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Winning (Or Losing) Together

11 June 2017

I'm continuing work on the Easier Inc. book so I thought that I'd share another extract for this week's blog. I'm not sure whether I'll keep this piece in the final edit but time, your advice and the advice of my editor will tell. Let me know what you think.

In last week's blog I noted that our human need for purpose can be a strong pull towards enduring collaboration, if we can learn to harness it. This time, I'm rehearsing how, when organisations take people's need for purpose seriously, recognising it as something that has to be co-created rather than imposed, everybody wins. And the inverse is just as true...

Meeting Needs

The needs of institutions are not so different from those of many individuals.

Cash-flow, funding the pension pot and access to borrowing are strong hygiene factors for many organisations, similar to the needs that individuals have for income and employment security.

Where most people have a need for external validation - the esteem of others and perhaps especially the esteem of powerful others - most organisations have to keep pace with the expectations of share-holders, regulators, commissioners and inspectors or else run into trouble.

Institutions also have purpose related needs. They experience these somewhat differently to individuals but no less powerfully. For organisations the need for purpose looks like the need to stay relevant; to continue to offer something of value to the world. When an organisation loses sight of its basic value proposition - the thing it offers - it falters, loses its place and finds itself living on borrowed time.

Winning Together

In principle, it is easy to see how these needs of individuals and institutions can work together.

When people are fully connected to the purpose of their work (1), they enjoy intrinsic motivation, yielding higher performance. They are committed from their core and from this commitment benefits flow.

For example, intrinsic commitment creates alertness and insight so that challenges are identified and met with vigour and new opportunities are surfaced and seized. This keeps organisations relevant and valued (2), with positive consequences for sustainable performance (3).

As benefits accrue they can be recycled to reward employees. Most obviously, this can mean improved pay and conditions but it can also exist in the greater job security that comes with working in a sustainable, high performing organisation (4) or in the enhanced sense of purpose that comes with success and the opportunities that it creates (1).

Creating an environment where individuals are fully engaged with purpose can therefore be the foundation of a virtuous circle, where individuals and institutions win together into the future.

Losing Together

In "conventional" organisations, however, the picture is different because the logic of the organisation starts in a different place.

Clear that they need to maintain revenue, control cost, satisfy shareholders, regulators, commissioners and so on, such organisations make their need for security a primary point of focus (1). 

From these needs, high level objectives are set, for example, budgets and sales targets. These become service plans and change initiatives, each designed to bring performance in ‘on plan’.

The effect is for the organisation’s purpose in practice to become delivering its plan (2); something that is logically (and sometimes practically) different from doing what it must to remain relevant and add value to the world.

In order to deliver the plan, high level objectives are decomposed into objectives for individuals and teams. Sometimes these are linked to mechanisms for pay and reward but even when they are not, they still lean heavily on individuals' security related needs by providing the frame against which their performance is judged (3).

Appraising performance in this way amplifies people's awareness of the contingent nature of employment - the "unless you do this you won't get that" dynamic. This has a tendency to erode clarity of purpose and intrinsic motivation; distracted by "get that", human beings have a tendency to frame "do this" in terms that are more about the reward than the task, often with pernicious effects.

The consequence of all of this is that, at the level of individuals, purpose becomes something external and unflinching; imposed upon them by the process of planning, objective setting, reward and appraisal, not co-created with them adaptively in the face of emerging opportunities and challenges (4). 

What results can be described as alignment (more-or-less) but robbed of the opportunity to co-create purpose, individuals lack the intrinsic commitment that would lead them to be dynamic, adaptive and alert in response to the issues and opportunities that could pull their organisation ahead or, more simply, keep it relevant.

Ultimately then, under "conventional" management, individuals are reduced to being instruments of their institution’s intent rather than full partners in making that institution a success.

In failing to meet people’s need for purpose in a way that creates internal commitment, individuals and institutions end up losing together.

So what do you think? Should it stay in the book or not? How would you improve it or the 4 box model? Is any of it even relevant or useful?


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