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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Purpose – a powerful organizational driver

As the leading Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal states in “Our inner Ape”, our human nature is stretched in so many different directions that it is difficult to say whether we are naturally competitive or naturally community-building. But why this dichotomy at all? Why the choice? It seems that we are both cooperative and competitive, greatly depending on context and environmental factors. Each society and each group reaches its own balance – or not, with quite some variation between and within species. There are cultures that seem to be more violent than others and there are cultures that seem to be more peace loving - context and circumstances playing a large role in these differences. The more peace loving cultures seem to be better able and willing to iron out differences, to see the bigger picture, and to calculate trade-offs. Reconciliation or conflict resolution, which plays a large role in ironing out differences, has been studied in humans and animals alike (dolphins, hyenas, and chimpanzees) and it’s an interesting process and a teachable process. Either way, conflict seems inevitable when people or animals live close enough to each other. And as it has always been and will always be, it’s all about resources.
In primates and other animals, the main reason for peacemaking is not peace itself but shared purpose. After common trauma like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, for months afterwards tensions between the races in the city dropped and remained lower than before the attack. Overcoming trauma draws people together, it’s a shared purpose, as President Obama emphasized recently after the news of the capture of Osama Bin Laden. We see it after major disasters like the many violent tornadoes in the South of the U.S., after the Haiti disasters, and closer to my home country after the 1953 water disaster in the Netherlands or the bombings in Spain a few years ago. In the aftermath of disaster and hardship, it seems that we (finally) understand that we’re in this together, sharing a common purpose like safety, survival, and working through trauma. There also seems to be a sudden realization of what’s really important in life (maybe best witnessed after personal trauma and setback), often accompanied by the discovery that we’ve been lucky still being alive despite whatever disaster struck us. Mutual dependency fosters harmony. As history has proven, even solutions to conflicts between nations can be ‘solved’ by forming bonds where interdependency becomes overriding, so that conflicts bare the risk of losing allies, trading partners, and partners in defense more than the possible gains of conflicts (more land, resources, status etc.).
Organizations are in certain ways equally prone to the competition – cooperation debate and to the negatives of competitiveness. Any organization has a limited amount of financial and human resources and a limited amount of promotional opportunities just to name a few. A strong and clear organizational purpose can bring different groups of people within an organization together and reduce possible unwanted sides to competitiveness. In his book “It’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for” Roy M. Spence Jr. asserts that core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work, it makes them come and work together rather than compete and work against each other. Purpose reveals the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond just making money. Of course, purpose is certainly not everything (think of strong and inspiring leadership, effective management, succession planning, strategy, flexibility, and innovation.) but it all has to start with a purpose – it trumps everything.  Purpose is what drives everything your organization and your employees do. If you have a purpose and can articulate it with clarity and passion, then everything makes sense and everything flows.
Spence lists some of the many benefits of purpose:
- easier decision making with the rule to never violate the purpose
- deeper employee and customer engagement
- more personal fulfillment
- increased innovation
- and it provides a roadmap to hold your course along the way, without being too distracted by marketplace fluctuations, rising and falling trends, fluctuating business strategies, or competitors that come and go.

Purpose prevents much of the competition between departments too often seen in businesses. Purpose certainly is a strong factor in reconciling harmony and competitiveness. 

Concluding this post on a somewhat lighter note, I’d like to remark on a gender difference seen in at least many western cultures. For boys and men, rivalry and hostilities often are a way of establishing and negotiating status. This generally does not seem to stand in the way of good relations. After things got heated men often make up with jokes at the bar, or they don’t even feel they need to make up at all. They separate ‘business’ from personal and naturally fuse competitiveness with harmony. The expression ‘nothing personal’ is an often heard remark after a heated exchange. I’m sure most females reading this concluding remark recognize how different most women feel about rivalry and hostilities in conversations. This is where I’ll leave the gender differences for what they seem to be and ask you to focus on purpose, both in your life, and in your business, preferably with a strong relationship between the two.

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