When centred at the heart of work, purpose helps people navigate uncertainty, inspires commitment, and even reveals untapped market potential
From severe supply chain disruptions to rising energy costs, semiconductor shortages, geopolitical tensions, or pandemic fuelled disruptions, rising inflation, increased cyber security threats, organisations the world over are grappling with a never-ending avalanche of uncertainties, the kind rarely witnessed in the past. Companies are seeking anchors to steady their operations when everything seems to be in a state of constant flux. Amid this turmoil, rather curiously, it is the response to the pandemic that seems to have provided the answer to navigate extreme uncertainties.
The CEO of a major global multinational was faced with an alarming emergency. Oxygen supplies were running critically low; hospital beds were unavailable; medicines were in short supply; a colleague and his family was desperately pleading for help – lives were at stake. Within hours an informal network of co-workers came into being and sprang into action; personal contacts were leveraged; emergency medical equipment and infrastructure was organized – lives were saved. During the second wave of the pandemic, colleagues responded to each other, and created an incredible system on the fly, to help each other in an unprecedented crisis, where every moment spelt the difference between life and death.
From fixed to fluid
How did they do what they did, functioning with amazing speed within the boundaries of the systems and processes of a legacy global organisation with a history running back nearly a century and a half, employing over 100,000 people, operating in 180 countries? The answer is simple – it was all about organisation culture; the bedrock of an institution that had been through all the industrial revolutions. Flexibility is not an inherent characteristic of such enterprises. Nevertheless, each time there is a challenge, these organisations have turned from fixed to fluid, and shown how strongly resilient they are.
A culture of integrity and respect for each other allowed such organisations to create space within the management team to revisit assumptions, celebrate changing direction, and admit that a conclusion was wrong was critical when you were in extremely uncertain situations. It was not about pointing fingers, but creating agility to rapidly adapt to fast-changing scenarios. The planning process considered several possibilities and create responses for each scenario.
What is culture?
Uncertainties, chaos, disruptions, are nothing new for companies that have survived wars, pandemics, technological, economic, and geopolitical disruptions throughout their lifespan. What one figured out, was that organisation culture provided a stoic foundation, that had enabled these companies to beat back every challenge, regardless of how intense those were.
What is culture? Culture is giving people a purpose to believe in; it’s an unwritten code of behaviour, of ways of doing things, and as someone said; “it’s how you behave when no one is watching you.”People long to belong, and they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Companies that fixate only on profits will lose ground to organisations that create a strong identity, that meets employees’ needs for affiliation, social cohesion, purpose, and meaning.
Culture is also defined as an organisational anchor that keeps our values and principles in place. Anchors provide people with a sense of stability and security. Similar to marine anchors, they help you overcome turbulence by staying grounded without capsizing. Psychological safety was something employees always craved for, and providing a sense of feeling safe, and being taken care of was embedded into our culture. Whatever environment your employees are in, if they do not feel psychologically safe, they will not be able to perform at their best. This was one of the major factors why companies can maintain their performance, and even improve on it despite the most challenging times.
Speed over perfection
The organisation culture, in this case study, placed employee health and safety at the top of the agenda during the crisis. This helped us to put speed over perfection. It wasn’t a time to gather all information and then decide. Once the most important pieces of information were in place, the machinery was set in motion, and room to make mid-course corrections built into decisions. In the post-pandemic world this lesson will prove to be invaluable. Opportunities come and go quickly during a crisis, so organisations need to be ready and willing to act fast, even if they sacrifice predictability in the process.
One of the leadership principles at Amazon is “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit” – which, as explained by Jeff Bezos —is a strategy to encourage leaders to avoid wasting time trying to secure universal agreement. Better to commit to a controversial decision, and then gather data and adjust if necessary. At Google’s Project-X, Alphabet’s moon-shot factory, they consciously celebrate failed projects as a data point that helps them narrow the range of options, and in doing so, accelerate innovation. Similarly, at Spotify, they have developed a framework for exploring the relationship between data and uncertainty that they call DIBB (Data, Insights, Beliefs and Bets). They use it to explicitly identify success metrics for new ideas and opportunities, and judging performance. This is essential in building organisational resilience.
Something bigger than yourself
Organisation culture also provides a sense of purpose in the work that we perform. It is not confined to the task, but connects the work to a larger purpose. It is the job of leadership to establish, articulate this connect, and make people understand that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Shaping a better world out of the power of mobile connectivity to deliver positive change is a purpose, that each of my team-mates across the world understood, and enjoyed being part of. This is what made all of us keep our commitments to customers. All of us felt that we were responsible for keeping the world connected when everyone was remote.
It’s often said that “where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” Indeed, employees aspire further when their energies are channelled to purpose. When centred at the heart of work, purpose helps people navigate uncertainty, inspires commitment, and even reveals untapped market potential. Future-ready organisations will clearly articulate what they stand for, why they exist, and will use purpose as the glue to connect employees, and stakeholders in ways that inform their business choices.