective outcomes: capitalism is the economic system associated with the greatest growth in well-being in all of history.

Upon further examination, it turns out that the criticisms directed at capitalism are provoked mainly by one of the system’s forms of implementation and not by the system itself. Corporations are the entities that pay wages and salaries (therefore creating income equalities), create shareholder wealth inequality (since they are the ones issuing shares and driving up their trading value), and cause environmental degradation. Corporations are viewed as cold, calculating, exploitative, and indifferent to social issues.

Aberrant Capitalism examines the roughly 160-year era of the capitalist corporation and maps the entropic decline from a golden age of celebration to an age of disdain. Corporations were a timely, enabling innovation for capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century, making possible the achievement of scale and scope that brought illumination, transportation, communication, mechanization, health, and nutrition to customers in America’s, and then the world’s, homes and factories. These were the corporations of entrepreneur owners, unentangled with government or a financial sector, focused on customer benefit. The golden age of corporations was an age of customer capitalism.

But when the entrepreneurs exited and managers entered, systemic erosion began. Not immediately—the first generation of managerial capitalism exhibited several examples of further advances in customer capitalism. But managers pursue different goals than entrepreneurs, including control, consistency, and efficiency. They seek to erase entrepreneurial uncertainty, preferring predictable outcomes to creativity. Command-and-control management systems began to emerge, bringing bureaucracy with them.

Two war economies – World War I and World War II – and the New Deal significantly accelerated the shift to central planning as a form of management both in government and private industry and also served to entangle those two together. After World War II, executives who had been called into government to run War Boards and planning agencies, with all their pervasive controls over production, prices, and resource allocation, moved back into industry. They reproduced the centralized government bureaucracy in the strategic planning arms and bureaucratic structures of companies like GE and IBM. 

Later in the twentieth century came the expansion of the financial sector and the change in purpose of the corporation from generating subjective value – a feeling of well-being and satisfaction – for customers to maximizing value for shareholders (MSV) – a mathematical calculation for a very narrow group of investors, and for the managers themselves who awarded themselves stock and stock options so that MSV served them as well. It was not unusual for corporations to utilize more than 100% of their net earnings as stock buybacks and dividends rather than invest in R&D for future customer benefit.

The major protagonists of the capitalist system have become internally-focused, bureaucratized central planning organizations, with rigid structures, entangled with government, and beholden to investors and stock markets more than customers. Many people despair of them, and hope for something better.

There is some prospect for hope in the digital age. It is the nature of the new digital firms that change is initiated from the bottom up and the outside in because customers have direct access through the new business models of the era, and their preferences can be transmitted to the corporation more effectively. But the new corporations are paradoxes – more customer-centered than before, more responsive and agile, but still bureaucratic, still government entangled, and more able to exert control through their business model’s data collection and machine learning components. The promise of the digital era is to lead us out of a period of aberrant capitalism – but the forces of centralization, bureaucracy, government entanglement, and financialization have not been defeated. 

Aberrant Capitalism proposes a new integration of entrepreneurship and management – “entrepreneurial management” – as the potential resolution.

  • Introduction: Corporations are the primary protagonists of capitalism

The real target of critics of capitalism is corporations, not capitalism itself. Corporations were an emergent phenomenon of the capitalist economy from the second half of the nineteenth century – there was capitalism before the corporation. Corporations grew and evolved in ways that were favorable to the well-being of customers while at the same time self-serving and value-extracting on behalf of management and shareholders. This duality is beginning to tip in favor of the corporation at the expense of the customer and society.

  • Capitalism Before Corporations

There was plenty of capitalism – commercial business activity to create new value by serving customer needs profitably – before corporations came along. Richard Cantillon and Adam Smith both wrote about it. As an empirical example, Aberrant Capitalism highlights Wedgwood and Bentley, a partnership (the most prevalent form of organization in the pre-corporation era) operating in the pottery industry. Wedgwood and Bentley exhibited the customer-oriented mindset of capitalism by continuously innovating to improve both the functionality and appearance of tableware while at the same time lowering prices to broaden accessibility to more and more working families. At the same time, the firm recognized new opportunities for market segmentation, with a different product line at various price points for aristocracy and royalty. Wedgwood and Bentley innovated in the application of technology, new production systems, new ways of organizing, and new marketing techniques, including retail display marketing, sampling, and free shipping / free returns.

But Wedgwood and Bentley never became a big business. The partnership could not realize the scale and scope of the corporations of the future.

  • Entrepreneurial Ownership and the Golden Age of Corporations

The new form of corporate capitalism emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. New legal institutions shaped the corporate form, while at the same time, the entrepreneur owners of the corporations learned that service to the customer and value for the customer were the drivers of their success. People were engaged in creating a new context and new modes for living: not just a market of unprecedented scale, but new geographical reach, new connectivity via railroads and telegraph, new technologies to utilize, new ways to collaborate and exchange, new shared experiences and new shared realities, a new dynamism and a new mentality about what was possible.

The corporate form was essential to aggregating the unprecedented amounts of capital and operating funds required for large-scale railroads, factories, mills, refineries, and pipelines. Corporations were an organizational innovation that addressed customers’ needs for transportation, banking and insurance, energy, water, food, and clothing as they expanded cities and ventured into new territories. Corporations competed in the industries of the future.

Quaker Oats, Sears Roebuck, Procter and Gamble, and Standard Oil are a few of the numerous corporations highlighted as examples of customer capitalism. Standard Oil? Yes. Historian Paul Johnson wrote that “no other has done so much for the ordinary consumer” and picked out John D. Rockefeller as one of the “prospering fathers” – entrepreneurial individualists who transformed the nation and the world – and not a “robber baron”; after all, whom did he rob?

Notably, the rapid growth of the large corporations was funded primarily via cash flow and retained earnings, and the financial sector held no great sway. The corporations were entrepreneurially creative, dynamically efficient, self-funding innovators and price reducers, unentangled with government. It was a golden age.

  • The Early Twentieth Century– One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In the first part of the twentieth century, the management organizations that had inherited control of corporations from their entrepreneurial founders and leaders made further advances in customer capitalism via multiple innovation streams. Aberrant Capitalism highlights Siemens organizational innovations in Germany, GM’s multi-divisional market segmentation, and P&G’s invention of the brand management system, where each brand manager was an entrepreneur, and the purpose of each brand was to understand and serve customers.

But there were two major developments that dramatically changed capitalism and pushed corporations in a new direction. The regulation economy of the New Deal and the command economy of World War II changed the attitude of both businessmen and consumers toward capitalism. Capitalism was not the same afterwards.

Politicians declared that the economic downturn of what we now call the Great Depression constituted an emergency of the same character and same dimension as war and claimed emergency powers to intervene. In a barrage of legislation, regulation, and presidential proclamations, government battered down the normal barriers separating business corporations from political control. Politicians even changed the descriptive language of capitalism. “Competition” became “economic cannibalism,” and “rugged individualists” became “industrial pirates.” 

The coming of the Second World War exacerbated the already centralizing tendencies of the New Deal, with more central planning and control in the government-led establishment of a war economy. Aberrant Capitalism details these controls. As economist Joseph Schumpeter said in 1949, “We have traveled far indeed from the principles of laissez-faire capitalism.”

  • Post-War Capitalism: The Age of Control

Historian Jonathan Levy identifies the “dramatic post-1945 hinge” as the most important moment in the history of American capitalism. Capital, in the form of industrial manufacturing, was productive but illiquid and inflexible, and profits were reinvested mostly in existing business lines. Corporate management became an educated and trained bureaucracy. Aberrant Capitalism employs data from General Electric Company (GE), from the post-WW2 period to the 1980s, to represent corporate managerialism and its vast internal central planning machinery. It produced an opacity so dense that the CEO, Reg Jones, admitted that “we could not achieve the necessary in-depth understanding of (our own) 40-odd SBU plans.”

Nevertheless, GE’s implementation of control capitalism gained the company the status of “most admired” (Fortune magazine) and “most respected” (Financial Times). The big businesses of the era adopted the control-oriented model, albeit occasionally executed in different ways.

One consequence of the heavy weight of management was what Nobel prize-winning economist Oliver Williamson called managerial slack: a preference for adding costs that did not increase customer value. Slack included high salaries and benefits for management, large office spaces, unnecessary staff, inflated advertising budgets, and even R&D and M&A activities designed to enhance personal power more than business performance. Organizational slack hardens into a permanent increase in the corporation’s cost base via the annual planning and budgeting process, subordinating customer objectives to managerial objectives.

  • The Age of Financialization

In the later years of the twentieth century, the expansion of the financial sector and the frenzied decoupling of financial capital from production capital has resulted in the financialization of the corporation. This includes the elevation of the stock market and other financial market institutions and components to a position of strong influence over the allocation of resources that causes a shift away from long-term reinforcement of productive and innovative enterprise and toward short-term financial performance goals, undermining the innovative capability of the industry.

Financialization is a fundamental undermining of the purpose of the corporation. The corporations that had shown a pattern of investing in organizational learning and strengthening their capacity to innovate since the nineteenth century turned to speculative manipulation of their stock prices on stock exchanges. Aberrant Capitalism examines stock buybacks as an example of this self-dealing, and GE 1980-2001 as an example of the distortions exhibited by the financialized corporation.

  • Institutionalized Control

Institutions are the formal and semi-formal rules and conventions regarding business conduct and guiding business behaviors. Today’s institutions provide a framework for shifting the focus from customer value creation to shareholder and investor value capture.

Financial institutions: The institutional role of stock markets has transformed from the support of entrepreneurship to an emphasis on cash distributions to share traders and top management through buybacks and dividends, which contradicts the original concept of capitalism. Venture capital is an institutionalized dash to stock appreciation. The stock ownership cartels of Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street and others like Berkshire Hathaway support the idea that the corporate purpose is the accumulation of appreciating stock and dividend flows.

Management institutions: Business schools and business publishing, the institutions for propagating, standardizing, and communicating business philosophy, business practices, and business methods, have enthusiastically embraced the primacy of the financial sector, the financialization of corporate purpose, and the shareholder value maximization thesis. The entire concept of business strategy, as taught in many business schools and propounded by some consultancies and authors, is flawed by its outcome bias toward maximizing shareholder value.

Bureaucracy is institutionalized slack that wastes time, breeds inertia, shelters corporations from customer feedback, and hoards power and control. Capitalism is carried out within large organizations in which the upper echelons of bureaucracies in the productive and financial sectors are effectively fused in the pursuit of new ways to monitor, control, manage, and surveil rather than pursue value creation for customers.

Political institutions and the entanglement of business and government: Antitrust laws, financial regulations, ESG, DEI, and taxation manipulation can all lead to the diversion of value from customers, and the revolving door from the top of government agencies to the top of management organizations exacerbates the problem. We highlight SEC Rule 10b-18 as a particularly consequential example.

Prevailing economics: Entrepreneurial value creation is not recognized as a system driver in mainstream economics. The emphasis is on centralized planning and bureaucratic and regulatory control of variables to dampen economic fluctuations. The same stabilization mentality is transmitted to corporations, encouraging cost controls, process management, and risk mitigation. Corporate collaboration with the public sector is a favored strategy in bidding for government contracts, participating in public–private partnerships, and lobbying for sheltering legislation.

  • Reimagination

What is to be done? Aberrant Capitalism frames the action plan as reimagination.

Restoration of the Primacy of the Customer: A newly reimagined corporate capitalism must restore the customer to a primary position before shareholders, governments, or management. The customer is the source of energy in the capitalist system of value creation and betterment – it’s their desire for improved well-being that is the driver. This mindset has been lost. Restoring it would bring us business models that prize customer value over shareholder value, dynamic innovation over predictable, smooth earnings, and long-term growth horizons over short-term asset appreciation and payouts.

The energy of customer primacy was fully evident in the golden age, but current corporate ideology violates all three of these business model characteristics.

Reimagining the economics of capitalism: In economics, the process of value creation is known as entrepreneurship. This term has lost its original meaning of undertaking the uncertain task of creating new value for customers. In the popular vernacular, it has come to be associated with the launch of new firms and the management of small businesses. But, as the pursuit of new economic value on behalf of customers, the economic function of entrepreneurship should be the corporation’s primary focus. 

For capitalism to transcend the current aberrant period, it will be necessary to restore the primacy of the entrepreneurial function (something management guru Peter Drucker envisaged in 1993 when he wrote that entrepreneurship should become the “integrating …. life-sustaining activity in our organizations, our economy, our society”).

Reimagining the Relationship with Capital Markets: There are alternatives to the high liquidity, low-risk equity, short-term stock trading markets of today that are the source of the incentives behind aberrant capitalism. Some sovereign wealth funds are already focusing on long-term rolling returns (20 years for GIC, the Singaporean wealth fund), and different ownership structures (such as family or private ownership) can favor the longer-term horizon.

Reimagining management: Aberrant Capitalism records five different management ideology eras, and the digital age promises the possibility of another new one. The new management purpose is always some distinctive and differentiated variant of obsession with creating a superior value experience for customers. As a consequence of the new speed of change, management becomes more discovery than determinate, more humble than hubristic, and more uncertain than predictive. Principles replace bureaucratic rules. Leadership becomes more distributed, and organizations become flatter. Subjective calculation of future customer value means that the accounting discipline, which translates every action into numbers, is no longer the only source of management truth.

  • Conclusion

The promise of the digital age, which enables a new software-mediated direct relationship between corporations and customers, is to reverse the direction of entropic decline in corporate capitalism. There is a new dynamic in motion that points to the potential for a return to the golden age of corporations, where owner-entrepreneurs harnessed new technology for the good of customers, bending the curve of prosperity and well-being into a steeper ascent. The direction of motion in the new system is from the customer directly to the corporation via networks and software, permitting a more direct influence of customer preferences on resource allocation and management practices. 

Corporations can no longer be fortresses, defining and defending boundaries to establish dominant positions in markets or industries. They must compete on customer satisfaction, replace hierarchies with networks, abandon control for riding the wave of technological innovation, disentangle themselves from the boat anchor of government, and redefine their relationships with employees so that profit is the outcome of a satisfied customer interacting with a satisfied workforce. This is the concept of entrepreneurial management: combining the values of entrepreneurial ownership that characterized the first large-scale corporations with the harnessing of technology to directly improve the well-being of every customer and thereby achieve new levels of quality of economic life that couldn’t be contemplated back then.

Epilogue: Aberrant Capitalism

Capitalism’s reputation has been tarnished, and its true purpose distorted. The consequences are dire: a widening chasm of inequality, disillusionment, and distrust, and the empowerment of those who would see the entire system dismantled. This twisted form of capitalism stands as a stark warning of the dangers that arise when we allow the forces of centralization, financialization, and the shortsighted pursuit of shareholder value to dictate the course of our economic system. 

It is our responsibility as the inheritors of capitalism’s promise to reassert the values that underpin this system: the power of free markets to drive innovation, the potential of business to uplift societies, and the inherent dignity of labor. Only by acknowledging the threats and working tirelessly to counteract their effects can we reclaim the true spirit of capitalism and ensure a more equitable, prosperous future for all.

A nation founded on entrepreneurship.

The American economy and society, deeply rooted in entrepreneurship, reflect a deliberate creation by the nation’s founders and early leaders. This entrepreneurial ethos, a pathway for personal growth, innovative ventures, and nation-building, served as a cornerstone for the United States. Dr. Samuel Gregg, in “The Next American Economy,” and Cyrus A. Ansary, in “George Washington Dealmaker In Chief,” both highlight the pivotal roles played by the Founding Fathers in fostering this environment.

  1. Legal and Constitutional Foundation: The Constitution established a stable legal framework essential for economic activities. It protected property rights, enforced contracts, and implemented a system of checks and balances, creating a reliable and predictable environment for entrepreneurs.
  2. Emphasis on Free Trade: Contrasting with the restrictive British mercantile system, the founders advocated for open trade policies. They recognized the critical role of free trade in stimulating economic growth and prosperity.
  3. National Currency and Central Banking: The establishment of a national currency and a central banking system was pivotal in stabilizing the economy and supporting domestic and international trade.
  4. Protection of Intellectual Property: Intellectual property rights were enshrined in the Constitution to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
  5. Infrastructure Development: Recognizing the importance of infrastructure, the founders invested in transportation systems, such as roads and canals, vital for commerce and economic development.
  6. Balanced Regulation: While advocating minimal government intervention, the founders understood the need for regulation to ensure fair competition and protect public interests.

Washington’s approach, as detailed by Ansary, combined his entrepreneurial spirit with a commitment to embedding these principles into the national fabric:

  1. Economic System Transformation: Washington established a system encouraging innovation and business formation, distinct from the British colonial model.
  2. Nationwide Entrepreneurial Environment: Drawing from his business experience, Washington’s policies were tailored to nurture an entrepreneurial spirit across the nation.
  3. Strategic Economic Development: His vision included transforming society into one conducive to entrepreneurship, leveraging the era’s technological advancements in land development and transportation.
  4. Government’s Role in Business: Washington worked to eliminate barriers to entrepreneurship, such as compulsory servitude and debtors’ prisons.
  5. Support for Copyrights and Patents: Understanding their importance, he championed the creation of a system to protect and encourage innovation.
  6. Infrastructure and Financial System Establishment: His leadership was crucial in developing transportation infrastructure, the National Bank, and a credit system, laying the groundwork for a robust economic environment.

This dual focus on institutional frameworks and individual leadership by figures like George Washington has been fundamental to the enduring entrepreneurial spirit of the United States, a key aspect of American exceptionalism.