July 21, 2023

Vidar nordli mathisen cSsvUtTVr0Q unsplashI’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:

  1. Start by gathering experiences and fictional stories or what we didn’t or don’t want to happen.   Negative stories have more influence than positive stories so gathering them and creating some structure in effect provides a form of scaffolding that will set a general set of direction but be open to novelty.   It’s also very easy to gain consensus on the negative and in tangible words.   Trying to gain agreement to a positive almost always ends up in a sort of lowest common denominator set of platitudes.
  2. Use semiotics and/or use metaphor-based languages (to be clear this is not just to find a metaphor and repeat it) to convey intent which is better than purpose and very different from what can be foreseen (Philosophers will recognise the link to Elizabeth Anscombe and I am currently revisiting her classic book Intention).  I’m picking up here on work originally done in the context of Commander’s Intent which conveniently also has a Star Trek theme to it.    Intent, identity and intelligence are distinguishing features of anthro-complexity and this is one way to make it tangible in communication.  Intent carries necessary ambiguity with it.
  3. Present visions and descriptions of the current situation to the whole workforce for real-time signification – something we do with MassSense – which allows us to see not only what patterns of meaning are sustainable without employees, but also identifies outlier views and perspectives that may be more valuable than existing consensus.   Preventing pattern entraining around convention can be hindered by focusing on purpose.  Such an approach also allows us to micro-budge the organisation in the right general direction rather than trying to enforce an outcome-based approach.

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:

  1. Take the purpose statement put it into an infographic, but combine it with stories (fictional if needed) from employees and customers that contradict or at least question the reality of what is promised.   Present that to your workforce (we again use the MassSense version of SenseMaker®) and ask for opinions.   With abstract signification we can again show the degree of consistency of action/practice with purpose and it’s also something we can measure and show if alignment is improving or not and with/for who.
  2. I’ve twice now run sessions for C level in which I and a group of equally cynical friends take their purpose statements, do a bit of research and then generate anti-stories, ways in which that purpose statement could be destroyed around the water cooler or the press.  This is a lot of fun to put together and generally involves a good wine, but it is hugely educational for C-level as their own employees will never share that material.   It is a variation of the ritual dissent method.
  3. Run a series of workshops using narrative templates to see how executives and staff choose to convey the message.   I’ve run this a few times to give people an alternative to PowerPoint and the templates always involve three negative and three positive anecdotes.  It is fascinating to see how people take the abstract statement and make it real for an audience.   Run as a pre-process before you publish and communicate the Purpose statement is a low-cost but powerful technical to increase resilience in the organisation

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.

Picture of a dog on a lead by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen.   The banner picture is cropped from an original taken on St Helena Island in the USA by Alex Smith both sourced from Unsplash.

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