Vision and purpose in the age of leisure and abundance
The visionary species
In their short existence as a species, humans have managed to dominate the entire globe. One of the key competitive advantages has been the level of sophistication of their cognitive and social abilities. Here, mainly two factors allowed for the rise of complex social structures that are unprecedented. First, compared to other animals, humans have an extremely long childhood and thus dependency on their parents and other adults. While this is a huge energy and time investment, it allows for great adaptation and learning potential. Mindsets, behaviors and skills can be propagated and modulated based on environmental and cultural circumstances. Second, the social structures required to successfully raise children led to the emergence of complex languages. These languages were the basis for information exchange, trust, collaboration and importantly for sharing stories and narratives about fictive and imaginary content. While languages are not unique to humans, creating and sharing non-real stories is and allowed us to develop bigger and bigger stable communities around stories we belief in.
This was the birth of the ‘vision’, a concept that later allowed to form huge communities around religions, nation states, companies and even abstract concepts like laws and currencies. With visions, adaptation to sudden changes was immensely accelerated from mere genetic evolution which is slow, to cultural evolution that is rapid and quickly scalable. Suddenly, huge communities were able to collaborate, change their behaviors or work toward a common goal.
From vision to impact
Today, more than ever before, we are in need of visions and stories we collectively belief in. What’s more, in times of dystopias, negative and fake news we urgently need positive visions that unite our efforts to strive for, move toward, and create desired futures. Such visions come with different names. Simon Sinek calls it the “Why”. Salim Ismail “Massive Transformative Purpose”. Peter Diamandis and Google-X use the term “Moonshot Thinking”. And Janine Benyus came up with the concept of “Biomimicry”. No matter the name, they all have one thing in common: Dare to think big, dare to radically improve and dare to disrupt based on aligned values. And these visions and values have a huge transformative power. They align like-minded people around a common goal. They unleash creative and transformative potentials that outpace conventional innovation and transformation efforts. And most importantly, by combining audacious goals with deep values and principles true impact is possible. They ignite passion in individuals and groups and engage people’s hearts and minds to work together to realize their goal. Suddenly, transformation starts to happen; disruption starts to delight.
Focus on purpose: The rise of meaning and systemic value
Organizations are uniquely placed to have a massive impact. They are platforms of convergence where individuals come together around a common purpose. The narratives and purpose that drive organizations can exert tremendous influence on how people collaborate and co-create. Neuroscience and social psychology have shown decades ago already that high performance and intrinsic motivation in people are not driven by external motivators and bonuses. Instead, three attributes drive motivation, satisfaction and performance. These attributes are autonomy, purpose and mastery (see Daniel Pink). All three are strongly connected. Autonomy is the desire to be self-directed in our actions. Mastery is the urge and joy to get better at something that matters to us. And purpose is the longing to have an impact, to contribute to something that is bigger than ourselves and that we connect with. When these attributes come together, people feel empowered, take responsibility and drive projects. This drive requires orientation. An organization is only viable if individual drive and team self-organization are happening within certain boundaries and toward a joint direction. A vision constitutes these boundaries and establishes aligned autonomy. To reinvent organizations, we need to (re)imagine our underlying constructs. The narratives, the values and the shared organizational purpose.
Abundance as game-changer
One of such transformative narratives is the concept of abundance, a mindset and life of possibility, not limitations. Interestingly, the most successful systems on our planet are built around abundance rather than scarcity: All biology encodes its information using the abundant molecules of the genetic DNA. All living organisms are largely composed of the most abundant elements on our planet. And ecosystems usually leverage abundance to develop thriving communities. Only recently did we accept, that man-made systems are not much different. We know that people with an abundance mindset see and use opportunities much better, live more happily and achieve more. We have established new work concepts and agile organizations that run on trust, transparency and co-creation leveraging an abundance of information, mutual exchange and serendipitous encounters increasing effectiveness, innovation capabilities and employer attractiveness. Customer centricity (abundance) over competitor focus (scarcity) made Amazon to one of the leading companies in human history. And over the past few years we have witnessed the emergence of an entire new breed of organizations that leverage abundance through information-enabled technologies. Such exponential organizations operate with an entire new business logic and perform 10x better than conventional ones. Abundance-based visions manifest as success patterns future-proofing organizations along their way through complexity and volatility.
Three powerful visions of the 21st century
In my work as a coach helping organizations in their transformation, I have gathered extensive insights into the dynamics, patterns and anti-patterns of change processes including expectations of stakeholders, impediments and risks as well as dependencies and successful approaches. The expectations across all sectors are nearly identical: faster time-to-market, more customer centricity, a higher employee engagement, the growth of the organization’s innovation muscle, establishing a learning culture and higher adaptation and recovery capabilities. Over the years, I have identified not only the most suitable approaches to support transition projects in organizations but also crystallized three abundance-based vision narratives boosting motivation and emotional alignment within the org as well as establishing market and thought leadership to the outside. These visions are strongly interconnected but focus on one aspect each.
Living Systems: Boosting adaptation, resilience & circular design
The underlying narrative of this vision is the understanding that living systems can serve as a blueprint and inspiration for an effective, sustainable and adaptable design of our processes, businesses, organizations and societies. As Janine Benyus likes to put it: “A sustainable world already exists”.
Nature over the course of 3.8 billion years has developed success-proven strategies to manage complexity, test and iterate, adapt to disruptive changes, solve problems successfully and build resilient and healthy systems. Taking inspiration from such strategies has been shown to be of huge transformative advantage. People and every single organization we have created are living systems that try to maintain themselves, develop and change. This is nicely reflected in the language we use to describe economics today; it has adopted numerous biological terms in the past 15 years. Whenever we talk about decentralized networks, self-organization, adaptation to change, resilience, learning organizations, business ecosystems, iterative and incremental innovation or evolutionary design we essentially talk biology.
Nature has a tremendous transformative power both because it holds the answers to all these concepts and challenges above but also because it inspires with awe and has beneficial effects on our body and mind. It is scientifically proven, that the contact with other forms of life and nature improves our health, stimulates our mind and creates better learning and work results (a concept known as biophilia). There is hardly anyone who doesn’t associate positive feelings with nature experiences. Therefore, nature and living systems hold a huge visionary potential to shape and modify our systems by imitating nature. Especially in times of environmental destruction and biodiversity loss, more and more people become planet-aware. This beautifully converges with the visions and trends of a sharing and circular economy and responsible consumption. Using resources more responsibly, connecting isolated processes to win-win-relationships and valuing access to services over ownership of goods creates a new logic of business and society.
Organizations following this vision narrative usually strive to become more sustainable, develop circular solutions and be more responsible with resources. They apply systems approaches to drive change across the entire value chain. Interface and Patagonia are two inspiring examples.
Human Collaboratives: Reinventing employment & awakening human potential
The second overarching narrative regards the future vision of humans and their role in society, bridging purposeful work with life fulfillment. Today, one of the main drivers for work is making a living. We spend the majority of our lifetime at a job that doesn’t fulfill us, in processes that burn us out. And when we finally reach retirement, we don’t have the money or the health or both to live the dream that we saved for so long. The near future might hold more. What if work was a combination of passion, skill and impact – something we truly loved? The Japanese have practiced this concept for centuries: Ikigai, the reason for being. It is the sweet-spot where passion, skill, and impact meet. Interestingly, the new work movement that grows bigger and bigger is very similar. Respectful, purpose-driven and self-directed work meets personal development and work-life blending. This converges with the trend of the gig economy where people engage in temporary, collaborative projects.
Maybe we shouldn’t feel threatened by new technologies that can eliminate the need for human work especially for repetitive tasks. We should rather embrace it as an opportunity for growth and development. In the near future, we will have an abundance of one of our most valuable assets: time. And with time comes leisure, freedom and quality of life which in turn increases happiness and creativity. For this, surely, we need to redesign economy and education. With a growth and collaboration mindset and the inner urge to passionately contribute to society according to our skills, we could transform society and humanity at large and achieve both higher levels of collective prosperity and individual happiness and self-actualization.
Organizations following this vision narrative usually strive to be innovative, customer-centric and attractive workplaces where people can unleash their creative potential. They apply agile approaches, run on autonomy and self-organization and establish flat hierarchies. Spotify, Google, Haier and Semco are great examples.
Exponential Technologies: Tapping abundance and accelerating change
The third vision narrative completes the previous two. It is about exploring exponential technologies to shape the future and solve the world's most urgent problems. This vision strives for the empowerment of individuals and organizations to develop breakthrough solutions using accelerating technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and digital biology. It is about developing an exponential mindset and toolset to solve humanity’s biggest challenges by applying emerging technologies to create a better and more livable future for everyone.
Within the next few decades, we’ll encounter some of the greatest transitions of humankind. Already today, technological disruption is affecting every aspect of our lives – businesses, industries, societies. It even redefines what it means to be human. These changes just started and show no signs of slowing down; on the contrary, they are accelerating exponentially. Despite still facing a daunting list of global challenges, we have seen repeatedly that science and technology can surface big solutions. By leveraging emerging technologies around a massive transformative purpose (MTP) aspirational goals focused on creating a different future become possible. Tesla with its mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy is a wonderful example of the exponential technology vision around an MTP.
Hybrid Thinking: Future-proofing organizations and society
All three vision narratives above build on abundance (nature/living systems, people/networks, information/technology). Yet, none of them works independently or is fully functional by itself. Only the combination of them, nature, people and technology, can prepare us for the global challenges and rapid changes we are facing. We need to apply a Hybrid Thinking approach to really have an impact. It is time to combine visions and approaches. Hybrid Thinking does exactly that. It combines cutting-edge approaches with a sound scientific basis to drive behavioral and organizational change. It starts with a transformative purpose, empowers people to unfold their full potential, builds effective and high-performant teams, and establishes organizations that create true impact.
The narrative of separation has conditioned us to focus on scarcity, competition, and the short-term maximization of individual benefit. On that basis, we have created societies and an entire economic system. Biological evolution instead has shown that systemic abundance can be unlocked through collaborative networks that optimize the whole system. Now is the time for humans to transform. And for this transformation we have to start with a hybrid vision!
This text is a collaboration project for the Merck Curiosity Initiative. As a science and technology company, Merck fosters the idea of curiosity. It has designed the Curious Elements. They consist of compelling exercises to stimulate creative thinking covering the four most important dimensions of curiosity: Openness to people’s ideas, Joyous Exploration, Stress tolerance, Deprivation Sensitivity. Curious? Enjoy these little trainings and feel free to share your thoughts with us. #alwayscurious
About the author: Dr. Arndt Pechstein is a neuroscientist, agile & ExO coach, and management consultant. He is an energetic blend of a scientist, serial entrepreneur, and business coach. He holds a PhD in neuroscience, a diploma in biochemistry & biotechnology, and has specialist backgrounds in Agile & Design Thinking, Exponential Organizations, Circular Economy, and Biomimicry. As founder and managing partner of the boutique consultancy phi360, Initiator of the Hybrid Thinking approach and chairman of the Biomimicry Academy, he advises companies and organizations on agile transition, organizational development, innovation, new work, bio-inspired & disruptive innovation, and an exponential & digital mindset. Arndt’s mission is shaping a just, sustainable, and desirable future.