Destiny, Quest, Story - Transformative Learning Processes for the New Organization
By Michael E. Rock, Ed.D. | October 31, 1999
Destiny, Quest, Story
Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said it very well: "You cannot step into the same river twice." By the time you pull your foot out and then place it back into the water once more, the river has moved on. In short, change is the essential constant of our experience. In fact, change is the inner fabric of all life. Nothing remains still. All our hopes of wanting to capture the "moment in time," as it were, come to no avail. Time marches on. Homeostasis is not possible on the human journey. We don't have the option whether or not to change. What we do have is the attitudinal option to the change.
Transformative Learning Processes for the New Organization
I believe the three choices we have in life are as follows:
DESTINY is what life wants from us. I believe that each person has a vocation or calling in life and it is our task to align ourselves accordingly. This does not mean we are predestined or have no free will, but rather, that each of us has a unique vocation and contribution to make in life. If we neglect that task, or ignore it, we do so at our peril, and will be, as Jung wrote, "going through life like pigs to the slaughter."
QUEST is what we want from life. It is our interpretation of how to live the best possible life. It is our answer to life's question of who and what we will become. The trick is to make sure our quest is not totally out of sync with our destiny. We may want lots of things in life, but what is our essential vocation and calling? And how can we best align our wishes, wants and needs with our essential nature, or destiny?
STORY is the fruit of this interplay between destiny and quest. It is "the fallout," so to speak. It is our human journey storyline. Some stories are sad, others humourous, while still others are very noble.
I was reminded of these ideas as I remembered back to when I was a doctoral student at Indiana University in the early 1970s. I had picked up a book on learning and stopped abruptly in my tracks when I read the subtitle: Learning is change! The author had correctly pointed out that "to learn" is the same thing as saying "to change." The old-fashioned notion that learning is what we did in school, and that that part of our life is behind us now that we're working, simply is not true any more. Individuals and organizations that still operate by that obsolete philosophy will find themselves increasingly becoming dinosaurs. Life evolves. It doesn't stand still.
We are about to begin a new millennium, and since "learning = change," we must realize that every one of us has a lifelong task of learning, precisely because we are engaged in a lifelong process of change. We have always had this process of change. What is different today is the awareness of its inevitability and the intensity of the changes going on around us.
Case Situation: A Transformative Organization1
Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase Inc., believes in his people. The last few years have been tough on this corporate furniture maker, but the company is bouncing back with the help of its loyal employees. The mergers in the 1990s meant that companies were not always ready to buy furniture, but that didn't dampen Hackett's deep vision and values regarding employees. He knew that Steelcase had a vision and mission to accomplish (destiny), a strategic plan to get there (quest), and the result (story) of their unique interplay has continually sustained the belief that people matter.
If, as the saying goes, "the proof is in the pudding," Steelcase's story shows corporate integrity with its vision and mission. As the company regroups for the new millennium, Hackett says, "What good is it if you hit your numbers and you ruin lives? There's no social value in an approach like that." Hackett is clear on debunking the myth that working harder will always create better results. He says that in an age of intense change such as ours, "We have to know the fuel gauges of our people and we have to know what is possible and not go beyond those limits." In other words, according to Hackett, it is better to let people feel satisfied in all aspects of their lives than to drive them into the ground.
To stay competitive today, employees will often have to do more work and work harder than before. But it is up to companies to develop programs and policies to help their people cope with the added demands and the stress that these demands are bound to create.
Hackett's bottom line: create a profitable organization.
Hackett's top line: constantly emphasize to both rank and file and executives that their value as people is not defined by their job. Steelcase "walks the talk" and has adopted, for instance, a model of more numerous, smaller exercise facilities that enable staff to "sneak away with no hassles" at any time when they have a break in their day. They also offer staff healthy food on site and are exploring the idea of providing "restorative sleep" areas for staff so they can grab a quick nap if they are suffering from jet lag or just need to rejuvenate themselves. Executive offices have been redesigned and there is now a more open-concept "leadership community" on the fourth floor of its Grand Rapids, Mich., headquarters. Hackett's office is a mere 100 square feet of space. Office changes – which were reversible if they didn't work – have now changed the way executives work and have fostered much broader networking.
Lesson: A company can remain faithful to its vision and values (destiny), work its strategic plan (quest) and continue to work a robust corporate human journey (story).
Case Situation: The British Experience2
British brands that did not shift with the times and develop "brand intelligence," as my colleague Dr. Michael Cox calls it, have trod the way of the "slaughtered pigs."
Brand gurus conclude that British labels that are too rooted in the past or too much a passing fashion often forget there's no future without reinvention and taking risks. "Resistance to change is part of the collective failure of many British brands," believes Mac Cato, head of London brand consultants Cato Consulting. A brand must be nimble and quick, know where it came from, what it is and where it's going, Mr. Cato says.
Laura Ashley is a good example of a brand resting too long on its laurels. It came to fame riding a fashion wave for florals and believed the style was here to stay. As Laura Ashley expanded, its flowers bedecked everything from linens to lampshades and its stores spread to malls across America and major shopping districts in European cities. But florals have faded from fashion, and consumers have abandoned retailers like Laura Ashley and frumpy Marks & Spencer -- once hailed as Britain's main underwear merchant -- because they no longer know what these brands stand for, according to analysts.
"We became arrogant," acknowledges a Marks & Spencer official, discussing the retailer's woes. "We thought consumers would always come to us." Instead, they're flocking to retailers like Gap Inc., with its focused merchandising, minimalist look and apparel that reflects an edgy, contemporary lifestyle. "Why go to the Gap and not Marks & Spencer?" asks Mr. Cato. "Consumers want the Gap experience and its attitude."
Lesson: Companies must continually reinvest in a collective meditation, or executive retreat, on how they can remain faithful to their DESTINY (vision and values), work their strategic plans (QUEST), and continue to "write" and work a robust and profitable corporate human journey (STORY).
I have made parallels to the personal and corporate human journeys. While there are obvious differences between the two, the dynamics of transformation are essentially the same. Individuals and organizations have the same three-fold accountability:
We sometimes hear of friends and acquaintances who "took time off" to get their life back in order. Often this has meant an "outward bound" experience, or a sabbatical of some sort. It is no different with organizations. The best leverage that any organization has to survive in the global marketplace is to periodically have "inward bound" executive retreats to examine its corporate DESTINY, its corporate QUEST, and its corporate STORY. It is financially and ethically reprehensible to leave those processes up to fate because, as Carl Jung, M.D., pointed out (above), we might as well be "pigs going to the slaughter." Who wants that? I don't. And I don't think many organizations want that either.
We all have choices. Building relationship systems is just as important, possibly even more important for the new millennium workplace, as building financial, human resource, and labour relations systems. Don't leave home without them!