Imagine an organization where there is complete alignment around the vision and mission. So much alignment that any team member can propose a new project or product that naturally fits into the organizational strategy. So much alignment that hiring a new employee is a result of unanimous consent about the skills and experience the team needs and which candidate offers the right match. So much alignment that there is little need for hundreds of pages of corporate policy, overly defined processes and procedures, and expensive layers of management approvals and administration. Yet, the organization is also a recognized market leader, generating sustainable financial growth, and is a well respected member of its community for its social impact. It achieves this alignment without command and control; it is not about everyone working in lock step. It has found a way to harness, shape and harmonize the creative energy of each individual. This is the result of the Timeless Way of Leading.
The Timeless Way of Leading focuses on creating sustainably high performing teams and organizations. It focused on generating alignment–around a common vision and mission–and as importantly, around the ways of working that enable them to actualize their vision and mission through products, services and projects. This approach to leadership is inspired by Christopher Alexander and his classic and controversial book on architecture, The Timeless Way of Building.
Throughout his work, Alexander explores how the use of pattern languages in architecture can be used in the design and construction of objects, building, towns and communities. These patterns enable a common language of the key attributes of any built object–with a singular focus on creating built objects that are “alive,” which enliven the people who use or occupy them. Fundamental to this approach is that anyone can use the language to design and build; not just a rarified few.
What are the implications of Alexander’s work for leaders? For how we build, lead, adapt, and repair our organizations? Can a similar design and build approach through the use of pattern languages be applied to generating a common language for how an organization works? and how it delivers its product and services? implements its projects? Can we create organizations where we are not only tapping into the energy and creativity of all employees but providing a framework for that energy to be 100% aligned toward achieving a shared vision, mission and transformational outcomes.
We know that finding methods of execution that keeps a team aligned is often elusive. A common complaint from many employees is the inability to see how their work aligns with the leadership’s objectives and strategy; a lack of clarity from leadership in terms of what is expected. A frustration among leaders is that their employees don’t see the big picture, or don’t act in accordance with the big picture in their daily work activities.
Over the past several decades, different approaches have evolved by practitioners and theorists alike to solve these challenges, including but not limited Management by Objectives (MBOs), Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), as well as more general advice for cascading communications through a hierarchical management structure, or aligning annual performance and goal setting with company strategy. While these methods attempt to engage employees in the goal setting process, in most cases, leaders are only making surface level modifications on the traditional command and control structure.
Yet, at the more tactical level, companies, especially in, but not limited to, the software industry, are now using agile management methods, with tools like sprints, and user stories, that strike to generate alignment for short intervals of work–while trying to string several sprints or projects together to achieve long term alignment around a product vision.
The introduction of these, and other methods in the software development industry, is the direct result of thought leaders in the sector exploring how a pattern language can be adopted and adapted from architecture to software development. There are mixed reviews about the success of that adaptation–including by Alexander himself. This is because he was interested in not solely in the transactional replicability that a pattern language offers, but was motivated by defining a common language that would deliver buildings and spaces that were “alive”–essentially a moral purpose to use architecture for improving the lives of people. He believed that such a definition of quality (or even beauty) could be assessed in an objective way and then translated into a common language. It’s not clear that when adapting the approach to software development that this moral imperative came along for the ride.
This gap seems relevant to its use by leaders in designing organizations–are we trying to create high performing organizations in order to generate shareholder value, or maximize the ratios of market capitalization per employee? or are we trying to create organizations that are living, breathing and changing entities that enliven its employees, while creating products and services that are objectively agreed to be improving the lives of its customers, while avoiding a trail of negative externalities in the communities where it operates, in the environment, etc. The Timeless Way of Leading would be interested in the latter.
The desire of certain leaders and entrepreneurs to create such organizations is not new and the growth of certified B-Corporations attests to the fact that some organizations are trying to chart a new course that balances purpose and profit. Yet, a certification provides a checklist for taking a snapshot of an organization against a set of minimum standards. It is also designed and maintained by a third party and is not designed to be a shared language that anyone can use and adapt in their team and organization. Its purpose is not to create the type of living entities for which people want to be a, part while also have a positive transformative effect on anyone who comes in contact with it.
At its root, lack of alignment is a function of the challenges of the human mind; individually and collectively. We know that even within one mind, there is a continual stream of ideas, agendas, emotions and thoughts, often in such cacophony, that they become obstacles to sustain any habit, practice, or approach to art, work, or business. When you combine individuals into a team or organization, this cacophony quickly becomes magnified exponentially by the number of people involved–and further complicated by the ever changing nature of the external environment.
Dealing with this environment is what has made the command and control military style management so attractive. A clear directive, and clear hierarchy for who can issue that directive can cut through all that mental chatter. Yet, it ultimately fails when an external crisis is not deemed serious enough for such a directive structure, or when team members become demoralized by the lack of intrinsic motivation. And certainly, this approach lacks any strategies for increasing equity and including a diverse group of people, views, experiences etc.
Some organizations work around this obstacle through the power of the charismatic leader. People (for a time at least) can become followers of a singular leader’s vision–who is exceedingly effective at communications and the powers of persuasion–which enable people to buy-in to that vision. This may or may not lead to alignment in execution at the detail level, and is usually not sustained after the departure of the charismatic leader. This leadership approach it is also particularly susceptible to a failure, whether tactical or ethical, on the part of the leader.
We need a more holistic approach that can (1) gather the collective attention of all the human minds in the organization, (2) transform that creative mental energy into tangible and agreed outcomes, and (3) can sustain and renew itself in response to the continually changing external environment. It is possible that several key elements in pattern languages can be adapted to team and organizational leadership and can lead to the Timeless Way of Leading.
1. It requires a bottom-up approach to the organization’s design, development and management; the creation of a common language that can be used by anybody–not just senior leadership, experts, specialists, etc.
2. It aligns common agreement around what feels right to everyone, as opposed to opinions, best practices, expert solutions, etc. that may be borrowed from third parties. As Alexander writes, “Any preconception about the way things “ought to be” always interferes with your sense of reality.” We too often, adopt ways of working from others, imitating, without really understanding whether they will work in our context.
3. It facilitates distinguishing those patterns which are the principal components of the way we work, from those that are supporting details or less important. This is similar to the First Principles approach and something that many organizations get wrong in its application. Pattern languages can also be used to avoid bike shedding. So many organizations get sidetracked by protracted debated on secondary issues that are not core to it success. We are seeking the right balance between establishing a discipline that guides how we work; but ultimately does not become a rigorous and dogmatic constraint that can be weaponized by certain team members to block change and evolution.
4. It is designed to be sustainable by enabling an endlessly repeating but differentiated outcome–no two teams, organizations etc. using this pattern language would look, feel and work the same, but we would all recognize the patterns in them. It also acknowledges that things are always in flux, always in some stage of change; so the language needs to be generative and not constraining. Therefore, at first there may also be gaps, unfinished decisions, spaces between parts and the whole. That’s OK if people trust in the language to generate new elements over time and fill in the gaps.
5. It emphasizes the relationships between the elements of an organization; its people, products, tools, suppliers, funding, communities, clients, competitors, etc. and how the quality of those relationships is the bedrock of the organization’s success. It describes how to work with the context, relationships, elements without being controlling. Alexander describes it as “Each pattern sit(ting) at the center of a network of connections which connect it to certain other patterns that help to complete it. “
To succeed, it It needs to be taken seriously; lip service won’t work. It can’t be used as a management theory or fad of the day. It can’t be a quick fix to a current problem in the organization. It needs to become the core operating system of the organization.
Ultimately, this can’t be led in a top-down way; but it needs to be inspired and fueled toby someone committed its success–well beyond their own role. Alexander calls this the egoless state of mind; or in our case egoless leadership. Alexander writes “You are able to do this only when you no longer fear that nothing will happen, and you can therefore afford to let go of your images. And in this sense, the language is the instrument which brings about the state of mind, which I call egoless.”
When leaders, teams and organizations get this right, they are defining, together, their operating system: its culture, its business model, its go-to-market strategy, its product and services framework, its customer service manifesto, its project management approach, its partnering philosophy and approach, etc. There becomes no element of how the organization operates that cannot be defined in a pattern language; and over time those patterns languages begin to relate to each other, and interconnect with each other. Importantly, they are not just developed, used, and updated by management; they are living languages that any person can use to stand up a new team, create a product, open a new market, propose a new investment, etc.