By Dan McCormick, MHA | June 8, 2015
Chief Executive Officer, ETR
Have you noticed that the pace of change is accelerating? Of course! We all have. And we're hearing about it over and over, with greater and greater frequency. “Be agile.” “Pivot quickly.” “Re-invent yourself.”
But how do we put these slogans to work to improve our organizations?
I believe one of the best ways to successfully navigate today’s world of high-velocity change is to create and sustain high-vitality organizations.
A high-vitality organization is characterized by energy, curiosity and courage. There is movement, change and surprise at every level. This often creates discomfort. Discomfort is good. It is the zone where learning and growth occur.
Staff in a high-vitality organization demonstrate an ability to put forth audacious possibilities. They also manifest concrete achievements.
This is demanding. It can be difficult, and it’s also exciting and extraordinarily fulfilling.
Here are 5 principles that will be in evidence in a high-vitality environment.
What does it look like when the high-vitality organization puts these principles into practice? Here are some examples.
1. We understand change as a human phenomenon. To foster innovation, we keep people in the picture, center stage.
An organization can change its structure, its leadership, its deliverables, even its mission. But if it cannot also transform the hearts and minds of staff, the result will be too much pro forma and not enough invention and innovation. When people feel unmoored, they have a tendency to reach for what is known, not for what is new, better and different.
In a high-vitality organization, staff achieve a level of mastery that allows them to manage the disequilibrium of change, and still strive for what is new and possibly better. The organization supports them as they seek to be continuously agile.
This can be realized through such means as greater transparency throughout the organization, broader engagement of staff in planning and development of organizational strategy, and strategic recombination of work groups that bring together people with diverse talents and personalities. For example, I like to see groups that team up individuals attracted to risk and uncertainty with those who have more pragmatic or grounded perspectives. You can get some interesting ideas generated across those differences.
2. Our past does not predict our future. It does, however, provide vital data to inform our choices.
Low-vitality organizations often have well-founded attachments to the past, to what they know best. “This is how we always did it, and we were very successful,” people will say. “The way we used to do it was easier. And the work was for a good purpose.”
These are not bad experiences to value, but they are attitudes that can impede an organization’s progress in today’s high-velocity, change-oriented world. We must build organizations that are ready to make that perilous crossing from past to future. The truth is simple and stark: what once worked well will not serve us forever. Everything has a shelf life.
I believe until an organization is ready to set it all aside—assumptions, traditions, organizational structure—it’s impossible to assess new possibilities and find what is truly valuable and essential for future success.
3. Possibility thinking is an essential catalyst and produces the energy necessary for transformation.
We need to be conscious about the pace and substance of change, whatever that may be in our own industry or arena. This requires inventiveness and creativity. Something I call “possibility thinking” can both illuminate and drive change in delightfully vital ways. Consider…
Once upon a time, people did not fly. It was impossible—a matter only for tales and myths. Leonardo da Vinci drew flying machines, but even he probably realized his designs could not launch. People continued dreaming and designing, and then some began testing and iterating. And then, at a certain point in history, the belief that people could fly fell into the realm of possibility.
That’s possibility thinking at its best. It fuels innovation. Now, we fly all the time. We’ve been to the moon. We’ve sent robots to Mars. Flight is a given.
The universe of change today is part of a complex and often combustible ecosystem—a collection of multiple systems that influence each other and move in and out of equilibrium. Keeping the mind, and the organization, alive to possibility takes aspiration, declaration and commitment. And this creates vitality.
What’s possible in your universe? Don’t ever stop asking.
4. We begin with big questions, not answers.
Wouldn’t it be fine to have all the answers? You would have confidence and poise. The path ahead would be clear. Success would be certain.
But wait. You might also have arrogance. A narrowing of your vision. A constriction of possibility. After all, if you know exactly where you’re going, you don’t really need to wonder about the places you’re not going, right?
Curiosity and unknowing are essential components of vitality. Setting and reaching goals are necessary elements of organizational success, but it’s never useful to have all the answers. We should always be looking for the surprises that are out there in our accelerated-change world.
5. Our organization’s vitality is the direct product of a continuous and engaged search to be better and become the best.
It takes attention to make yourself, your work and your organization better. In a high-vitality organization, people consider how things are and how they could be. Better is always a possibility. Best is the goal.
Some years ago, I was doing work for an organization in Kuala Lumpur. Everything—absolutely everything—was different for me. The language, the food, the climate, the customs, the business transaction model, the light, the sounds. Following what was going on took every ounce of energy and attention I had. I felt like my brain was 100% engaged every minute of my work day.
That’s a difficult level of engagement to sustain in a more familiar setting, but I’d like to do more of it in my life now. And this brings us back to that matter of disequilibrium. It wakes up the brain. It makes us sharper. It keeps us thinking in more creative, engaged and innovative ways.
In a high-vitality organization, people make something good out of the disruptions that are an inevitable part of today’s organizational environment.
In some ways, these principles are aspirational, perhaps never fully realized. Bringing them into play, though, is a continuous process, one we’ve been working with here at ETR for some time. Through our consultative relationships, we’ve also assisted other organizations in rethinking their universe and bringing more vitality to their operations.
These practices create an exciting milieu. It’s demanding. It’s stimulating. It can be hugely rewarding. Sometimes it’s just downright fun.
More important, it improves the work. The organization is strengthened when we bring greater vitality into the mix. We are more tuned toward and connected to change and therefore better prepared for it. Once we develop those sea legs, we’re able to stay upright on deck even in incredibly rough seas.
This is a time when organizations worldwide are challenged. Resizing, readjustments, new alignments and partnerships, as well as fundamental reconsideration of purpose and mission, are commonplace. Some organizations simply will not survive.
In the current environment, I believe the work to create and cultivate vitality in our organizations is a necessary element of relevance, sustainability and growth.
We would like to hear about your own experience, within your organization, industry or field.