In 1994, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published Built to Last, an enduring business text – it was in its day the best-selling business book of all time – based on a long-running study of successful businesses. This book set out a framework that kickstarted a revolution for OD practitioners, CEOs, COOs, and HR folks in particular to attempt to emulate within their own workplaces what Collins and Porras called the ‘visionary organisation’.
And so we now have the all-pervading organisational culture of having ‘vision and values’. If your organisation doesn’t have a snappy vision and a set of three or five values plastered on posters in the staff canteen and on the back of toilet cubicle doors, then it’s really behind the times, right?
The problem has been – as is so often the case with management theory – the solutions pedalled by OD consultants et al have been watered down, over-simplified and reduced to exactly what I describe above: snappy vision statements and a set of three or five values plastered on posters in the staff canteen and the back of toilet cubicle doors.
They have been forcibly created. They are not real. The organisational values are not necessarily the values shared by staff in their personal lives. Cynicism is rife.
Let’s go back to some of Collins and Porras’s ideas, which (when implemented well) do stand the test of time:
“Core ideology defines a company’s timeless character. It’s the glue that holds the enterprise together even when everything else is up for grabs … a consistent identity that transcends product or market life cycles, technological breakthroughs, management fads, and individual leaders.”
Core ideology comprises core values and core purpose.
Core values are the handful of beliefs, guiding principles or tenets that are absolutely non-negotiable within an organisation. Crucially, they must be discovered, not created. They are not aspirational, they are real; they are lived day-to-day. This is where many organisations have failed by implementing the idea of core values poorly because they created an aspirational list.
Core purpose is “like a guiding star on the horizon – forever pursued but never reached.” It is the deeply-held and unchanging raison d’être of an organisation. Like core values, it must be discovered, not formulated. It is likely (but not necessarily) the reason the organisation was formed in the first place. What is an organisation if not a group of people coming together to pursue an aim? It is that aim. Do you share your organisation’s core purpose? Ask yourself, “When telling your children and/or other loved ones what you do for a living, would you feel proud in describing your work in terms of this purpose?”
Envisioned future (aka “vision”)
A core ideology “resides in the background, ever-present and ‘in the woodwork’”. To bring it to the forefront of people’s minds, an envisioned future is “in the foreground, focusing people’s attention on a specific goal … [it] is bold, exciting and emotionally charged.”
There are two elements: the BHAG and a vivid description.
The BHAG (“Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”) is the 10-30 year ambition, which should be tangible, and yet stretching and challenging. The ambition should be almost unreasonable, and yet inspiring. It should be punchy – no more than a phrase or sentence, and “… so exciting in its own right that it would continue to keep the organisation motivated even if the leaders who set the goal disappeared.”
A vivid description is a variety of ways to describe what achieving the BHAG would feel like. A common approach is to write a press release or news article that tells the story of how the BHAG was reached as if it had already been achieved. It inherently accesses the emotional connection to the vision as well as the rational connection. As such, it is aspirational: an exercise in storytelling, a rich description of a possible future, and inspiring and engaging link to the core purpose and values. Notice, it engages the heart as well as the head.
People within the organisation must truly believe that by pursuing the core purpose, living the core values and stretching their aim and performance to achieve the BHAG, then that vivid description is attainable. If the only statement of your envisioned future is your vision statement (i.e. BHAG) and your values are aspirational rather than real, then you’ve missed the point.
How can OD practitioners breathe some life back into these ideas and move on from the posters on the back of toilet cubicle doors? Joint diagnostic work can uncover the core purpose and values, as can other OD techniques such as the noble art of organisational loitering. The BHAG is an exercise in vision and strategy formulation. The vivid description is an excellent opportunity to adopt some of the ideas within Future Search (read on…).
OD thought leader: Marvin Weisbord
Weisbord was an early OD consultant, heavily influenced by Kurt Lewin, working in partnership with Peter Block. He is most famous for basing his consultancy practice on action research, his ‘six-box’ approach to organisational diagnosis and the Future Search methodology and global practitioner network. I have discussed action research and joint diagnosis elsewhere in this series of articles, so I will focus here on Future Search.
Future Search is an approach to helping large groups of diverse people come together to envision a future and plan the changes needed to achieve it. It is based on achieving a common understanding of the issues and making a personal commitment to action. Future Search is run by Weisbord and his partner Sandra Janoff with a global network of volunteer facilitators, although the techniques are available to anyone who seeks to effect change.
“Future Search … has become a global learning laboratory to refine techniques, strategies, group methods, and theories of action responsive to the extreme speed-up of life nearly everywhere. It evolved as a means for getting everybody improving whole systems and grew from our conviction that people have widely shared values for mutual respect, dignity, community, cooperation, and effective action.”
There are two key components: principle-based meeting design and a facilitation philosophy.
Meeting design is all about getting the ‘whole system’ in the room, exploring all the different perspectives present before seeking common ground, focusing on the future rather than arguing over the past, and utilising self-managing subgroups.
The facilitation philosophy surrounds doing as little as possible so that the participants do more! The facilitator’s job is to manage the process and create the conditions for people to participate. I also outlined some of the future search facilitation philosophy here.
The results of Future Search have been spectacular with ripple effects throughout the world: “Work on water quality in Bangladesh, for example, inspires conferences to improve the lot of battered women and street children in Iran, and leads eventually to the demobilization of child soldiers in the Southern Sudan. A participant in a future search on the strategic direction for the Women’s Sector in Northern Ireland follows by sponsoring one on integrated economic development in County Fermanagh. This leads to a future search for Northern Ireland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that stimulates work in other government departments and in arts communities in other countries. Reports of future searches in communities such as the Helmholtzplatz Neighborhood in Inner City Berlin sparks community conferences in Nobosibirsk, Siberia and the Altai Region and the Russian Far East. Future searches have been run with the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, Native Americans in the US and the Inuit in Canada. They have been run in business firms, cities, towns and provinces, schools and hospitals. From each future search flows a stream of actions once thought unattainable, such as widely-supported strategic plans, cooperation between public and private sectors, creating new avenues for funding, community health initiatives, parental involvement in schools, and so on.” (source: futuresearch.net).
Future Search principle-based meeting design and facilitation philosophy can be implemented in any meeting in any organisation and help make that meeting matter. The recommended reading below is an indispensable reference for the required facilitation skills and change approach for OD practitioners and, alongside Block’s Flawless Consulting, is the most thumbed book on my business bookshelf.
Recommended reading: Weisbord M and Janoff S, 2007, Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings that Matter, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler.
Next time in the A to Z of OD: X is for eXistential; Y is for Ybema
 I’m not sure where this phrase came from. It refers to the practice of hanging around organisations to understand their culture, and is indeed a noble art for OD practitioners.