Strategy, vision and purpose are not new inventions. Once upon a time people were in charge of their own work. Although it was mostly manual toil, people could take pride in their labour which brought satisfaction. With industrialisation labour became a commodity ruled by management. Management fads come and go but there is an underlying trend towards being ever more agile, ever quicker to respond, ever smarter – and ever more superficial. It is a trend that might make work meaningless, as people are increasingly motivated by extrinsic reward rather than the intrinsic value they create. Although everyone needs meaning in their life and their work, they may well find their work de-meaned to the point of being totally meaningless and the quality of their life suffers in consequence.
Somehow we need to find the way to make work more rewarding and meaningful. It is not too difficult, provided we are prepared to resist the relentless power of Mammon. This is the role of management in general and of HR in particular.
Meaning and significance
What is the meaning in anything? Isn’t meaning related to intention? Someone offers me food but if I am not hungry it is a useless gesture. If I intend to eat, my mind will map opportunities and costs so that it can navigate towards action. Consciously or unconsciously, it assigns meaning according to its intentions. Only when I entertain higher aspirations might I find deeper satisfaction. Here is how it works.
In the nature of things, every action has a What, How and Why. Often in ordinary life we fail to distinguish between these three and, losing sight of Why and How, we get caught up in What. As we succumb to the What of things we become more thing-like ourselves – and one day may wake up to the fact that we are living increasingly meaningless lives. Media and advertising manipulate our desires so that What we want is ever more stuff. We want titillation and instant gratification to prevent us feeling bored. This is the trap of materialism. Therefore we unwittingly become mere parts in a machine.
Let’s unpack it a bit.
Inner triad – What, How and Why
Inwardly humans (and maybe any intelligent being) develop the basic triad we label as Function (skill and knowledge), Being (or capacity – an emotional war zone) and Will (Intent to achieve a future state). In so far as we can become increasingly conscious of this triadic relationship, we become more of what we can be. As we do so the triad expands and with it our capability.
These days we tend to equate development with skills and knowledge because they can be trained and measured. However, our inner capacity increases with experience, provided we get it. Our will grows through our voluntary response to appropriate challenges. This all works better as you begin to understand it and moderate the interactions between the three.
Outer triad – What, How and Why
Outwardly we manifest these inner capabilities in a corresponding triad, as Operational work (the way we function in applying skill and knowledge), Leadership work (the way our capacity influences people we relate to) and Strategic work (the means of realising our intent).
Think about the fact that every person performs these three kinds of work every day of their lives, irrespective of their position, role, seniority or power, which are mere constructs of our usual way of organising.
The inner manifests as the outer
From a slightly different perspective we could see it this way:
Strategy; relates to WHY: A sense of purpose gives our actions a framework of meaning.
Leadership; relates to HOW: Shared values and principles guide the energies that flow between us.
Operations; relates to WHAT: A shared vision of a desired future outcome aligns our actions.
Clarify these three and you know where to put your energy, people feel that work is worthwhile and the negative aspects of stress are eliminated.
We can picture this as two triads overlaid – the inner and the outer.
In managing and leading, in coaching and facilitating, these triadic frameworks can help you clarify what is going on and thus help others to understand their situation and their behaviour and to bring What, How and Why closer to their ideal. That will bring more meaning into their lives, more job satisfaction and more fulfilment.
Aligning Strategy, Vision and Purpose
As we have seen, purpose is a broad framework we choose to operate within. It is the highest level of abstraction at which to think about the field of our actions. Vision is something achievable within a foreseeable timeframe – an imagined picture of what success looks like. Between our vision and our current reality is a gap and strategy is the framework by which we intend to bridge that gap. Sharing purpose, vision and strategy brings us into alignment.
Until we clarify our collective purpose we may all have different assumptions and be unwittingly pulling in different directions. You can think of any action, from the most trivial to the hugely important and significant, in terms of: To… (What is to be done), In a way that … (How it is to be done) and So that… (Why it is to be done).
Right now my operational work (To) is in giving form to a set of ideas (yours in reading and reflecting). My leadership work (In a way that) is in grasping the opportunity to share with you my insights (yours in entertaining these ideas and checking your own experience for verification). My strategic work (So that) is in packaging my own learning in a way I hope will be helpful to you and also to those to whom you relate (your strategic work is positioning my input in the complex of ideas that come your way so that one day you can use it). “So that” gives us the reason Why – a framework of meaning.
This is useful because it forces us to differentiate our What, How and Why, which are habitually conflated. I have used this framework with many senior teams. It helps them understand (and thus get a grip on) their role in helping people work towards increasing awareness – and hence to awaken their organisation to its human-ness. Unless we make these triads conscious, we easily confuse our interactions and unwittingly create imbalances that tie up our energies and make us less effective. Sorting these out with the help of a facilitator might take a day. It will be a day very well spent because it cuts through so much confusion which is sure to be frustrating effective action.
Vision – back from the future
Clarifying Vision might similarly take the best part of a day with a facilitator. It is an exercise in imagination – describing what success looks like, as if you were there in some future time. It helps that the timeframe be sufficient that you break with incrementalism (like tweaking last year’s business plan) but near enough to feel a continuity. Pooling everyone’s ideas can enable them to develop a bold narrative of future success that inspires cooperation.
With a clear vision, you can work back from the future to identify themes, sequences and pathways that will bring the vision into reality. Thus you can broad brush strategies that get you from where you are to where you want to be. But those strategic intentions will be moderated by your values, so a further exercise is to clarify the values that will guide you.
A force to be reckoned with
A group with a clear common purpose, a shared vision and shared values, is well equipped to make it all come true. Not only are their purpose, vision and values aligned, but the people are aligned with one-another. They become a team. Their jointly created mental frameworks align their energies and ideas so that their actions will also be in tune.
Huge amounts of energy, which would otherwise be expended in conflict and disagreement, in control and supervision, become available to get on with the job. Work becomes meaningful, enjoyable and fulfilling. Collectively, you will be effective and efficient. You will become externally rich and internally healthy and wealthy. Why would you not do it?
The author is John Varney, Founder and Lead Facilitator, Centre for Management Creativity
Interested? Need help? Want a chat? Phone 01729 830322 or email John