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What if subtraction helped us to be in touch with purpose? Thinking and acting by subtraction - Part two

So what can we do?

The solution is not to eliminate addition completely, it is not in binary and polarized thinking... what we can do is, every time we think about a problem, remind ourselves that there is also the possibility of taking away. So it is not a question of stopping adding, we have seen how this way of thinking, of solving problems, of interpreting the world is essential. Rather, it is a question, when we are reflecting, for example, on a possible solution, of having the two alternatives equally present, of giving ourselves the possibility of also using subtraction. The more we are connected to purpose, the more this alternative will make sense.

This lecture is a way to help you be more aware, hopefully starting now something will help you, when you are thinking in additive terms, to subtract.

We will see in the next session the links between the deep connection to purpose and the possibility of taking away.

You have been working on purpose for a long time and you know by now that it is the "raison d'être" of the company, its why, the collective purpose that holds you together, but also the connection between the role of each and every one of you and the system. Now try to think of your role not in terms of a series of things to do but in terms of "why does it exist?" and "what contribution does it make to the company purpose". It is interesting to think of your role in these terms, first focusing on the "why" and then on the "how" and the "what", following Simon Sinek's Golden Circle model, and once this is clarified, linking ourselves to the "subtraction" and asking ourselves whether the how and the what only respond to an additional logic, which risks distancing us instead of helping us to focus on the essential. I know that many people may now be thinking "OK well, that's easy to say, but how do you do it?"...I therefore propose to open up some possibilities on how to put this into practice in business life but also in private life, starting from some axes of reflection.

  1. Meetings. There are some traps that can drive us to multiply meetings. Among them: thinking that operational meetings serve as motivational levers, when teams are in a phase of loss of meaning (the meeting that is needed, in these cases, is precisely on the 'why', possibly, certainly not on the 'what' nor on the 'how') or even worse, to test the group's commitment. Or meetings used in a self-referential manner, to fill loneliness.... I think of how many times recently I have heard "the staff must go back to the office" for no particular reason but only so that the hierarchies don't feel too lonely 😉 and in the same field, meetings convened to avoid the so-called "video call amnesia" that strikes us when we delude ourselves of our multitasking capabilities only to realise that if during the video call we have done something else then we don't really know what was decided and why... There is an acronym that renders well another contemporary dynamic that is FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out, the fear of being forgotten if we do not participate and attend everything that happens, which can push us to add meetings, events, business lunches etc. Finally, yet another bias, that of social conformism, which can push us to attend just because others go there...On the decision to subtract or add meetings, in addition to highlighting the value added on purpose, there is a simple tool that can help us to remain anchored and grounded in reality, the tool that I invite you to discover "How much does my meeting cost?" by going to this link https://hbr.org/2016/01/estimate-the-cost-of-a-meeting-with-this-calculator and which can help us decide
  2. On subtraction or addition decisions in to-do lists, the idea, which is not new, is to manage one's time better. For those who need sophisticated ideas and tools, I recommend reading the famous "Getting Things Done", otherwise there is this simple matrix that can help us eliminate something...it is not very new, it is a bit vintage indeed, but used well it can be the start to free up space:

Warning. Once you've freed up 20/30% of your days don't fill it up again!!!

  1. A new role in project groups, the subtraction manager. Why not make subtraction explicit, make it embodied, to help each other remember it, out of the additive routine? In project groups, one can then identify the role of "chief subtracting officer" who will have, among his or her objectives, that of reminding group members of the importance of subtracting, asking what to subtract in order to better achieve the objectives, a creative and challenging role that can prevent the project group from getting bogged down in a flood of activities that do not serve the purpose.
  2. Other areas of work subtraction: subtracting priorities (no, not everything is a priority!), subtracting people in copy of an email, subtracting sent emails, subtracting key points and slides from a presentation, subtracting the number of objectives, leaving only what really generates value on purpose, the OKR methodology offers interesting insights...
  3. Some subtraction ideas also outside of work... Subtract things brought on trips (with the airport crisis this way you only bring hand luggage and light!!! ), subtracting trips as we have been forced to learn to do over the last two years, emptying our social networks of relationships that make "noise", subtracting the things we have in our homes.. Marie Kondo teaches us how to empty our cupboards, subtracting space from our living spaces: the bigger the house, the more we tend to fill it, subtracting unnecessary consumption and never before has the focus on subtracting energy consumption been so closely aligned with the contextual conditions... in addition to freeing ourselves individually, we can make a collective contribution to the regeneration of the planet.

We move towards the conclusion of this moment together...summing up in a few points:

  1. It is not a question of no longer using addition but of also being aware of the possibility of subtraction
  2. Being connected and connected to purpose deeply helps us to make choices in one direction or another
  3. But our brain does not help us...it is wired to add; therefore, we need to have tricks that help us subtract
  4. Can you think of anything you feel like subtracting? What can you do as a small step in this regard?

Thank you for your attention!


Purpose

What if subtraction helped us to be in touch with purpose? - Part one

The following post is an excerpt of a talk that Nexus gave at one of two conferences, held at a large multinational company, on the day that is annually dedicated to a collective reflection on purpose. We will publish it in two parts, corresponding to two blogposts, one, this week,  introductory and one, next week,  dedicated to a more practical reflection with cues for action. 

Some time ago in Nexus we happened to read the book Subtract, written by an American researcher, Leidy Klotz, and the result of a series of observations and research; the book generated in us many reflections, it is as if there had been a before and an after, and these reflections have become transformations both in our work and in our personal lives.

We are telling you about them by linking them to the theme of purpose because, as we shall see, we found the idea of subtraction particularly suitable to celebrate this day and to continue the reflections we started last year around "purpose and regeneration" and "purpose and happiness".

To warm up, I propose a little exercise... try to think about improving a trip, since we are in the pre-holiday period, think about your next trip and how you could improve it... if you don't have to travel, think about how you would improve your house and write the results in the chat room... some said they would like a bigger house, a swimming pool, a trip with more time, more stages... others instead, and they are more or less half, reasoned differently, they said "I would like a house with fewer things" or "I would like to get rid of many objects"... perhaps the title of the conference influenced you a little, but this is good because, as we will see, since the idea of subtracting is not intuitive, it is good that there is something, like a title, that when we make a decision helps us to remember it.

I will now show you this figure and ask you how, with the minimum number of moves, to make it symmetrical:

Here again I see that you are now paying attention and in solving many and many have given themselves the opportunity to think about subtracting the top square, rather than adding squares. You may be surprised to know that of the adults who were involved in the same game, only a small fraction, 12%, came up with the solution 'by subtraction'. The others came up with additive solutions such as this one:

This game is part of a series of activities that were used to test the initial intuition that is the systematic preference for addition, the automatism that makes us think that the solution to a problem lies in addition.

In this seminar we will explore three points together:

  1. Why do we keep adding?
  2. What does purpose have to do with subtraction?
  3. How do we actually subtract?

Leidy Klotz, the researcher and professor at Virginia University who popularized the importance of the concept of 'subtraction' through his book 'Subtract', tells us that one day he was playing with Lego bricks with his son Ezra and that when faced with the problem of 'how to improve a construction', the child spontaneously started to remove bricks, while for him, the father, the natural answer was rather to add Lego pieces. From the surprise, felt by the researcher in this situation, came the intuition that later gave rise to numerous researches, repetitions of the experiment, consolidation of the theory.

But where does it come from, why this compulsion to add? Why do we add to prove we are competent? Why do we keep producing endless checklists for the sake of ticking them off and producing new ones? Why do we keep adding friends on social networks? Why is subtraction not taken into account?

There are several explanations that researchers have hypothesized, partly biological and partly cultural, let us look at some of them together. One hypothesis is that the compulsion to add is linked to other biases, fixed and often unconscious reasoning routines of our brain. For example, the sunk cost, i.e. the bias that makes it difficult to disinvest once we have invested because we perceive the losses and not the possible gains (that bias for which once we have paid the cinema ticket we stay even if we do not like the film, to put it in simple terms).

More generally, loss aversion could be another explanation, along with favouring the status quo over uncertainty due to change. Another, very fascinating, explanation could come from afar, from the evolution of the human species from nomadic to sedentary and, with the conquest of sedentarity and agriculture, from the acquired possibility/need to start accumulating objects, food, etc. in dwellings that became fixed and in urban agglomerations. And in this evolution, the search and accumulation of food becomes crucial for survival and continues to drive us despite modern conditions of relative abundance.

It should not be forgotten, however, that evolution is a balancing act between adding and subtracting, think for example of the ability to work with wood; but also of the very interesting phenomenon that takes place in our brains, which we might familiarly call 'synapse pruning' that allows us to regenerate our brains during the night's rest, eliminating what is not being used so as not to waste energy in its maintenance. And nature teaches us the same thing. In a healthy ecosystem, nature selects and promotes life on the one hand (thus adding) and at the same time promotes death by helping what is no longer needed to die. It is the process called regeneration that we talked about last year in relation to corporate purpose.

So perhaps we can reconnect with subtraction, but we have to make a little effort.

The compulsion to add can in fact cost us dearly: adding work all the time, adding meeting after meeting to a project, adding tasks to the to-do list, adding items in the house, food, cigarettes, social engagements, friends on social networks... The costs that the habit of adding generates are very high.

On an individual level, the stress, the feeling of never having finished, of being out of control, the 'mental load' that makes us wake up at night because we remember something we haven't done, the cluttering of our homes with useless objects... and on a collective level the excessive consumption that is making our planet uninhabitable.


Organisational Purpose: Starting with Why

Purpose is a powerful way of motivating people for action; of clarifying the ultimate goal your organisation is setting for itself, the primary "Why" that won't change even if you might pivot several times on your "What", and perhaps your "How".

In this short video, we bring together several approaches to Purpose-lead organisations, in order to help make sense of how to use this concept in a very practical way.

 


What being Purpose-led really means

Over the past few years – and we should all be grateful for it! – there has been an ever stronger emphasis on becoming a Purpose-led organisation, and for leaders in those organisations to lead with/from purpose.

 

Purpose: the new key to unlocking organisational performance?

 

The rationale is simple: if you are clear about your organisation’s purpose, decision-making will become easier (not necessarily easy, but at least easier!), because there will be no misunderstanding about what should orient them; as soon as they’ve integrated that purpose, your staff will know what to do without you having to tell them, leading to lots of virtuous cycle loops of more meaning at work, more autonomy, more well-being, less bureaucracy, more efficiency, etc. Your customers will be more intentional in choosing you, and more faithful in staying with you; and your shareholders might even relocate their decisions in a “shared-value creation” paradigm (see Michael Porter’s work), rather than in the narrow view of the sole “shareholder value” paradigm.

In other words, leading with Purpose can only be win-win, can’t it?

 

Well, it’s not that simple… As always, walking the talk is the primary challenge, even more so that we may not always be aware of how much our walking may diverge from our talking. And here’s a way to think about it.

 

Over 70 years ago (yes, this issue of Purpose is not new!), the Tavistock Institute was already exploring these issues, naming it “Primary task” at the time. A bit later, the Grubb Institute, who worked closely with the Tavistock, introduced the concept of Purpose, seen as “the impact that an organisation intends to have on its Context; the primary reason why an organisation exists”.

 

Three levels of Purpose

 

Gordon Lawrence, who worked for both institutes and was a leading figure in that field at the time, suggested, in the mid-70s, that there were in fact 3 levels of Purpose. Because his words were a bit ‘jargonny’, we’ve adapted them to the following:

The Formal Purpose is what used to be called, up to 5 years ago, the “mission statement” of the organisation, and has now often been rebranded as the “statement of Purpose”. As its name indicates, it is the formal expression of what the organisation sees as its primary reason of being – the formal description of the impact it wishes to create in the world.

 

Take Renault for example, one of France’s leading car manufacturers; their website describes their Purpose in this way: “We make the heart of innovation beat so that mobility brings us closer together”. Beyond “heart” and “closer together” – probably here to access our own emotional field – the key words in that statement are “innovation” and “mobility”. Put it succinctly, Renault’s purpose is to innovate in the field of mobility.

 

If you ask their staff, or their customers, they will probably tell you a different story. For them, Renault is a car manufacturer. From a staff perspective, Renault’s Informal Purpose (that story that we tell ourselves in corridors’ talk, or in meetings behind closed doors) is to make lots of cars that lots of customers will buy, in lots of different countries. A customer’s perspective on that informal purpose is probably a variation on that description, something like: Renault makes innovative / reliable / nice cars with a good quality/cost ratio.

 

There is yet another level of purpose though; one that is less visible, but nonetheless very much at the heart of any organisation’s activity. We call it the Enacted Purpose, and by that we mean the impact that the organisation is actually having on its context, whether it is aware of it or not. It is inferred by our assessment of those impacts – including those that are not always included in traditional impact assessment, and tend to be named ‘externalities’, or ‘collateral impact’.

 

One take on Renault’s activities could lead us to suggest that its enacted purpose could be to contribute to climate change, by creating machines that release CO² into the atmosphere. Of course it is not their intended purpose, but their impact on the world is such that an external eye could identify it as their enacted purpose.

 

Leading with Purpose

Renault is clear about the place of its Purpose in the company's strategy and operations: "Our Purpose is the foundation of everything: our values, our strategic plan, our orientations in terms of social and environmental responsibility" (Renault.com website on 22/02/2022).

 

However, in a purpose-led organisation, the challenge for leadership is to ensure that all three levels of purpose are aligned as much as possible, or at least that all actions are aimed at aligning them – as the figure below illustrates:

In order to do that, leaders will need to undertake an honest assessment of where their organisation is on those three levels, and take the corrective actions to reduce the gap between them.

They might also need to revisit the very statement of purpose that they’ve formally adopted. For Renault, it could go something like: “We make the heart of innovation beat so that environmentally-friendly mobility brings us closer together”.

 

Funny how 2 words can make such a difference! By inserting a connection to its own impact on the world’s ecosystems, Renault would go such a long way in creating the conditions for transforming its enacted purpose, setting out to leverage innovation not only at the service of mobility per se, but of an environmentally-friendly mobility. This would open huge avenues of transformation, not only in terms of products (moving to electric cars for example), but also of business models (see the carpet company Interface move from selling to leasing for example, where product ownership remains with the manufacturer, who’s much more inclined to ensure a much longer shelve-life for its products).

 

Leading with Purpose in the 21st century

 

As we just saw, leading with purpose is a double-edged sword: whilst it may be tempting to attract employee and customer loyalty with an inspiring formal purpose, it will only work, in the long run, if leaders ensure that they strive for aligning formal, informal, and enacted purposes.

Could this be a put-off for organisations wondering about becoming purpose-led organisations? Well, I hope not; for in the 21st century, we have no choice but to transform our businesses so that their impacts move from being degenerative, to being regenerative. And engaging one’s company around defining its purpose could be such an energising, fruitful way of doing it.

 


Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have got it all wrong

We are at a crucial point in the history of humanity. We know what the problem is: our human activities, since the start of the industrial revolution, have increasingly degraded our living environments, which has led to climate change (global warming, more frequent and more violent hurricanes, flooding, extreme forest fires…) and to the erosion of biodiversity around the world.

We also know what the solutions will need to look like, will need to involve: starting from now, and into the future, our human activities will need to work in symbiosis with natural ecosystems, rather than against them. In fact, given the breadth of our impact on Nature so far, our human activities will need to do more than that; more than preserve Nature, more than being “sustainable”: they will also need, to some extent, to contribute to restoring some of the natural capital that we have spent, some of the ecosystems that we have eroded even though we, humans, depend on them for our own survival.

Our human activities will therefore need to be REGENERATIVE.

The task at hand may seem daunting, impossible. The scope of the transformations required may feel so overwhelming that it might be easier to minimise the actual problem, or to seek an escape from it, however wild they may sound, i.e. flying to Mars and start a new human colony there.

In the early 60s, when JFK set the aim of landing a man on the Moon, everyone thought it would be impossible. Yet his Intention galvanised his country, and soon

many efforts converged from all sorts of fields to engage in an unprecedented display of collective intelligence, leading to Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing in 1969.

Today, we’re at such a “Moon moment”. Yet Bezos, Musk et al. have it all wrong. The star we need to reach for is not out there, external to us. It is inside of us. We need to pull together and be creative in order to transform what we produce and how we produce it – rather than build spaceships in order to continue producing what we’ve always produced just so that we can take it with us to another planet.

As humans, we have great, renewable energies inside of us: intelligence, creativity, solidarity, empathy, a capacity to collaborate with others, etc. It is time we apply those to meet the greatest challenge humanity has to face, and discover how we can, together, transform our businesses into regenerative businesses.

And for that, there is good news: some regenerative businesses already exist and are having beneficial impact, combining value creation with the restoration of natural ecosystems.

So stay tuned, for we, Nexus, are going on a journey around the world to meet them and discover what they do and how they do it, and we will be sharing those stories with you so that more and more people can be inspired by these examples.

Soon, a critical mass of businesses will start shifting towards becoming regenerative and, suddenly, that inner Moon we are seeking won’t feel out of reach after all.