A Human Enterprise

I have recently started reading ‘A Promised Land’ by former US President Barack Obama. In the preface he describes that part of his intent in […]

I have recently started reading ‘A Promised Land’ by former US President Barack Obama. In the preface he describes that part of his intent in writing the book was to lift the veil on the role of The President and the government to show that they form a “human enterprise like any other”.

That phrase struck me and prompted me to consider whether leaders and business owners have perhaps lost sight of the fact that any organisation, set up to create and deliver any kind of output, is first and foremost a ‘human enterprise’. So, what should a good human enterprise look like? A long-time friend of Primeast, author Richard Barrett, touched on this in his 1998 book ‘Liberating the Corporate Soul’, in which he suggested, that for sustainable success and responsible development, leaders need to reframe how they see organisations.

The shift is from [sic] ‘a structure of systems and processes, operated by humans that create an output’ to ‘a living, beating organism, made up of humans, who operate in a coordinated and systemic way to create value’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly shaken the world of work and how organisations operate. An increased reliance and focus on systems, processes and technology has enabled business continuity and has driven change, even at this difficult time. How long will this be sustainable? Early results from several studies indicate that recent success in this latest phase of switching to a more virtual, process led world has only been possible because of the ‘goodwill’ that has been built up over years of face-to-face human interaction. One suggestion is that, over time, that goodwill will erode and entropy will set in, resulting in a gradual deterioration of cohesion and business effectiveness.

These dynamics are not entirely new and there is a mountain of evidence of what happens when leaders get the balance wrong between human dynamics and operational systems. Over the last 50 years organisations have spent huge amounts of time, energy and money on technology-led business transformation. Many of those transformations have failed outright, others have stalled, and equally, many have been successful. The reason for such a mixed bag? A frequent failure to recognise that any kind of meaningful and sustainable change in an organisation must be human centred. Hence the need to cycle back to the fact that organisations are primarily human enterprises.

Adopting a human enterprise approach means leaders choose to lead any initiative first with the people in their organisation. By doing this they deliberately create conditions of engagement, ownership, agility and innovation. People are more willing to be enthusiastic and committed when the feel that they are active contributors to solving the challenge, rather than merely being the subject of it. Of course, it means we need to adjust our relationship with systems, processes and technology as well.

So how do you create a human enterprise approach?

  1. Start with purpose and values
    • Human enterprises require a clarity of purpose beyond any financial metric. Purpose defines why the organisation exists, it’s reason for being and potentially it’s contribution to humanity. Alongside its purpose are the values which articulate what the organisation stands for and how it operates. People are energised by these.
  2. Remember we are humans before anything else
    • In every strategy or decision, the question “what are the human implications?” needs to be right at the top of the list. Human enterprises seek to liberate and empower people to be creative, entrepreneurial and innovative by automating mundane tasks and streamlining those processes and systems that sap the human spirit. Human first.
  3. Build a positive culture that enables effectiveness
    • Human enterprises generally have an open culture, where experimentation and balanced risk-taking are encouraged. It’s important to build trust, accountability and encourage people to be truly creative. In doing this, there is a greater likelihood that they will come up with solutions to address the increasingly complex challenges we face. Micro-management and excessive measurement will kill this dead, so beware. As singer/songwriter Peter Gabriel once said when talking about his craft; “true creativity comes from the freedom to fail”.
  4. Seek multiple perspectives and embrace diversity of thought
    • Embracing diversity of thought and seeking of different perspectives is an imperative for human enterprises. Not only does it create an engaging place of work where people feel valued, it also provides rich insights to help the business move forward. Leveraging diversity of thought and multiple perspectives contributes to the building of intellectual capital too. Organisations often invest huge amounts of money in primary and secondary external research, yet don’t ask their own people to provide their own perspective
  5. Build processes that support people to solve problems, not the other way round
    • 20th Century management doctrine built upon the work of ‘scientific management’ thinkers like Taylor, Fayol and Weber. Even the legendary John Kotter and Tom Peters focused on structure-driven and process-heavy approaches to business effectiveness. Consequently, standardisation and predictability have become dominate operating models. However, in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment, many of these approaches are proving too rigid and are no longer up to the job. Human enterprises, on the other hand, are more flexible as they are focused on solving challenges. They benefit from realising opportunities to create value. The whole Agile Movement is built on this principle; people centred, fast-moving, solution-focused and technology-enabled. Hierarchy and control are secondary.

We are at a kind of inflection point where, if left unchecked, process, system and technology will increasingly become the principal drivers of how organisations evolve. Before it’s too late, we need to grasp the opportunity to re-orientate our thinking; organisations should be human enterprises that are enabled by technology, not the other way round.

Visit our Prime Leadership and Scaling Talent pages for more details of how Primeast can support you and your organisation to create outstanding leaders who are equipped to lead organisations where people can thrive.

To get in touch with Russell Evans you can email email him here or call +44 (0) 1423 531083.

You might enjoy: ‘Why purpose matters more than ever’ and ‘Behaviours to develop trust within remote teams’

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