A simple question—with a not-so-simple answer. Many answers boil down to this: a group of people who come together to accomplish a common purpose, often articulated as the organization’s “mission.” “Purpose,” it seems, is the organization’s driving force, its primary consideration in both tactical and strategic decisions. Indeed, this conclusion is borne out in on-the-ground organizational practices among countless organizations. In particular, when it comes to resource deployment – especially human resource deployment,
If purpose is primary, then people necessarily become secondary.
A provocative conclusion, I realize. But consider the myriad “difficult decisions” management teams face as a matter of pragmatic fact, week in and week out. In the vast majority of modern organizations, when it becomes a choice between, say, what seems to be an economic imperative and people-related considerations, which inevitably wins? But is it necessary that this is almost always the case? Is there another way of looking at this tension between purpose and people—a tension that is, in actuality, a construct of modern management practice? Such questions become especially relevant in truly contemporary organizations, and among organizations with aspirations to transform themselves into 21st-century enterprises.
What if “purpose” is not the purpose of organization? What if “purpose” comes out of the organization’s people and their interactions? In other, more technical, words, what if “purpose” is an emergent property of the contemporary organization’s open system dynamics in the complex environment that is today’s world? To put it more simply: Bring people together. Have them interact among more than economic considerations and the purpose of that organization will emerge. If one considers the massive successes of both recently created organizations and those which have sustained multiple transitions over their history, irrespective of their size, it’s not difficult to see that this idea, in most cases, describes the history of contemporary success and the successful commercialization of disruptive ideas—those that create a quantum leap in user/consumer experience, often transforming markets and industries.
Back to the first question: What is Organization in this context of contemporary organizational design and behaviour? Of course, that raises a precursor question: What is the context that best captures the underlying dynamics of our contemporary world? Whether one describes the practical complexity of today as the “Pull Economy,” (beautifully described and elucidated by John Seely Brown & John Hagel III) or as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) – a term that originated in the US military, since co-opted by American business which never met a militaristic metaphor it didn’t like – this ain’t your grandfather’s organizational environment.
I prefer to think of today’s conditions as being Ubiquitously Connected – always connected to everyone, everything, and everywhere, whether we realize it or explicitly choose to participate in it, or not – and therefore, Pervasively Proximate – always next to, or in relationship with, everyone, everything, and everywhere. Always connected, and always in relationship. Thus, our ideal model of organization in our contemporary context could be characterized as a Connected Relationship Organization.
I have described such an organization in terms of five Valence (connecting, combining, interacting, uniting) relationships, namely: Economic, Affective, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological (there’s much more about Valence Theory, its derivation and application here). Defining organization in these terms has all sorts of interesting consequences that have the potential to transform the way we hire and manage people, the ways in which we enact organizational culture, how we create business models, form strategy, and enable innovation, and even understand the practice of leadership itself. Based on reconceiving Organization as an emergent entity arising from Valence-relationship interactions among people, our mindframe about all sorts of practical issues can shift. For example, in a Valence conception:
- Relationship & Effects—The purpose of organization is simply to bring people into relationship, specifically to express the effects of these five valence relationships among its various constituencies;
- "Purpose" & Mission—The “purpose” or mission of any particular organization is emergent from the members (whether they represent internal or external constituencies) and the unique organizational dynamics enabled and enacted; which means,
- Human Non-fungibility—People are not interchangeable based on skills, competencies, or prior experience (nominally) doing the same job for which you hired them; besides the implication that every new hire creates their job in their own image, so to speak, this principle of human non-fungibility suggests that,
- Hiring is a Transformational Act—Every new hire and every employee departure necessarily transforms the organization because the nature of the relationships among people and with the organization itself necessarily change as the people change; and finally,
- Leadership & An Alternate Future—Contemporary leadership is not about “leading” in the conventional conception of that word. Rather, the contemporary leader creates a conducive environment in which an organization’s members share experiences in effecting these valence relationships, and from these shared experiences an alternate future becomes possible.
“An alternate future becomes possible.”
All of this is well and fine with respect to the new person who is, whether they realize it or not, an agent of change the moment they sign back the offer of employment. But what of those members who are there to welcome (aka, “onboard”) that new addition? What of those who remain after someone departs—or worse, after many someones depart, for instance, after a major restructuring? A focus on reconstituting the Valence relationships to enable intentional and desired transformation creates brand new, 21st-century opportunities for the HR function. Such intentionality when it comes to re-establishing key relationships can be augmented by specialists invited into the organization who can provide unique expertise in transformational coaching for individuals and teams, humanistic organization development interventions, and “inplacement” services (the complement of “outplacement”) in which individuals about to arrive in an organization receive specific coaching that will enable them to bring their best in their new assignment.
In a world that is now all about the transformative effects of connected relationship organizations, isn’t it a worthwhile investment to specifically focus on making those relationships the most effective they can be?