Mission, values and meaning

Professional environments are more and more characterized by uncertainty and the unexpected. If I have understood the work of business managers correctly, their job is just about the simplest in the world because we only ask one thing of them: to guarantee results. The only problem is that nowadays, it’s about guaranteeing results in a world where there are fewer and fewer guarantees on means.

A lot of people find themselves torn between this type of expectation for results and the absence of guarantee on the means. And in a world that has become uncertain, businesses’ traditional approaches are not working.

I profoundly believe that the base—the foundation—is constructed from the meaning and the mission. It’s not about answering the question “what,” that is to say, what do we have to do? Nor is it about answering the question: how are we going to do it? The question is “why?” And not “why,” the cause, but rather “why,” the purpose? In other words, what is our mission?

An efficient organization is one that has a true mission. Something that goes beyond what we have to do, to achieve, and to produce, and that serves a greater purpose that will bring everyone together around something that carries values. When I say “something that carries values,” it’s about true, noble and embodied values. Making sure that people’s values and the organization’s values are aligned will create an extraordinary force within the teams.

I have a friend who works in insurance. If his job is to sell insurance contracts, he has one of the most stupid jobs in the world. If his job is to make sure that families and businesses feel protected and that in the event of a disaster, everyone will be able to restart their activities in the best possible conditions and as quickly as possible, then he has the best job in the world. What is your job? What is your mission?

The Necessity to Be Agile

The second thing we need after the mission is the ability to be Agile. In other words, we have to get out of an organization of action that plans, achieves, tests or verifies that the strategy works and implements if need be. Because in an uncertain, complex and changing environment, in the time needed for the process to happen, the best case scenario is that we will have products that correspond exactly to what we had decided in the beginning, but that no longer correspond to what we actually need.

If there is something unexpected, a change in the environment, in the end what we had planned is no longer applicable. We thus need to be Agile and to plan action in short cycles with quick feedback. It’s about establishing iterative and incremental processes. We constantly need to adapt.

In a world where the organization’s environment would only change once in a while, we could produce or sell to the best of our ability, and once in while, have a Change Management Project to realign the organization with the needs of the environment. However, if we do that in a world of constant change, as soon as the project ends our new organization will start to be out of synch with what we need.

And six months later, we will have a great idea and will conduct a Change Management Project once again. We are going to reorganize everything and it will please everyone. After that, we will add quality—lots of it—but this time, we will optimize, again and again. We will tighten the bolts, make sure that everybody is in line with standards, and everything will freeze really well.

From the first second, we will be out of synch with the changing needs of the organization. Six months later, we will have another great idea. We will start yet another great Change Management Project that will please everyone, and we will fall back into the loop! It might not be like that in your organization, but it quite possibly is in other organizations.

Today, in a world of constant change, our work is to do what we have to do and adapt at the same time. If my work is to produce, I don’t produce from Monday to Thursday and then take care of quality only on Friday. What I do is I produce from Monday to Friday, and there is a transversal process that takes care of quality. In a world of continuous change, I need to produce while changing the way I produce. Changing is a transversal process, just like quality is. If I am a salesperson, I need to sell and change the way I sell on a daily basis.

These are micro changes and are not traumatizing. We must only take the habit so that these micro changes keep us in synch with the environment and so that big adaptations are not needed for big projects.

When I am moving forward on a glacier, if the terrain is flat and crevassed, I need to keep the rope very long and tight between my partner and I. If the glacier is really steep, or if we are on an icy slope, the rope between us needs to be really short. If I am on a flat glacier and I am getting near a steep slope, I will not wait to be at the foot of the slope to make a change and adjust the rope. I anticipate. I observe what is in front of me, and as I move forward, I change the way I progress. I gradually shorten the rope so that when I get to the ledge, the rope is already short and we can move on fluidly.

Really, the second most important point after the mission is Agility. We need to create organizations that allow us to organize and function in a way that enables us to invent the path as we follow it.

Governance and Management: The Necessary Evolution

In a business structure that is entirely hierarchical, the manager’s discourse is: here is what needs to be done, here is how you are going to do it (and implicitly: you had better do it). When everything goes well, during simple business development and in a universe of economic stability, this type of management has perverse effects, but it may work.

However, one thing is certain. It has been observed in all expeditions, and is visible in organizations, that we need everybody’s intelligence and engagement. In other words, we need participative management. And I would say we need even more than participative management. We need management in which the manager is there to help the information emerge.

The manager’s role is to make sure that the mission emerges and that it is shared by everyone. He must then ask the teams: what do you need to do what you have to do? He must no longer be a director of the “doing,” but a facilitator of human relations, a facilitator of the “being together.” He needs to be at the team’s service and give it the means to do what it has to do.

This means several things. It means that the manager is still as essential, but that his role has fundamentally changed. It also means that behind him, we will have teams that are self-organized. If I am ascending a mountain and every member of my team is free to do what they want, it can lead to anything or nothing at all.

This is not what we want in an organization. What we want is to give power to the team, to move toward a given objective. So the mission must guide us toward the objective. We will give power to the team that will organize itself and find the best ways to proceed for itself, on that specific terrain. We need a framework with defined constraints, a perimeter within which the team is autonomous and within which it must stay. Or, it must at least alert the manager if it needs to stray from it.

The manager is a facilitator at the service of the team, which is guided by a mission and has power because it is self-organized. But the team also feels secure, as a framework has been established. It is this type of organization that is able to advance on all types of terrain despite uncertainty and the unexpected.

Creativity and Breakthrough Innovation

The third most important element is the ability to step outside the framework. In many organizations, I intervene with executive committees and top managers, and what is paradoxical is that they are there to provide the framework, but also to help people step out of it.

Stepping out of the framework means being innovative, being creative. It is also part of the managers’ role to bring innovation, and particularly breakthrough innovation. In other words, there is not only one way of doing things, that is to say, innovating by improving the existing parameters of a product or a way of doing things. At one point we must actually step out of the frame entirely.

If I am preparing a kayak expedition, I can choose to paddle to move forward. If I have the right kayak, the right movement with the paddle, and if I train to have the necessary endurance, I will be able to paddle for, say, six hours a day and travel twenty to thirty kilometres. One way to see the world is to say that I can innovate by inventing a more optimal paddle, as well as a lighter kayak that will go slightly faster and allow me to win thanks to this small margin. But that is not what I want; I want radically different results.

And if I want radically different results, I have to accept to question my beliefs or to work with experts who do. That is how techniques of kayaks towed by a kite have been developed. In fact, it is a kite that flies on its own. It is not steered and has only one line. It takes five minutes to launch the kite, which will then tow the kayak. By doing this, I move three, four, and even five times faster than when I use a paddle. Would you rather use a paddle or an oar for six hours a day to obtain a certain result, or would you prefer stepping out of the framework for a moment to stop and invent something that allows you to get five times more results with ten times less effort?

In general, there is a consensus on the answer. But it requires us to question our beliefs, to start from scratch, and to question ourselves. The goal is not to ask ourselves how to find clients to optimize the product, but how to reinvent the business model, how to reinvent the products and actually step out of the framework.

The Ability to Manage Complexity

We have lived a long time in illusion. During the 19th and 20th centuries, we built the illusion that man had mastered everything with logic, mathematics, etc. It was partly true. We simply forgot that there is a part of the world that does not want to be translated into equations; it is called life. Today, this truth comes right back at us, as we are facing environments that are more and more complex. They are not just complicated, but actually really complex.

Yet, when we are confronted with complicated problems, what we usually need is more expertise (or the right one), a little more time, and that experts collaborate to find a solution. What will come out from this work is an understanding of the entire problem we are facing. The path to follow will show up, as after analyzing everything, experts will have achieved a strong level of certainty regarding the conclusion that if we do this or that, then we will get such and such result.

Organizations’ environments were sometimes simple and often complicated, and it is not the case anymore. For me, the environments of today’s organizations are sometimes complicated and often complex. And here, there is a great difference, as the approaches that are efficient when facing simple or complicated challenges or problems are the same, but with more depth. On the other hand, approaches that are efficient for complex problems, like the ones we face in expeditions, are very different.

A problem becomes complex when there are too many variables, actors, and interactions for us to be able to grasp everything as a whole. Often, this system, this combination, is unstable over time. If we try to understand part of the system, we find simple solutions. When we implement them, they do not take into account some essential dimensions, so we realize that it does not work.

Since this realization occurs late in the process, costs are high. We try to have a global vision of the system, but there are so many variables, so many elements and interactions, that we are not even sure that we are aware of them all. We are not sure that we have the levers to act on these elements, and when we try to model all of this, we end up with factories that can’t be used.

In the face of these complex problems, what we need is not only more expertise and more time. What we truly need is better collective intuition. These are big words, aren’t they? First there is intuition. We are going to steer the business by intuition? Holy moly! My accounts, my shares, my curves!

It is not about doing everything intuitively, but we still need to resort to intuition. And not only my intuition because I am a manager, head of department, or business executive. Not only my intuition because I am an expert. We need collective intuition. Collective because it will give us a variety of viewing angles.

When facing a complex problem, we need the big boss’s strategic vision as much as that of the most recent employee, the client, or the supplier. We need everyone’s visions. We need specific methods that allow us to make sure we have access to 100% of the intelligence regarding people’s point of view of a situation.

The Indicators

All that remains is to put a few Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) on that to make sure we are going in the right direction. We obviously need to measure financial performance, but also the organization’s well-being, and that is, not only through a work satisfaction, pleasure or happiness survey every six months or two years. We need to have the ability to see, day after day, if the business’ wellness level is increasing or decreasing. Simple tools exist to assess this.
We also need to evaluate the business’s ability to learn. Because the more the world changes, the more the ability to learn quickly from competitors offers a competitive advantage. These are real ongoing projects, not only in terms of the amount of training or its quality, but also regarding internal coaching and mentoring. It can even be about the search I made on Google. All of this is learning.

An efficient business has a mission, Agility, management that facilitates creativity and breakthrough innovation. It has the ability to face complex problems and closely monitor, on a daily basis, its financial performance, its well-being, and its ability to learn.

Olivier Soudieux

Adventurer, professional speaker, trainer, and business manager, Olivier Soudieux has managed projects for different IT organizations. At the crossroads of business and remote expeditions, he shares his time between extreme projects, training and conferences that multiply individual and collective capacities in the face of adversity.

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