I’ve always lived in a house ruled by cats, independent creators of their own existence whose essence is so well summarised in my favourite of Kipling’s Just So Stories, namely The cat that walked by himself. I’ve always opposed collars and other attempts to make cats into dogs as summarised in this (successful) campaign to liberate two cats from tyrannical human control. I often use the example of the loss of resilience in the species that has resulted from the domestication of dogs; the three-minute point of this keynote on Rewilding Agile will give you all you need to get the point. I also somewhat cheekily, but with an element of seriousness, said some years ago that people managed by cats had a better chance of understanding complexity than people who trained dogs. I will admit I am partially relenting if my ambition to move to a cottage in the Lake District ever comes to fruition then I might relent and acquire a sheepdog to accompany me on the fells.
The immediate prompt for this post was a report (I haven’t fact-checked it) of an article in the Daily Torygraph which I was told said “This idea of companies’ ‘purpose’ is, I think, very sinister. It opens the door to the creation by businesses of an Orwellian dystopian environment… and the [creation of] thought police where everyone has to be on ‘message’.” I was asked to comment and so did making the point that the whole purpose ‘discussion’ movement followed similar ones focusing on values and mission statements. I hear rumour we may next have to deal with deep purpose and there will doubtless be something after that. All these exercises end up generating the same meaningless platitudes in expensive consultancy-driven exercises. I sometimes think that consultants in this domain and their internal champions have a Stockholm syndrome relationship with CEOs – Ackoff would be turning in his grave at what happened to what was originally a simple concept, namely the idea of a mission statement. What we see is a cyclical pattern of initiatives, noble of (sic) purpose which seeks to resolve real (or often imagined) problems by those in power deciding how things should be and then propagating the new Holy Tablets throughout the organisation.
To be clear, any organisational needs to be purposeful but that is an emergent property, it can’t be engineered or directed, Billy Graham-like, from the pulpit. That stuff starts off night but ends up with threats of hellfire and damnation for anyone who doesn’t come to the mercy seat. The whole process also creates perverse incentives that can be exploited by the political game players in the organisation. They really couldn’t care less and just exploit the new language to gain power and influence. It’s an old trick, feedback the language of power to power and you will be rewarded. As difficult questions, challenge the hypocrisy that always exists between what the preacher says and what the elders of the church practice and you will be labelled a sinner. At its most basic if you simply focused the energy (attention, cash etc) involved in crafting that purpose statement to the day-to-day interactions of the people you are trying to influence it would be both more effective and more human. I chose the picture of the small girl trying to manage a dog with a lead with deliberate purpose and malice aforethought.
There are better ways of achieving the same effect. And I have seen examples with the explicit participation of some underlying value or purpose that does appear to align with the organisation’s practice. I first saw this in Buckman Labs, one of the pioneers in the knowledge management space. But Bob (Buckman) did not start with the statement, he started with mass engagement of his staff in talking about what they wanted to achieve and the formal statement followed practice as a simple reminder, it did not initiate or create the practice. There are similar examples in more recent times.
But there are better ways of achieving coherence and what I might call fractal purposeful behaviour. I’m currently writing these up in a white paper/brochure and will publish that with the revamped website (yes we are finally getting around to that) but for the moment as a taster here are three of them:
Now there are more, and I am documenting them but you may also be in a situation where you already have a purpose statement in place. Again three things you can do in fairly short order that will indicate if you have issues or not:
Now I could say a lot more, but the current approach to purpose is purposeless, we need to get a lot better and fast. The world is messy, there are many pathways and the light is variable – hence my banner picture. We need to navigate reality not live in a consultancy-induced fantasy.
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