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This article is motivated by a desire for change. Specifically, a change to our organizations so that they are no longer entities that subsume us, and we are subservient to, but rather so that they become tools we can use to shape our society and collective future. A future that is more sustainable and equitable for us and for those who come after us.
All change starts with a question. Our aim is to help individuals explore a series of curious questions that can transform their organization to one that is FutureNormal © – an organization that acts meaningfully in its surroundings, aims for 100% wellbeing and sees money as a means not an end.
In our work with Griffith University MBA students and executives, we advise them to ask curious questions as the key to driving change in their organization. This is because curious questioning opens the space for exploration and innovation without creating an ideological battle between individuals; curiosity allows ideology to be sidestepped and ultimately trumped. Put simply, a question is less confrontational than a statement.
A good place to start changing an organization is a question about its vision or mission statement. The question is:Does your organization’s vision perpetuate a world you want to live in?
While some may seek to distinguish between a vision and a mission, it doesn’t really matter if the organization deals in one rather than the other, or any combination in between. The point is to get to the organization’s purpose and to start to interrogate what that permits and what world it perpetuates. This focus and starting place matters, because vision and mission statements are at the core of how an organization considers itself and what it wants to achieve; they are the guide for every conversation and for every action. They are the mental glue that provides a guiding framework for conversations and decisions, informing the ways anyone of us is expected to behave in the organization.
Consequently, if we want to realize a more sustainable future the first place to look is at an organization’s vision or mission, as those statements inform what type of future the organization is asking its employees and stakeholders to build. In this context, it is important to consider if the statements are about the organization only and silent on the world around it; as if the organization does not exist in a world or a society. Or are the statements incorporating a wider purpose?
Building on this, a momentary consideration allows us to realize that many organizations do not have a vision or mission that perpetuates a world we want to live in; all too frequently visions and missions are primarily concerned with the glorification of the organization, as opposed to recognizing that organizations are tools to shape the world around us. As a result, many organizations operate to a small and simple game that is focused on competitors, market share, returns and efficiency as opposed to a bigger, more complex game: something that is truly worth trying to perpetuate, a world we all want to live in, one that creates a thriving context for us all.
Thankfully the FutureNormal© is here, it is just not evenly spread. Organizations that answer the vision question in the affirmative include clothing company Patagonia, whose mission statement begins We’re in Business To Save Our Home Planet, and goes on to state At Patagonia, we appreciate that all life on Earth is under threat of extinction. We aim to use the resources we have – our business, our investments, our voice and our imaginations – to do something about it. Similarly, the Netherlands based Triodos Bank’s vision and mission states: Triodos Bank is in business to help create a society that protects and promotes the quality of life of all its members, and that has human dignity at its core. Within Australia, an organization that we advise, UAP (the world’s largest art manufacturer), has developed a mission and vision To keep exploring and creating visionary projects for the benefit of the place, the people and the planet. How does your organization’s vision compare to the examples offered above? Does it perpetuate a world we want to live in?
So many of us now want to help realize organizations that perpetuate a better world for us and our descendants, rather than organizations focused on a small, narrow game. It is, therefore, important that we consider the organization we work for and, perhaps with a colleague, ask: Does our organization’s vision perpetuate a world I (we) want to live in? If your organization does not have a vision or mission, based on your experience of working there, write down a rough version of what you think it is and proceed from that point. Secondary questions to support this exploration include: Does the vision consider our impact on the world around us? Our wellbeing? Those that will live on this planet after us? What behaviors does it permit? Is it inward or outward facing? Who is it for?
Through this questioning, keep asking: Why? If possible, capture your answers and, at some point, turn the question around and consider: If an organization is a tool for shaping the world around us, what do we want it to perpetuate? Answering this question is likely to be aspirational: that is okay, that is the point. You are now developing a new vision, one that is fit for purpose in this century, not the last.
Once you have worked through this core question and captured the essence of a new vision, the challenge is to make it into something pithy and memorable; memorable for all of the stakeholders of the organization, from employees to customers and everyone in between. This process will require continual iteration and a great test is to ask: Can this vision be articulated in one or two sentences? Is it memorable? Would you feel comfortable sharing this vision with family and friends? Is this the vision of an organization you want to work for? Is this the vision of an organization you would want your children to work for?
Finally, a key phrase that we advise Griffith University MBA students and executives to remember when transforming an organization to the FutureNormal© is purposeful incrementalism. Wherein it is important to start and to keep going in the relentless pursuit of transformation that may take years, not weeks and months. Remember that your organization is not a static thing, it is action, and thus the term ‘organization’ should be considered as a verb. You are, like all leaders, continually engaged in the process of organizing, the business is flow, the job of organizing never stops. Thus, don’t stop, pursue purposeful incrementalism and ensure the conversations and questions continue.Professor Nick Barter and Professor Chris Fleming
Nick and Chris are working together on a journey through their MBA teaching at Griffith University and advising to help organizations find their FutureNormal© and become fit for the challenges of the 21st Century. They are both professors at Griffith University. Nick is a professor of strategy and sustainability and Chris is a professor of economics. For more on how Griffith University’s MBA can help you think differently, head here (online and on campus).