45 - How to Embed Purpose

How To Embed Purpose Into Your Company’s DNA?

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 think through the ways to use these ideas to help people and the organizations they worked in.

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

Those who made it offered their agreement with what I shared about the growing importance of purpose in business. But persistently, the same challenging question was being raised:

“HOW can business leaders embed a purpose into their company’s thinking and activities?”

This clarion call from my friends that I should address HOW is a common question, one which the “dubious science” of business management has often “answered”. Management literature is replete with an endless litany of how-to books, usually consisting of some formulaic 7, perhaps 3, or even 10-step process to initiate one positive change or another. I have often found these materials faddish, or at least simplistic, given the complexities that face organization systems, but my colleagues had a good point.

I could write volumes about the WHY and WHAT of this movement toward purpose in business, but 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 in the coming weeks.

We are all adrift on such a sea of uncertainty that mere creation of positive change in an organization is no longer sufficient.

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

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 notion that we have created an entire classification of organization (often closely associated with doing some good in the world) based on the lack of profit in its business model.

The revolution that is rapidly gathering adherents today seems to intend the merger of the “not-for-profit” category of organization with “for-profit” to create some new (or perhaps ancient) hybrid innovation where 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.

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.

Embedding purpose generally requires shifting an organizational system outside its traditional boundaries. Thus, to answer my friends’ well-intentioned request requires that we not just understand how to improve existing paradigms, but understand how entire systems of thought are changed.

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

There are veritable warehouses full of models that attempt to explain both the workings and the means of causing change in a human organization. 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, there is still the issue that these three terms are so familiar that they have become hackneyed, which may breed contempt or inoculate us from any new understanding.

Consequently, at the very least we need to reconceive of these central concepts. So, augmented by my recent thinking on HOW, I believe that the acceleration of a business organization towards living out a meaningful purpose can be realized as much as its people focus on Choice (of which strategy is an element), Aspiration (a key element of healthy culture), and most significantly Embodiment (the most obvious mark of leadership).

In the coming weeks, you’ll get a glimpse of why the key organizational behaviors that will embed purpose in a company are to Choose, to Aspire to, and to Embody it. 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.

To learn more about Telosity and join the movement to change business for the better, please visit telosity.net. Or you can reach Chris directly through houston@changealliance.com.

For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.

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