No we without WHY?

Article / Leadership

No we without WHY?
Kathelijne Drenth , Business Consultant, Netherlands

The foundation of virtually every organisation begins with a clear understanding of its purpose or intention.

No WE without WHY?

The foundation of virtually every organisation begins with a clear understanding of its purpose or intention. This is the motive driving the ‘why’ the organisation exists, why it strives to make products and deliver services whose value customers will experience and appreciate.

True co-creation can only occur/ arise if the purpose, the intention of the organisation is clear for everyone. For example, you buy a car in order to experience the freedom to drive from A to B. Or you undergo a medical procedure so as to get better. Of course, these products and services only occur by the grace of the people in the organisations. They are the ones who together turn ideas into something that customers appreciate. If that ‘alchemy’ proceeds well and in ways that are both relevant to customers and distinctive from competitors, then revenue, income and opportunities to invest will be plausible outcomes.

We can all name examples of companies delivering those valuable products and services. But how do they really come about? How do the employees of such a company manage to come together to be so distinctive? Why are spotlights shining on the concepts of 'Why' and 'Purpose'? And why are 'Why' and 'Purpose' in the beams of so many spotlights today?

Since Frederick Winslow Taylor founded the theory of scientific management to enhance productivity, organisations have been structured much more efficiently and divided into simple manageable departments, each tasked to deliver a clearly defined contribution to the entire value-creation process. With 200 years of relentless focus on efficiency in these Taylorian 'silos', the awareness of the Why of the whole organisation has most often been pushed into the background.
This is clearly illustrated by the small number of people in most organisations who still understand, feel connected to and strive to create value for customers.

It is axiomatic that we live in a world of constant change; a world that has become so unpredictable and uncontrollable that companies must be able to respond ever more rapidly in order to cope with murderous competition and simply to address changing customer needs.

Answers to this challenge are to be found less and less in the ever-smarter design of structures and systems. As the people within (and without) companies become more ‘connected’, organisations increasingly have to do this in co-creation with all stakeholders. The only way for an organisation to operate coherently is to look at the bigger picture in order to see the whole and to understand the organisations’ 'non-negotiables’ – those fundamentals that are "not to be disputed".

Non-negotiables are the parameters of 'purpose' that define the unique value-creating capability of the organisation. Defining the organisation ‘at peak’, this purpose differentiates it from all others. In practice it appears that those organisations that are conscious of their non-negotiables of purpose happen to be extremely successful and distinctive. Those leaders who have experience of working with non-negotiables also talk about them as being the DNA or the red thread that guides them in their evolutionary growth.

Because the non-negotiables make the overarching purpose of the organisation clear and explicit, they have an objectifying effect and facilitate co-working between people. Paradoxically they thus become negotiable in the longer term. Working with these precisely defined non-negotiables on a daily basis leads to an understanding that individual contributions of each colleague are essential in delivering optimal customer experience. Differences become valued and self-organisation rises to great heights. The mutual struggle inherent in silos turns into constructive co-creation.

Defining the WHY appears to act as a grand invitation, inspiring everyone to co-create the products and services that distinguish any great company: it opens up the potential for growth in uniqueness. For co-creation is really something different from merely doing things nicely together. Co-creation means working together with different colleagues, across disciplines and roles, cross-functionally and in a way that generates ideas and experiments. While ‘navigating emergence’ of your organisation, it is the WHY that makes striving for value-creation come true. Conversely, if an organisation’s overarching purpose is not clear, it also remains unclear what ‘glue’ connects its people with each other and what they strive together to achieve. However much individuals in such situations give of their utmost, this organisation will never achieve beyond the sub-optimal.

In summary, we in the West are facing a seismic cultural shift of thinking and acting, as institutions progress from silo-driven management toward collective individuals, reconnected with and contributing to their organisations’ whole purpose. Defining purpose clearly in cooperation with each other creates traction. The integration of purpose in everyday thinking and doing becomes extremely attractive, because everyone wants work that is meaningful and contributes to something that is essential in the lives of others. The sharper the definitions of non-negotiables, the greater their meaning and the more powerful the coherence of the organisations’ identity that they reveal, with the consequence that employees experience powerful reconnection with the 'catenary'.

When worked with intensively and regularly, non-negotiables hold everything together. Whether an organisation is structured as a matrix, a pyramid or a murmuration, non-negotiables strengthen the coherence and couple seamlessly and naturally with matters such as vision, mission, strategy and conventional management frameworks. As information about the organisation as a whole – working with its non-negotiables – resonates everywhere, the organisation becomes much more than the sum of its parts (or silos). Leaders who see their task as inviting the co-creation of purpose in organisations are the leaders of the future, leading with true business integrity. They are the ones who, like no others, understand that "we" cannot live without Why.

With thanks to James Allen and Chris Zook, Bain & Company for the term non- negotiables.

Kathelijne Drenth, CEO The Twelve B.V.

Theoretical background article: Drenth, K. & Leachman, R. (2014) From Silo to Whole: ISBN 978-0-9572630-1-7

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