Community of Purpose

What a naval battle can tell us about building organizational trust

Warfare has often been a useful lens to understand strategy. Battles are rarely won or lost based on numerical strength alone, but on careful planning. Case in point was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Napoleon had his sights set on an invasion of England but needed to overcome a superior British Royal Navy which controlled the seas. He ordered Admiral Villeneuve to lead a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships to disrupt the Royal Navy so that Napoleon’s invasion forces could sail up the English Channel.

Admiral Horatio Nelson met the French-Spanish armada off the southwest coast of Spain. Though outnumbered, Nelson carried out a brilliant strategy, thoroughly decimating the other side without losing a single boat. How exactly did Nelson pull this off? He stopped directing his boat crews and let them decide for themselves how to fight the battle.

In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal shares the idea of “commander’s intent”. Rather than have leaders who are remote from the situation make decisions, people on the ground should have the agency to decide the best course of action. What actions they decide are informed by goals and objectives set forth by leadership.

“The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.”

– Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams

In large, complex organizations, a better approach is to be “eyes on, hands off”. This was how Nelson led his team, trusting them to make the right decisions. His orders before battle were simply that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”

In a world used to top-down decision making, this is a radical shift in ownership. It could not come soon enough though given the growing complexity of our work. Just in the past twenty years, we have seen a Cambrian explosion of technology change:

  • Shift in customer experience from client/server to web to mobile
  • Massive expansion of broadband Internet connectivity
  • Exponential growth in data from ever growing sources
  • More powerful systems and applications to scale with growth
  • Greater intelligence in systems through AI and ML
  • New roles and specialization, like DevOps & Cloud Engineers

As our world grows in complexity, the ability of our minds to grasp the complexity becomes more and more tenuous. This means the growth of specialization and greater dependency on others to provide the complete picture of complex systems. All too often however, we still rely upon the few team members that are linchpins of organizational knowledge. As was the case with Brent from The Phoenix Project, these super nodes of knowledge can quickly become single point of failure in IT organizations.

We mitigate the risk of single points of failure by creating teams. We do not want just any type of team however. As Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School explains, “Great teams consist of individuals who have learned to trust each other. Over time, they have discovered each other’s strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to play as a coordinated whole.”

The team concept however begins to become a liability the larger the organization and the greater the number of teams. The model used to create the modern corporation is a borrowed concept from the military with hierarchy, rank, and reporting structures that follow a chain of command. As in the military, orders flow from top down.

The result is that teams are optimized to follow the orders from the chain of command. This creates well-functioning teams that act as silos. In other words, they do their job exceedingly well until another team outside their chain of command needs to collaborate, requires information, or requests assistance. You never see escalation paths that are horizontal across an organization, always up and down.

Much of the dysfunction that occurs in modern organizations can be attributed to two key issues:

  • Top-down management decision making divorced from situation awareness
  • Highly siloed teams that have little to no incentive to work cross-functionally

Concepts such as Agile and Business Agility are meant to solve these organizational issues. In theory fostering cross-functional, self-organizing teams might solve the silo issues. The reality is it rarely addresses the incentive structures (what metrics your performance evaluated on) and the lack of true agency to make impactful decisions. Companies are adopting rituals and language without any purpose.

We often do not give much thought to the idea of purpose. It is the “why” behind our actions and the guide that gives us direction. That guide, or as Simon Sinek calls the “how”, are the values that evolve from the why and ensure that any action taken is done in support of the why.

When I share this framework with the companies, I introduce this as “community of purpose”. It is a means of aligning an organization towards a vision and values that form the agreement on how we work to achieve the vision.

Community of purpose also helps to break through the two roadblocks that stymie any holistic transformation. Much like General McChrystal’s “commander’s intent”, purpose allows teams to operate independently to make impactful decisions in real-time without explicit management permission. Values set the rules of engagement for how teams should work cooperatively because that is how the teams will fulfill the purpose.

This is the future of the modern organization, which resembles less command and control, and more fluid interaction of teams. Even militaries are moving towards this model.

You might be tempted to think this is merely Agile couched in different language. What is different however is that a community of purpose is about a change in beliefs whereas most transformation efforts are merely window dressing. It is the simulacra of change without making any substantive change.

Many organizations will not be ready to build a community of purpose. Unlike an Apple with its mantra of “Think Different” or Amazon with their “Day One Manifesto”, most companies do not have a strong rallying cry that inspires a greater purpose. That does not mean an Engineering or IT team cannot create their own purpose and values. In fact, technology teams are the best place to start the revolution given how critical software is for businesses to operate and remain competitive.

To get started on building your own community purpose, there are two thoughts. First is finding something to rally the organization around and to share value. This creates the “trust layer” for supporting greater internal collaboration and open culture. Second is understanding the mechanics of community building and the different ways people are motivated to participate.

How have you seen community take shape in your organization? What would you say is the shared purpose and set of values across your company?

How to turn a group of strangers into a team by Amy Edmondson

Since we mentioned Amy in this week’s essay, here is an interesting TED talk where she shares some insights into teamwork.

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