“If people are free to make their own decisions, guided by a clear organisational identity for them to reference, the whole system develops greater coherence and strength.” – Margaret Wheatley
Over 15 years ago I first read a book called Leadership and the New Science by the exceptional organisation thinker Margaret Wheatley. There are many great insights in the book and it is one I regularly recommend to people.
The quote above had, and still has, particular resonance for me and is a part of what influenced my philosophy of brand.
Amidst the breathless hyperbole that surrounds the topic of brand – that you must be awesome, be remarkable and stand out or fail – the simple idea that everything you do and the resulting promises you keep are guided by identity feels almost quaint.
Of course the identity Wheatley refers to and that inspired me is not a logo or some other marker. This is not a facsimile for identity, presented in pleasing sound bites on the vision and values page of a website.
This identity is a deep sense of knowing what you care about and what you believe, of why you do what you do and how that happens. The kind of identity that once understood, sits deep in the core of the organisation. The kind of identity that is a private reservoir to be called upon by everyone as needed.
Wheatley frames this as helping “develop coherence and strength”. Coherence is a concert of action and decision moving in the same way, consistency experienced throughout the breadth of the organisation as both collective and individual endeavour, strength is a result. The weak or unaligned pieces show up more easily when all else is working together.
And there lies the power of identity. For when people don’t have a clear reference, a cacophony of action and decision emerges that can be almost impossible find a way through.
This leaves people inside and outside the organisation confused and adrift.
The relationship between actions and experience is indisputable. A clear identity brings them together so what the organisation intends is what people see and feel.
What I’m talking about here is not a constraint. Again as Wheatley notes, “if people are free to make their own decisions, guided by…”. Look at any organisation at which the culture and performance becomes a standard of envy and this is what is highlighted. Rather than strict levers of control, there’s freedom to act. However, this only works if identity is in place and understood.
The questions you can use to explore your organisation’s identity may be familiar:
- What do we care about? What matters?
- What do we believe to be true?
- Why are we here?
- How do we want to be together?
- How do others see us?
As the answers to those questions unfold, a coherence emerges. The reservoir will begin to fill. Keep asking and along with it comes clarity and eventually a simple knowing that everyone in the organisation can draw on.
You still need the other mechanisms that help shape and move the organisation forward: a sense of where you’re headed and what will be needed to get there; an understanding of what others around you are doing; and what your environment wants and needs.
Identity doesn’t replace these things but it does flow under, through and around them.
Do you know your organisation’s identity?
See you next week.
Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan