Listening to Purpose
As described more fully in the Background article, “Evolutionary Purpose”, one of the defining characteristics of Teal organizations is how decision-making and actions are driven by a desire to fulfill the organization’s purpose, a purpose which evolves over time and which is distinct from maximizing profits or beating the competition. If we accept that an organization has its own energy, its own sense of direction, and that its members’ roles are to align with rather than dictate that direction, the question becomes, “How do we find out where it wants to go?” As a result, a critical organizational process in Teal organizations is what is often referred to as “Listening to Purpose.”
The simplest answer to finding out where an organization wants to go: do nothing special. Let self-management work its magic. There is a word that often comes up with Teal pioneers: sensing. We are all natural sensors; we are gifted to notice when something isn’t working as well as it could or when a new opportunity opens up. With self-management, everybody can be a sensor and initiate changes— just as in a living organism every cell senses its environment and can alert the organism to needed change. We cannot stop sensing. Sensing happens everywhere, all the time, but in traditional organizations, the information often gets filtered out. Only the signals sensed at the top are acted upon, but unfortunately these signals are often distorted and far removed from reality on the ground. Holacracy’s Brian Robertson uses a powerful analogy to talk about organizations filtering people’s ability to sense their environment:
A transformative experience [happened happened] for me when I nearly crashed an airplane. I was a student pilot, and shortly into a solo flight my “Low Voltage” light came on. Every other instrument was telling me “all is well,” so I ignored it, just like we do in organizational life all the time, when one lone “instrument” (a human) senses something that no one else does. Ignoring a key instrument proved to be a very bad decision when flying an airplane and helped catalyze my search for organizational approaches that didn’t suffer from the same blindness— how can an organization fully harness each of us [as as] human instruments, without “outvoting the low-voltage light”?
For an example of how this might work in practice, see “Concrete Examples for Inspiration - Buurtzorg” below.
Brian goes on to say, “… getting clear on purpose is more like detective work than like creative work. What you are looking for is already there, waiting to be found— it is no more a decision than your child’s purpose is. Simply ask yourself: “On the basis of our current context and the resources, talents, and capacities at our disposal, the products or services we offer, the history of the company and its market space, and so on, what’s the deepest potential it can help create or manifest in the world? Why does the world need it?”
While people are naturally gifted sensors, we can increase our capacity to sense with practice. Meditative or spiritual practices, in particular, can help us distance ourselves from self-centered needs and tap into broader sources of wisdom. For an example of how this might work in practice, see “Concrete Examples for Inspiration - Sounds True” below.
The Empty Chair
A simple, less esoteric practice to listen in to an organization’s purpose consists of allocating an empty chair at any meeting to represent the organization and its evolutionary purpose. Anybody participating in the meeting can, at any time, change seats, to listen to and become the voice of the organization. The empty chair can be used explicitly or as a guiding voice in our heads. Here are some questions one might tune into while sitting in that chair:
• Have the decisions and the discussion served you (the organization) well?
• How are you at the end of this meeting?
• What stands out to you from today’s meeting?
• In what direction do you want to go? At what speed? Are we being bold enough? Too bold?
• Is there something else that needs to be said or discussed?
Heiligenfeld, an operator of mental health facilities in Germany, uses a practice with a similar effect. As part of every meeting, someone is asked to volunteer to take possession of a pair of tingsha bells, two small hand cymbals that can make a beautiful, crystal-like sound. Whenever the person feels that ground rules are not being respected, or that the meeting is serving egos more than purpose, she can make the cymbals sing. The rule is that no one can speak until the last sound of the cymbal has died out— which takes a surprisingly long time. During the silence, participants are to reflect on the question: “Am I in service to the topic we are discussing and to the organization?” Colleagues are now so used to this practice that simply reaching out to the cymbals is all it takes to get a meeting back on track.
Large Group Processes
While the empty chair is typically used on a day-to-day basis, when an organization faces a major inflection point, there are a number of more elaborate processes that can help large groups of people to listen in jointly to their organization’s purpose and sense of direction. These processes include Otto Scharmer’s “Theory U,” David Cooperrider’s “Appreciative Inquiry,” Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff’s “Future Search,” “World Café,” "Liberating Structures" and Harrison Owen’s “Open Space.”
These processes are non-hierarchical and self-organizing. They often bring the “whole system” into the room: all colleagues of an organization, whether a few dozen, hundreds, or thousands, come together for a working session of one or several days. Clients, partners, and suppliers can be invited to join, to add their perspective to the inquiry. Each of these processes comes with its particular format, but they have one thing in common: they achieve the unlikely feat of giving everybody a voice (even when thousands of people are involved), while at the same time channeling these voices toward a valuable collective outcome.
Teal organizations seem to have found that when a company is clear about its purpose, the outside world comes knocking at its door with opportunities. Sometimes it feels as if it isn’t only people inside the organization sensing where it wants to go, but people from the outside, too. At Buurtzorg for example, by now, people from all sorts of backgrounds get in touch with Jos de Blok and others in the organization to explore ideas that could shape where Buurtzorg might go next. De Blok and his colleagues accept these meetings and listen with open minds. When the discussion seems promising, they set up experiments and see what happens. There are no committees, no stage-gate processes, no set budgets. It really is that simple: discussions take place and things evolve from there. The feeling is that what is meant to happen will happen.
Frequently Asked Questions
One suggestion is to use tools like surveys or periodic group discussions to address this issue. At Buurtzorg, Jos de Blok and others talk about purpose all the time, but have never written down the organization’s purpose in the form of a mission statement. They find that keeping it oral keeps it alive and evolving and prevents it from becoming constraining.
See related article "Strategy" under "Major Organizational Processes".
Concrete cases for inspiration
Tami Simon, the founder of Sounds True, has found that spiritual practices have helped her develop her intuitive capacities, which she believes serves her well in her business:
“Intuition is basically my entire existence,” Tami states. She studies with a meditation teacher named Reggie Ray. Reggie’s teacher taught him how to “read the signs” and Reggie passed these teachings on to Tami. “It’s an art form and an indigenous survival skill. If you were on a hunt, you would watch for the tracks. That’s how we pick projects. We read the signs. How many people are talking about it? How many requests do we get for a particular author? And what are our inner feelings about the project? That’s very important, too.” The company “reads the signs” for internal issues as well. … One exercise that Tami finds useful for tapping into inspiration is a visualization exercise. She describes the process: “You visualize yourself going into the center of the Earth to tap into fresh waters and bring them to the surface. It’s weird; totally new ideas just emerge. The visualization calms down the chatty mind and creates the space for vision to come forward.”
Two nurses on a Buurtzorg team found themselves pondering the fact that elderly people, when they fall, often break their hips. Hip replacements are routine surgery, but patients don’t always recover the same autonomy. Could Buurtzorg play a role in preventing its older patients from falling down? The two nurses experimented and created a partnership with a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist from their neighborhood. They advised patients on small changes they could bring to their home interiors, and changes of habits that would minimize risks of falling down. Other teams showed interest, and the approach, now called Buurtzorg +, has spread throughout the country.
The two nurses sensed a need, and with the power of self-management acted upon it. Self-management helped the idea to spread. Any team interested in Buurtzorg + can sign up for a training event that teaches them the basics of how the concept works and how to create such a partnership in their neighborhood.
Early on in his tenure as CEO, Jean-François Zobrist invited all the factory employees to a meeting to figure out the organization’s raison d’être. The soul searching was prompted by a proposed order that came out of the blue from a French car manufacturer. Could they, within a year, supply not only a gear fork, but a full gearbox? This single order would be larger than all of FAVI’s existing business. Many people thought it was too risky. Zobrist felt the decision could not be made without inquiring into the purpose of the organization. In keeping with his style, he involved the whole company, in meetings with subgroups of 15 people at a time on Friday afternoons. He showed up at the meeting with no agenda and no process; he trusted that his colleagues would somehow self-organize in these meetings, reconvening every Friday if needed, until they had answered this most fundamental question: what is our purpose?
After much discussion, when the obvious but superficial ideas had been discarded, the answer emerged with clarity. FAVI has two reasons for existence, two fundamental purposes: the first is to provide meaningful work in the area of Hallencourt, a rural area in northern France where good work is rare; the second is to give and receive love from clients.
At FAVI, love, a word rarely heard in the world of business, has taken on real meaning. Operators don’t just send products to their clients, they send products into which they have put their heart. A few years ago, around Christmas time, an operator at FAVI molded excess brass into a few small figurines of Santa and of reindeers. He added the figurines into the boxes of finished products, rather like kids put a message in a bottle they throw out to sea, imagining that someone, somewhere, would find it. Other operators have since picked up on the idea and at random times of the year add brass figurines into their shipments, as little tokens of love to their counterparts working on assembly lines at Volkswagen or Volvo, who will find the figurines when they unpack the boxes. .
Notes and references
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09) Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4383-4394). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Robertson, Brian J. (2015-06-02). Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World (Kindle Locations 482-485). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4411-4413). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4432-4437). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 3595-3602). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4445-4454). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4470-4478). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4352-4354). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4413-4424). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4396-4406). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
Laloux, Frederic (2014-02-09). Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Kindle Locations 4363-4378). Nelson Parker. Kindle Edition ↩︎