Every organisation we have ever worked with has a plan. A plan that says something about their aspirations as a business. Some plans are pretty detailed and weighty - lots of graphs with lines pointing upwards and a bewildering amount of numbers. Other plans are, frankly, a bit thin on the detail but great in terms of spirit and purpose. Some plans are long in the making. Others are short statements of intent rapidly pulled together and never referred to again.
The one thing that all these plans have in common is that they are all trying to define success in some way. Every organisation wants to be successful. Of course it does. No one sets out to create an unsuccessful organisation, no team thrives on a lack of success, right?
But a curious thing happens when curious people - and we have a lot of them at Impact - start asking questions about the motives behind the plan. What happens is that a definition of success becomes far more difficult to pin down. Sometimes the conversations are actually embarrassing - punctuated by uncomfortable silences and followed by irritation at the seeming pointlessness of the questions.
It seems that, generally, we loathe talking about the definitions of success - and the greater the level of precision required the more we seem to struggle with it. What’s going on? We asked a few clever people in our community what they think is happening.
Measuring the unmeasurable?
The first group of answers all pointed to the difficulty of measuring things. What gets measured gets managed. But measuring intangible things – like definitions of success – is tough, so we tend to go for things that are easier to measure and use these as proxies. Defining success as “making more profit” is the clearest example.
“Money is a means to an end not an end it itself” said one of our commentators. They continued; “we are familiar with the problems of using profit as defining organisational success, especially maximizing profit at the expense of other things that might be very important to the business and to customers”
What this first group felt was that creating value should be at the heart of defining commercial success. Trying to create a set of measures that accurately reflect the process of creating value for customers and for other stakeholders is something that many companies seem to struggle with. This results in shortcuts in measuring - and therefore defining - success, in the interests of ease. Not good, but very common.
Operative goals dominate
The second group of answers suggested that for most organisations their definitions of success were multi-layered, highly nuanced and essentially political.
They were struck by a predominance of varied operative goals that often bore little relation to the stated intention of the company. In a famous study in 1989 Pfeffer and Salancik interviewed senior people from a range of companies and asked the simple question: ‘What is the main goal of your organisation?’. They found little agreement. Everyone seemed to view the organisation through their own narrow lense. The researchers concluded that the only really clear shared goal in organisations is survival.
So, it seems we are prone to defining organisational success within the boundaries of our own individual interests ahead of any overarching stated organisational intention. Again not good.
In good company
The final group of answers talked about organisations as communities of shared interest, seeing definitions of success through the social, psychological and emotional needs of employees. Here things like fellowship, fun, fulfillment and even love were felt to be important. But these are very difficult things to define, let alone easily measure.
Again the typical route is avoidance - dodging difficult questions about values, ethics and spirit when defining and measuring success in our organisations.
We all carry a deep and very human need for meaning, a desire for our lives to transcend from simply “earning a living” to additionally feeling part of something real, whole and worthwhile. We yearn for our contribution to count, to be meaningful, to leave a legacy.
There’s an inherent connection between these fundamental human needs and the individual experience of being an employee in an organisation. Aligning the interests of individuals with the needs of the organisation and continuing to find ways of expressing (and measuring) our definitions of success is crucial.
At Impact we refer to the process of this connection as building organisations that are worth working for.
A letter from the future
When it comes to defining personal success, one of our experiential methods is to ask participants to write a letter to themselves, from the future. They are asked to imagine themselves as elderly, offering perspectives to their present selves on what is actually important.
It is not uncommon for individuals to become very tearful through this process; it can touch something deep and real and can be transformatory for some.
Perhaps we should run some sessions that ask wider groups within organisations to look back from a vantage point in 20 years time, sending a letter to the current leadership team offering advice and guidance on what is important? It might be a practical way to define what we mean by “organisational success” when the answer to that question continues to be so elusive.