Clive Wilson on how to design a purposeful organization: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

Wilson, CliveClive Wilson is a writer, speaker, facilitator and business coach. He is a director of Primeast, a learning and development company based in the beautiful town of Harrogate in the county of North Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, some 220 miles north of London.

Clive’s latest book, Designing a Purposeful Organization:how to inspire business performance beyond boundaries, was published by KoganPage (February 2015).

Primeast works primarily in the oil and gas, power, pharmaceutical and technology industries as well as with the United Nations and other agencies in Southern Africa to facilitate the sustainable development of some of the world’s poorest nations.

He has spoken or facilitated workshops worldwide on strategic alignment and talent leadership, and his clients have included Exxon Mobil, Novartis, and Celgene, a biotechnology company located in New Jersey. In recent years, with his passion for purposeful change, he has facilitated workshops and spoken at conferences in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Australia.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2 of my interview of Clive.

* * *

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Designing the Purposeful Organization?

Wilson: There are a few ways I could answer this. First, at a personal level, we are all consumers of the services of organisations and many of us work there. So making organisations purposeful enriches our lives as employees and as consumers. As a practitioner, I have written quite a few short texts describing the work of Primeast. My colleagues encouraged me to take the time to do justice to my writing with the support of a high-calibre publisher. Kogan Page came highly recommended and I have to say that working with the team there has been an inspiration. I started writing in October 2013 and completed the first draft by July 2014. As you know the first books came off the press for February 2015. In terms of a deeper “Why?” I truly believe purpose is a topic we all need to know more about, not just in business but in every aspect of life. To understand purpose is to understand the creative power of the universe. What could be more exciting? In corporate terms alignment to purpose is probably the most effective source of high performance, something every organisation craves in one form or another.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Wilson: Yes, two chapters took an even more profound turn than I expected. The first chapter on “purpose” made me realise how little we understand it. Most people tend to think of corporate purpose in its singularity. It is anything but. Purpose, like most things, depends on who’s doing the observing and where they’re standing at the time. Also, the power of “getting to why” in its most inspirational form is so exciting. Just when we think we understand why we’re here, someone asks another “Why?” or gives a perspective we hadn’t thought of and our whole world changes.

Similarly with “success” in chapter seven. I always used to regard success as something deeply personal. Whilst that may be the case in many circumstances, it actually took a journey into stem cell biology for me to realise that each one of us is a community of some seventy trillion cells living in unity. This community has learned consciousness and hence a sense of success at the “me” level. So it is with teams and organisations. Through dialogue and appreciation, we can learn to be collectively conscious of success at that higher and more powerful level. So, for example, team success is both a set of outcomes and a shared felt sense of achievement. This rarely happens by accident.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Wilson: With the exceptions I spoke about in answer to your last question, the narrative is pretty well what has built up in my head in consultation with my colleagues over the last couple of decades. However, the finished article is way better than I expected. This is mainly due to my colleagues and clients at Primeast who diligently read each chapter and inspired me with their suggestions and contributions. Some of the most profound suggestions came from the long-serving members of the team who have practiced experiential learning for nearly thirty years. They helped me to realise that any text worthy of the Primeast name and brand would need to be brought alive with case studies, exercises, activities, reflective space and enticements to further reading. Each chapter is peppered with such relevant diversions, many offered by my colleagues. This is truly a Primeast team effort and gives the reader just a glimpse of how we serve the world of work.

Morris: When did you first become keenly interested in design thinking?

Wilson: I think I stumbled into design by accident. My interest was always in people-centred leadership and change. It was only when I realised that our “conditions for success” constituted the design of a “purposeful organisation” that I knew we had an OD book in the making. By the way, my first proposal to Kogan Page had the subtitle and title the other way round. Their wisdom encouraged me to make “Inspiring performance beyond boundaries” (which had previously been the title of a keynote Russell Evans and I delivered to ATD in Houston) the subtitle and not the main title. I hope that makes sense.

Morris: Here’s a two-part question. What are the most common misconceptions about design thinking? What in fact is true?

Wilson: I believe that people over-complicate organisational design. Organisations, especially global corporates, are by their nature complex. That is to say they are somewhat unpredictable and subject to many variables. However, it is us that makes them as complicated as they often are. We implement new systems without dismantling the old ones. We reinvent the wheel rather than consolidating best practice. The concept of the learning organisation isn’t new and yet few organisations can truly claim to be in that form.

Morris: Of all the design principles, which 2-3 have become of greatest interest and value to you? How so?

Wilson: There is a chapter on “structure” in the book where I draw attention to some key principles about how to structure an organisation – mainly about simplicity. However, you specifically ask what interests me. The first is naturally “purpose” – the focus for all design. I’ve already said quite a bit. Then there are some amazing lessons we can learn from the natural world. Fractal mathematics is all about the concept of self-similarity. So if we take any living organism from a single cell right up to an organisation, we can see repeating patterns of what works and what doesn’t. Biomimicry is a related topic that I discovered upon recommendation from one of my book reviewers. Nature has learned some amazing lessons based on millions of years of “R&D”. We do well to look around at our natural world and learn from it.

Morris: In my review of your brilliant book for several websites, including three of Amazon’s (US, UK, and Canada), I note that most of the companies annually ranked among those most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those most profitable with the greatest cap value in their industry. What do you make of that?

Wilson: Well, to me, it’s a “no-brainer” if we enjoy our work we will be more likely to go the extra mile. And purpose is the key. Purposeful organisations are likely to be great places to work. Here people are valued and systematically aligned to make a difference – consciously.

Morris: Since the book was published, presumably you have received a great deal of feedback from those who have read it. Which of that feedback has been of greatest interest to you? Please explain.

Wilson: Well naturally Bob, I thoroughly enjoyed your book review. It was detailed, considered and inspiring. However, the review that inspired me the very most was the one by Kelly Goff, one of the world’s greatest practitioners in organisational effectiveness. It is the one we chose to be the foreword in the book. Kelly’s words touched me at a very deep level, moving me quite literally to tears. It was like stepping outside of myself and looking straight into my heart.

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To read all of Part 2, please click here.

Clive cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Designing the Purposeful Organisation Amazon link

Kogan-Page link

Link to additional KoganPage resources

Primeast link


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