Cultivating a Purpose-Driven Organizational Culture
Bureaucracies are no match for complexity. They can’t handle the surprises we face every day, and worse, they’ll never surprise us with an unexpected breakthrough. This brings us to one of the most important things leaders and teams need to internalize: our way of working is made up. This is different from how it has to be or has always been. Every organization has a purpose. But only some organizations ensure that its purpose shows up at every level.
The team’s purpose serves the same function as the organizational one. Legacy Organizations are obsessed with measurement, often using it as a form of control — to find and punish weak performance. But when we obsess over metrics, we fall victim to Goodhart’s law, which states that a measure that becomes a target ceases to be a good measure. You’re doing it wrong if you aren’t making decisions and taking action based on your metrics. Ask every team in your organization to articulate their essential intent. Clarify your purpose so you can see it three decades later. Purpose enables freedom and autonomy by ensuring coherent action. The sense at the bottom is that leadership doesn’t trust anyone.
Stop trying to borrow wisdom and think for yourself. Face your difficulties and think. Suffering and difficulties provide opportunities to become better. Success is never giving up. Organizational debt is any structure or policy that no longer serves an organization. Within that definition, we see it manifest in many different ways at many other times. We need more time to work, but we pack our days with endless meetings. We need the necessary information buried in emails, documents, and data. We want speed and innovation, but we run from risk and inhibit our best people. We claim to work in teams but don’t trust one another. We know how we work isn’t working, but we can’t imagine an alternative. We long for change but need to figure out how to get it. We are addicted, despite ourselves, to the siren song of bureaucracy. People can be trusted and will trust one another to use judgment and do the right thing.
Organizational culture isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s an emergent phenomenon we must cultivate. Gurus, industrialists, unions, and universities created our way of working — generations of managers and workers who came before us. We can thank them for what still serves us and change the rest. To the legacy leader, everything still looks like a factory. And all our problems can be fixed if we work long hard enough. But our bureaucracies are different from complexity. They can’t handle the surprises we face every day, and worse, they’ll never surprise us with an unexpected breakthrough. This brings us to one of the most important things leaders and teams need to internalize: our way of working is made up. This is different from how it has to be or has always been.
A complicated system is a causal system subject to cause and effect. Problems with complicated systems have solutions. Complex systems comprise many interacting components. That exhibit adaptive or emergent behavior without requiring a leader or central control. As a result, complex systems are more about the relationships and interactions among their components.
The natural barrier to progress in the twenty-first century is us. The man who grasps principles can select his methods. We are addicted to the idea that the world can be predicted and controlled — that our stoplights are the only way to keep things in check. But when you view the world that way, today’s uncertainty and volatility trigger retreating to what has worked in the past. We need to squeeze out a little more efficiency and growth. We need to reorganize.
[¹]: Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization?