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Life and Purpose

Individual and Social Organisms

'An entity that continuously adapts to its surroundings', could certainly be the definition of a living organism. It would also make a good strategy for an organisation. There are many similarities between a living organism and an organisation. There is however, a big difference between an individual organism and a social organism.

An individual organism - a human being, a dog, a germ - possesses a definable ‘I’; it is a discrete, independent entity with a certain type of behaviour. So a human being, with its brain, bowels, legs and lungs moves as one entity. When I get up to have a shower in the morning, my kidneys and right leg cannot decide to stay in bed for a bit longer.

A social organism - a company, a gaggle of geese, a soccer team, a school of fish - possesses a definable ‘we’. It is a collective made up of individual organisms. Even though a goose in a gaggle is directed by the leading goose, it can always decide to fly in a different direction. Within the collective action, the individual always has the choice to take an independent route at any given point in time. This choice is all the more likely if we're talking people instead of geese.

Independent of the Organism

So this is the crux of the matter: an organisation may be a living organism, but its individual parts, its people, can decide to operate independently at any given time, even if this is not in the interest of the organism.

However, as we discussed in the previous blogs: for a large group to function, rules and procedures are needed that people must adhere to, but the ones who will really make the difference are those who break the rules and procedures at the right moment. Breaking the rules in order to adapt best, to seize an opportunity or to avoid disaster.

Purpose: Uniting the Individual and the Social Organism

So how can we ensure that each individual acts in the interest of the entire organisation? Is there a similarity between an individual organism and a social organism? Could purpose be a factor which unites these two realms?

For me as a person, my purpose is ultimately to be happy, which involves being healthy and leading a meaningful life (this will mean different things to different people). The purpose of the organisation is ultimately also to be happy; being healthy and leading a meaningful life. Here also, what is considered 'meaningful' will be very different from organisation to organisation.

Now, when the individual members of a group share the purpose of the whole and therefore are aligned to get to a common goal, the total organism is most likely to adapt, survive and even thrive.

It is as Dee Hock (the man who made Visa big) says:

‘I believe that purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared, are the genetic code of any healthy organization. To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they'll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs.’

Isn’t this wonderful? Purpose is an entity you can consciously shape yourself; and although a 'purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared' sounds easy, it will involve a lot of work and constant attention. This is where leadership counts.

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