45 - How to Embed Purpose

How to Activate the Telos Within Your Company’s DNA

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There’s no such thing as a how-to guide when it comes to bringing telos to life, but this will at least offer a place to begin.

It was certainly not the weather I had hoped for. Even by Canadian standards, two feet of snow, when it comes all at once, is at least a modest impediment to travel. This snowstorm was particularly rude because it arrived when friends and supporters of the writing project I had embarked on (the movement of business towards purpose that I have come to call “Telosity”) were scheduled to gather for a weekend session at my farm to help me frame the ideas and figure out how we might use them to help others and the organizations they worked in.

It was unlikely, we decided, that we’d be able to find a time to reschedule, so the gathering went ahead with those few stalwarts who had already arrived or could secure passage via train or in 4-wheel drive vehicles with ample road clearance.

Those who made it offered their agreement as I pointed out what I believed was the growing importance of purpose in business. But persistently, they raised the same challenging question: “HOW can business leaders encode a telos into their company’s thinking and activities–into the real DNA of the organization?

This clarion call from my friends that I must address the issue of HOW is a common refrain, for “how” is a question the dubious science of business management has often tried to answer. Management literature is replete with an endless litany of how-to books, usually consisting of some formulaic, 7-step process, 3-pronged approach, or 5-year plan to initiate one positive change or another. I have often found these materials disappointingly faddish, or at least simplistic, given the complexities that real organization systems face, but my colleagues had a good point.

I could write volumes about the WHY and WHAT of this movement toward purpose in business, but I would always fall short of sparking the desired impact without the HOW. In the end, we will find that we cannot know HOW if we do not know WHO, but before we get there, a few years of exploration into the subject of HOW has led me to a frighteningly simple conclusion which I’ll share later on.

We are all adrift on such a sea of uncertainty that simply creating positive change in an organization is no longer sufficient. And yet, at the heart of every business organization is a very simple thing: an insight that when turned into a product or service, can be sold to one or more customers at a price that exceeds its cost of production. That gap, what we call profit, is such a powerful and attractive notion that we have created an entire classification of organization (often closely associated with doing some good in the world) built around a business model to deliver something else instead of profit. These, of course, are the non-profits, or not-for-profits.

The revolution that is rapidly gathering adherents today seems intent on merging the “not-for-profit” category of organization with “for-profit” to create some new (or perhaps ancient) hybrid innovation where profitable business does good for society. Those who seek the “transformation” of their businesses may take heart – it is on its way, just perhaps not in the form they had hoped.

“Transformation” has become the new Holy Grail in business, and finding it often seems appropriately mythic.

The question, “HOW can business leaders embed purpose into the thinking and activities of their organization?” is not just a question of method to be applied to some new business strategy, it really is a question of transformation.

Embedding a telos, or what I have previously called a purpose-for-others, generally requires shifting a whole organizational system outside its traditional boundaries. Thus, it requires that we not just understand how to improve existing paradigms, but understand how entire systems of thought and belief are changed.

Deconstructing transformation is not exactly a straightforward task, but the rich field of organization systems theory has provided a host of valuable insights.

There are what seem like whole libraries of models that attempt to explain both the workings of change in a human organization and the means to cause it. Decades of research in the 60s through the mid-80s have enhanced our understanding of how human organizations (and therefore businesses) function. Much of this work is well summarized in a seminal paper entitled “A Causal Model of Organizational Performance and Change” by Burke & Litwin.

At the core of their helpful explanation, Burke & Litwin outline a group of critical variables, or organizational elements. They distinguish “transactional” variables from “transformational” variables on the basis of the leverage each variable offers to affect a change in the system under study. I’d like to zero in on three of the “transformational” variables that will sound familiar: strategy, culture, and leadership.

If Burke & Litwin are right (I think they are), and strategy, culture, and leadership are the central transformational variables that will actually help us reshape the organizations where we serve, then they will offer much assistance with the problem of how.

And yet, before we press on, I submit that these three terms are so familiar that they have become hackneyed, which may inoculate us from any new understanding, or even breed contempt. Consequently, at the very least we need to reconsider these central concepts. So, my recent thinking on HOW suggests that the acceleration of a company towards living out a meaningful purpose can be realized only as much as its people focus in on the Choices they are making (of which strategy is an element), the Aspirations they share (a key element of healthy culture), and most significantly what they Embody as leaders (the most obvious mark of leadership).

In the remaining stories of this series, I’ll explain why the key organizational behaviors that will bring telos to life in a company are, quite simply, to Aspire to a particular telos, to Choose in ways that align, and to Embody that telos. Fiction will once again serve as our companion, and balance our obsession with reason alongside emotion, humor, wonder, and other elements of the human experience beyond mere cognition, all of which we experience in life and in business.

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