Collins & Porras, in their now famous book "Built to Last" studied a range of the world's most successful organisations, success being determined by longevity as well as profitability. Their original theory was that powerful and charismatic leadership sat behind the success of every organisation, and particularly those companies that were "built to last". Their findings were to provide a very different scenario for sustainable success.
The compelling "sell" in the work of Collins & Porras is not that they studied and found an emergent pattern between highly successful companies alone. Their chosen point of comparison profoundly reinforced their findings. They did not compare the best to the worst - they compared the best to the nearly best. The differences were specific and far-reaching. In essence, their findings were quite simple.
Firstly, "built to last" organisations had a clearly articulated and commonly owned "core ideology". This core ideology comprised of a fundamental purpose that could not, in all reality, ever be completed, and a clear and well-recognised set of organisational values.
This core purpose and the values that sustained it were, according to Collins & Porras, known by all staff, were adhered to by all leaders and were used to benchmark things as diverse as recruitment policies, staff employment conditions, marketing messages and long range business plans.
The core ideology was founded on the importance of controlling and preserving the core - what the business "had yet to do" and what it stood for, its values. The second critical element that the authors uncovered was an entrenched philosophy that sought to achieve operational autonomy with a focus on stimulating progress.
This second component comprised of "visionary ambitions" or, in the language of Built to Last, Big Hairy Audacious Goals or BHAGS. These visionary goals were set by all of the Built to Last companies. They focused on ambitions that would stretch the organisational capacity, give people a sense of excitement, be a little more than most thought the business could achieve and would, on a continuous basis, move the organisation towards the achievement of core purpose.
These companies recognised that in order to find one thing that would substantially move the company forward they would need to try many things.
The encouraged a sense of fearlessness around pursuing new and innovative ideas, providing they supported the core purpose and sustained the values that were part of the core ideology. In another watershed publication, The Living Organisation by Arie de Gues, the author reviewed the experience of the Shell Scenario planners who identified a very similar set of capacities.
This group of people (and many of their subsequent successors) was responsible for postulating a whole range of possible scenarios for the Shell Group of Companies and then for analysing the various factors that would or wouldn't make such scenarios possible. In the course of their research, they uncovered a very small number of organisations (40 in all) who had existed for as long as, or longer than, Shell, ie. one hundred years or more. They came across such companies as the Swedish Stora which today is a major paper, pulp and chemical manufacturer.
Research revealed that it had had the character of a publicly owned company from its very early beginnings, more than 700 years ago, as a copper mine in central Sweden. They also looked at the Sumitomo Group which had its origins as a copper casting shop founded by Riemon Soga in the year 1590.
The conclusion of the scenario planners was that the evidence was sufficient to suggest that the 'natural lifespan' of an organisation could be as long as two or three centuries. Consider the life span of an organisation today.
A company is considered successful if it sees out fifty years or so. Over time, reflecting back on such research, de Gues came to the conclusion that there were four key components to longevity. They included:
- Sensitivity to the environment (which) represents a company's ability to learn and adapt
- Cohesion and identity (which represent) aspects of a company's innate ability to build a community and persona for itself
- Tolerance and its corollary decentralisation (which represent) symptoms of a company's awareness of ecology; its ability to build constructive relationships with other entities, within and outside itself
- Conservative financing (which represent) the ability to govern its own growth and evolution (by controlling the source of its own capital).
Visions, both personal and organisational, are critical to the wellness of individuals, organisations, communities and nations.
With a positive sense of the future, we become engaged in the act of creation. We enjoy a sense of personal "belonging", knowing, to greater or lesser extents, that our actions contribute to something more than we alone could achieve. Without a personal or organisational vision that we feel ownership over, are motivated by and have a sense of our power to contribute towards, the daily task of living can become an overwhelming, sometimes painful and often banal, mountain of largely meaningless trivia.
With a vision, and action to support it, we can change the world.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Dattner Grant Pty Ltd - www.dattnergrant.com.au