It's undeniable. Dramatic, persistent change is sweeping virtually every sector, challenging leadership as never before.

As one noteworthy point of proof came in a 2017 PwC survey of 1,370 leaders across dozens of sectors. In it, 82 percent revealed that both the source and degree of their future growth was uncertain, even unpredictable. It's a staggering admission. More bracing still, other leadership surveys over the past dozen years have consistently concluded the same.

It's a pattern telling us that this environment of constant chance is here to stay. The U.S. military calls it VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It's a telling acronym, making clear that even sectors that might not at first come to mind, like the military, academia, and government, aren't immune either. In short, rather than a bug in the system with which leaders must contend, rapid, perpetual change is now a feature of the system, one affecting everything we do and how we do it.

What are leaders and their organizations to do?

A Strategy That Gets Right to the Point

You might expect the answer to be daunting. But it turns out it's simple and clear, so much so it could fit neatly on a single page. And that's exactly what a growing number of leaders and leading organizations from Airbnb and Pixar, to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been doing: reducing their strategies to one sheet of paper.

Airbnb famously refers to theirs as "the sheet." Pixar's strategy lies in three core principles so simple they need only a 3x5 card to hold them. And UNC has created a one-page strategy they tellingly call "The Blueprint for Next." Ultimately, it isn't the piece of paper it's what's behind it that matters most. Carolina's story serves as an excellent example of what's working for these elite organizations and why.

The Power in Purpose

When Chancellor Carol Folt was hired as the university's first female Chancellor in the school's 224-year history, the pressures were many. Prior to her arrival, scrutiny had been growing about the value of four-year college programs given a growing range of learning alternatives (e.g. online, even tuition free). Equally challenging was the ability to confidently make investments today assured of being relevant tomorrow, a challenge increasingly familiar to any organization or leader. Then shortly before Folt's arrival came the unexpected: college athletics' governing body, the NCAA, announced that the school was under investigation for alleged academic favoritism of student-athletes. "That news risked tearing our community apart," said Folt. "Worse perhaps even than that, it felt like the seed of a dissipation of purpose."

Purpose. It's a "long-game" awareness too often regard as a nice-to-have in the rush to address the immediate. But a growing body of research is showing it to be something more. A 2016 Gallup study revealed that just 27 percent of U.S. employees actually believe in the values of the companies they work for. The study noted a significant gap between desired cultures and actual cultures--a gap Gallup observed did not exist in the most successful companies. The key difference? Successful companies didn't see culture, goals, values, or workplace policies as part of unconnected mission statements or as standalone initiatives, but as integrated factors in defining and realizing shared purpose.

The Trap of the Tactical

Immediately upon arrival, the university made clear they wanted Folt to act. ""What's your plan?" they kept asking me. What they meant," she recalled, "was what's your list of right now steps you'll take. Short-term tactics," Folt said. "They wanted me to address symptoms."

"What was so clear, however, was that it wasn't about all those things. It was about what was core--values, purpose, and the impact we want to have," Folt said. "We needed to gel that base of shared purpose and double down on it. It was nothing short of a rediscovery of the place, its people, and its purpose." So fundamental was that base that it alone became the university's strategic plan. Everything else extended from it.

How Purpose Defined by Everyone Can Drive Everything

More than an expression of aspirations, The Blue Print for Next has become Carolina's guide and filter for everything--every idea, every decision, and every measure of success. It works and gets used because it was co-created. When you have a hand in creating something, your pride of ownership makes you want it to succeed. As important, beneath shared purpose the organizational details become precisely what they should be: secondary and flexible. They support, rather than lead the strategy. Take a look at most strategic plans and you'll see the opposite. Especially in a VUCA world, processes, rules, and roles inevitably change. What remains is purpose. Folt and a growing number of other leaders get this.

Like Airbnb's "the sheet" and Pixar's principles, The Blue Print for Next reflects a keen awareness that without a clear sense of purpose, strategy, planning, and workplace redesign amount to little. Folt put it best. "More than strategy or managing crises, it's far more about culture. In the end, a culture with a purpose shared and known by all is the only reliable means of dealing with change. If the culture empowers flexibility, collaboration, and autonomy, for everyone and through everyone," Folt added, "people see for themselves how they fit. They then instinctively use the room they're given to play and adapt to the needs and the opportunities change brings. That'when the workplace begins to shift where it needs to and change becomes your asset."

Published on: Apr 20, 2018
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