Solving the problem of process-constrained change: The vision and purpose assumption

-- Lucinda Garthwaite and Daniel Sewell, CMP Founders and Lead Partners

In our March 12th  CMP blog post, we introduced the concept of process-constrained change. We suggested that process itself is not a problem; without deep consideration of stakeholders’ perspectives and insights, organizations make mistakes that seriously degrade their impact. But process can also slow down the pace of change such that organizations miss opportunities to respond to a changing environment. That is process-constrained change.  We suggested that systems thinking and organizational learning offer a way out of this conundrum.

In our April 2nd CMP blog post, we introduced three assumptions that can create process-constrained change:  The vision and purpose assumption, the final decision assumption, and the weight-of-input assumption.  Our next three posts will explore each of these. Today, we’re tackling the vision and purpose assumption.

Do you know your organization’s vision and purpose?

An organization’s vision is its image of how the world would look if the organization had its way, if it succeeded in doing what it exists to do. Peter Senge, who originated the idea of organizational learning with his colleagues at MIT, has said that an organization’s vision is its guiding star; you’ll never get there, but you can’t move forward without it.  The vision creates the context for establishing organizational goals - difference in vision, difference in goals.

The purpose of an organization is to focus its every effort on making that vision real. Purpose motivates the actions that move the organization towards its goals - difference in purpose, difference in actions.   If you are reading this right now, and you are certain you and your colleagues all understand your organization’s vision and purpose absolutely clearly, no doubt one of two things is true:  you are either part of a very rare aligned organization, or you’re wrong.

We encourage you to stop right now and write down in as clear language as you can what you believe your organization’s vision and purpose are, and what your responsibility is as part of the system addressing that vision and purpose.   If you are able to do this to your own satisfaction, ask a few trusted colleagues to do the same.  Then share what you wrote with one another.  Chances are your perspectives will be different, often very different.

An anchor, or a sail?

This is a recipe for process-constrained change.    Overt, unconscious, or covert differences about vision and purpose between people involved in any part of a decision or change-making process will act like an anchor on the ocean floor.  The ship will   slow     down      and,    finally,     stop.   It may seem like it’s moving, because the sea and weather are changing, and the crew is racing around making all kinds of changes to keep the ship stable.  There’s a lot going on, people are working hard, and they’re tired.  But the ship itself isn’t going anywhere.

That ship won’t last long, stuck there in the midst of the changing sea.  Certainly it won’t thrive, nor will its passengers or crew.  Neither will an organization.

That is how powerful this assumption is.  Often people in leadership, management or administrative positions believe they are clear on the vision and purpose of the organization.  As a group, leaders may even share a clear, common understanding.  They may have articulated that to the others in the organization. Perhaps the purpose and vision are on posters, in manuals, and are part of every orientation.  That's not enough.

In order to transform that anchor into a sail, assumptions must be transformed into clear, transparent, principles understood and accepted by everyone in the system.  Anchors slow and stop the boat.  Clear, transparent, shared principles catch the wind.

How to make the change?

How to make that transformation?  Conversation -- intentional dialogue and engagement -- careful listening to uncover a deep understanding of the organization’s history and values, as well as the organizational aspirations of all its stakeholders.  Shared vision and purpose are found in a synthesis of these.

This won’t happen, though, unless the other process-constraining assumptions are addressed, the final decision assumption, and the weight-of-input assumption.  So we will take those on in our next two posts.