The challenges of work as we once knew them have, in the past two decades (not just two years), been amplified beyond our ability to recognize a clear or durable path to solving them. Before you read on, pause for a moment and consider that assertion. Consider how much it describes your own work environment. The fact is, no matter who you are or what organization or sector you work in, it's a pretty sure bet that this statement about work is a statement of fact. The question is this: Do you see it as a problem or an opportunity?
If you're like most, your initial reaction is to perceive a threat. The unfamiliar and uncertain has a way of tapping into the fear element of our fight-or-flight warning system. Many of us are adept at overcoming the initial fear and moving towards, at the very least, problem solving for a solution to the threat. In our advanced mode, we can go one step better, using the challenge to innovate a new and better way.
But when the uncertainties keep coming or seem to arrive from every corner of our world at once, our system gets bogged down. We fail to advance through the continuum from fear to adaptation. In some cases, we become outright paralyzed. We can't see the problem or the opportunity. We become trapped in the uncertainty, and our modus operandi becomes firefighting. Firefighting is not a strategy, and it is not sustainable either. We need something better and up to the task. We need a decision filter.
Think of a decision filter as a higher order of channeling your thinking and your actions -- something that rises above what the business plan or the company handbook tells you to do. Important as such tools can be, they are inevitably tied to underlying assumptions about an environment that we assume won't change any time soon.
A decision filter doesn't reject plans and formulas, but instead puts those things in the proper order of priority. It reminds us that conditions change, which means assumptions change, meaning challenges and opportunities change, so we and our plans must change and shift just as often and just as rapidly. We need a compass and we need to use it every day, in every decision and action by every person on our team.
If such a thing sounds magical or out of reach, it's not. In fact, many leaders and organizations possess the outlines of a decision filter already. Those filters may be dusty or anemic from lack of use and appear less powerful than they are because they aren't truly shared. But the core of a good decision filter is shared purpose -- a tool many leaders and organizations claim they have and tout as important, but never actually use.
The fact is, purpose is something organizations simply declare and move on. It's only occasionally, if ever, put to actual use. Consider a study done by the EY Beacon Institute, an organization co-founded by a broad community of executives, entrepreneurs, and luminaries who believe in the potential power of shared purpose, and who founded the institute for the express purpose of studying it. All that good intent was reflected in a study they did of 500 executives who almost universally stated that shared purpose was key. When a clear sense of purpose existed and was used as a decision-making filter, the study found, it allowed organizations to adapt and transform when the need arose.
And yet, less than half of those surveyed said shared purpose actually informed their strategic and operational decision making. Fewer still included everyone in their organization in the crafting and use of their purpose. Said institute head Valerie Keller, "Given the strong sentiment that purpose is important and the clear benefits it seems to accrue, it is curious that purpose is utilized by a minority of companies as a driver of decision making." Curious indeed.
Shared purpose does not, in and of itself, offer answers or fixes to immediate challenges we face in our work. That may be precisely why we leave it on the shelf or framed on the wall in the lobby. The truth is, however, that fixes in today's uncertain landscape are at best fleeting. The ability of an entire organization to adapt ongoing is the gold standard. To adapt in that way -- not in a moment, but ongoing -- takes the many, not just the C-suite. And to orient the many takes a common compass -- a filter through which the myriad of decisions finds its connective tissue -- and the actual use of that filter in every decision, every action, by every person, every single day. That's how a challenging, even uncertain, landscape becomes an opportunity.