Three Essential Focus Areas For Thriving Organizations

I’ve worked with many teams over the years. Some, very senior, stewarding and leading very complex environments. Some, more task oriented, contributing their respective pieces to a larger management puzzle. It is work that I love, growing from what I think of as my three core professionals lineages: 1) The Circle Way with Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, 2) Living Systems and Emergence with Margaret Wheatley, and 3) The Art of Hosting with Toke Moeller and Monica Nissen.

In some recent work with one of those senior teams, I offered the three directions above as foundational areas of attention. Each is needed, in some non-finish-line ways. Each is needed, to help an organization thrive. Each is needed to be held as part of the whole picture rather than as siloed dogma — which is the age-old challenge in the field of organizational behavior.

So as to offer learning, below I are brief descriptions of each of these foundational areas. Then I offer a bit of thinking on what happens when each area functions without the others. So as to offer a bit of encouragement for both the precision needed in organizations, as well as some of the more fuzzied ways getting to that precision.

  1. Aspirations — I think of aspirations as values. As principles to guide. It’s the things that a group cares about and must be in place for any of their work to have integrity. Aspirations are the things that lift us. They lift the human spirit. They speak to the core and center fo why it matters. Love. Kindness. Consciousness. Community. Justice. Equity. These are examples of what matters to many groups aspirationally.
  2. The Long Arc of Operations — I think of this long arc as strategy. An organization doesn’t do everything. It is not everything to everyone. It chooses. Often, three to five core areas of attention that guide the work over the longer arc of time. Sometimes a year. Sometimes a term of two years for a board or committee. Sometime longer. The long arc of operations brings commitment to the inspired values of aspirations.
  3. The Now of Implementation — I think of these moments of now as jobs to do. They are in the day to day. They are tasks. They are people doing their work, in the best of worlds, attached to the long arc of operations / strategy, and also animated by the aspirations of values. It’s chopping wood (yet knowing the wood is for purpose of fire, heat, warmth, or even beauty). It’s slicing the carrots (know that the soup or the stew feed us to keep us healthy). It’s sweeping the floors. It’s knocking on doors. It’s the day to day of doing the work.

Now, as I continue to learn about these three areas, I find it helpful to think about what each of these three focus areas are without the others. Because, it remains true that in organizations, often we do one of these well, but not the others. Or maybe two of these well, but not the other. I offer these observations to stir up a recommitment to the whole of organizational life and clarity of paths forward.

Implementation of Now without Strategy of the Long Arc and without Aspirations: (3 without 2 and 1) is incoherence. I think of it as scattershot. It looks like lot of activity, lots of busyness, but not attached to particular cohering directions. It’s budgets that run short while trying to do everything or too much. Likewise, Implementation without Aspirations (3 without 1) is too much of a job chart that so often runs on a shortage. It’s the computer retail and repair shop that can’t service repairs for it’s customers that buy from them. It’s giving most energy to putting out fires everywhere rather than putting enough effort into preventing fires.

The Long Arc of Strategy without the Implementation of Now and without Aspirations: (2 with 3 and 1) I think of this as quicksand. It looks like always starting over with strategy, yet never really sticking with a choice long enough to implement it. It’s adopting a focus but then losing that focus when there is turnover of staff and personnel. It’s being stuck in a perpetual revisiting of strategy. Too much rethinking. Not enough experimenting and fulfilling. Likewise, Strategy without Aspirations (2 without 1) is unanchored. It’s people doing what looks smart, but lacks essential animation. It’s good brains, but not enough heart to sustain the brains. It’s a shell of an exterior missing the essential organs of the interior that bring it to life.

Aspirational values without The Long Arc of Operations and without The Now of Implementation: (1 without 2 and 3) is a bit too much like getting high. It’s a party. It’s intoxication. It’s dreaming. Then dreaming more. Then reaffirming good values with one another. It is really fun stuff. It lifts people. And when done well, it calls out imagination and hopes and dreams together. It’s lots of good connection. But without choices or direction and without steps to express that strategy into being, it ends up unsustainable. It lacks the getting done, even failing / learning, so that other implementations and directions can be adopted.

Now, I want to be clear, my learning is about how each of these three areas are needed. It’s not hyper privileging one over the others (though this can sometimes be a short term necessity). And it is also true that underneath all of these three together is the work of culture building and organizational health. Because most groups I get to work with have very committed people and big desires. However, most are often stuck too, arguing one of these things over the other and then depleting their chances of next level thriving together.

It’s about integrating them together. It’s age-old. I count on circle. I count on living systems. I count on hosting (vs heroing — thx Meg Wheatley) to help move groups into a healthy animation together.

Here’s to many of us finding our way, perhaps guided by these three core areas of attention.

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