Remembering Our Purpose

I recently had a discussion about a project we lost due to miscommunication about our estimate and what it meant. Performing a “lessons learned” about a painful lesson is always a bit of a roller coaster ride. Once you confront the pain of the loss, you begin to realize there is something you might gain from it, and growth appears at the doorstop of the loss.

What we do, why we exist, is simply to serve our clients. Our purpose is to do projects, whatever that scope might be. For our benefit, we establish and reinforce processes and systems to maintain consistency and predictability in achieving our purpose. Every company must do this to grow and prosper. Without the processes and systems, chaos results. When things happen, good or bad, without a baseline to assess the results, you don’t have a reference point for lessons learned – or as we call it, Opportunity for Improvement (OFI).

Sometimes, though, we forget that our processes and systems are not our reason for being. They do not define us, they only provide a framework for what defines us. When we let the framework define us, we lose focus on our true purpose. Our purpose is not to practice our processes and systems. It is to do projects.

The challenge is walking the fine line between practicing our processes to ensure predictability and consistency, and expecting the market to conform to our processes because that is the way we do things.

Neuroscientists have discovered the physiology of why experience and practice is an obstacle to innovation. With all the data input into our brains every day, processing familiar tasks is more efficient than processing new ones. Often, learning something new, such as a new way to do something, requires unlearning old ways; reprogramming the brain to make a new process or habit easier to do. Essentially, this is unlearning an old habit to form a new one.

While we cannot afford to dismiss what has worked for us in the past, we also cannot afford to allow it to stifle our progress. The world is changing so fast that to stop learning, even for a short period of time, is to fall behind. We must be focused on continual adaptation to the demands of our marketplace and our industry. If we get complacent with the “old standard,” we will soon become adept at the “sub-standard”. Do we rely on what we are most comfortable with at the exclusion of what we need to know, develop and learn, to get better and more efficient? How are we to know when we must shed old habits and ways of thinking to form new ones?

We start this journey by being open to change and having the courage to innovate. Award-winning speaker and human behavior consultant Holly Green suggests we be prepared to innovate every day. She suggests that the human brain has a powerful tendency to “see only what we already believe and continually seek to prove ourselves right.”

The problem with this tendency is that we are only capable of absorbing about 10% of the data presented to us each day. What 10% are we going to select? Typically, it will be the 10% that is most familiar. The brain consumes about 25% of the energy used by the human body. Learning and mastering new things that require us to unlearn old things consumes a great deal more energy. Therefore, old practices, structures and habits become convenient, easy and efficient for processing. However, they are not necessarily right, optimal, or in our best interests.

Chris Argyris, past organizational behavior and business theorist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, developed the “Ladder of Inference” in studying the brain’s processes. The Ladder includes seven steps:

  1. Observe data
  2. Select data
  3. Add meanings to the data
  4. Make assumptions from the meanings
  5. Draw conclusions
  6. Adopt beliefs
  7. Take actions

The first step, observe data, is limited as noted earlier that we only absorb 10% of the data we observe. What have we missed and why did we miss it? Selecting the data and adding meanings to the data includes the great risk of being subjective and self-fulfilling. When it is, the remaining steps on the ladder are impacted and potentially sub-optimal.

We are in competition every day in almost every aspect of our business. How do we win when our very decision-making processes are likely sub-optimal? As Holly Green puts it, “are you an elite team, or one that is working very hard just to be mediocre?” Green suggests that at each rung on the Ladder of Inference to take a pause and consider, “what if I am wrong? Is there something else? Could it be interpreted another way?”

In doing so, we open ourselves, our minds, to new ways of thinking. We might even open our minds to thinking like our clients: seeing the project and our services from their perspective and seeking to understand their motivations, purposes, intents and strategies. How will they interpret our deliverables? What is it they really need? How can we serve them better?

Their brains function the same way ours do, with the same Ladder of Inference and the same built-in limitations, preferences and biases. We might even begin to appreciate how our way of thinking makes little sense to them, frustrates them or erodes our relationship equity with them.

We must get away from expecting clients to conform to our models of service, and instead become experts at adapting our models to their unique experiences, preferences and expectations. It takes a culture of service to the next level. It requires change, learning and growth, which is a lot more invigorating than the status quo of working very hard to be mediocre.

When we remember that our true purpose is not to practice our processes, but to be skilled enough in those processes to adapt them to make our client’s experience better and optimally and mutually successful, then we become sustainably successful.

Simply put, that is why we do what we do.

Smart people don't learn ... because they have too much invested in proving what they know and avoiding being seen as not knowing.

Chris Argyris

In fact, people themselves are responsible for making the status quo so resistant to change. We are trapped by our own behavior.

Chris Argyris

Managers who are skilled communicators may also be good at covering up real problems.

Chris Argyris