Organizations That Learn



"An Organization That Learned To..."

Special to the NY Times from OTL

The Hole Story

Take a few minutes and reflect on the following story as it relates to an organization’s purpose:

A man looks out his window and sees two men with shovels, one walking behind the other. The first man digs a hole and moves down the street about 20 yards. Meanwhile, the second man fills up the first man’s hole. Then the whole process is repeated, again and again: the first man digs a hole, the second fills it up. Puzzled the onlooker yells out to the first man, “Why are you doing this?” The man replies, “Oh. We’re part of a three person team. The third guy is sick today. He plants the tree.”

What (if anything) does the story tell you about the “Why are we here?” question, the value of asking it and the sorts of things to consider in trying to answer it?


A visitor to a stone quarry asked two stone cutters what they were doing.

The first stone cutter, looking sour, grumbled, "I'm cutting this damned stone into a block."

The second, who looked pleased with his work, replied proudly, "I'm on this team that's buidling a cathedral."

From Moments of Truth by Jan Carlzon


Our OTL Pupose (1st draft): To learn as a community



Hock’s “Elements”

Dee Hock, Birth of the Chaordic Age


 … a clear, simple statement of intent that identifies and binds the community together as worth of pursuit. It is more than what we want to accomplish. It is an unambiguous expression of that which people jointly wish to become. It should speak to them so powerfully that all can say with conviction, “If we could achieve that, my life would have meaning.” (Dee Hock, Birth of the Chaordic Age)

An organization's purpose helps to define what it is, or strives to become, rather than what it might choose to accomplish at any specific time. It is not a specific goal. It is not even a particular vision. It is one of the elements (along with the organization's principles) that provides the broad context within which the organization unfolds. It is, in the most general terms, an organization's reason for being. Salient characteristics include:

In their article "Building Your Company's Vision," (HBR, Oct 1993) Collins & Porras provide specific examples:

Core Purpose – An Organization’s Reason for Being
“Why Are We Here”

OTL LOGs Core Purposes – "An Organization That Learned to ...

Commitment, Enrollment & Compliance

"Purpose" (also referred to as "mission") drives what is sometimes called an organization's "strategic intent" and can be embodied in a a more concrete "shared vision" (Senge) or BHAG (Collins & Porras). Members of an organization may stand in a variety of relationships to an organization's purpose:


Senge: Possible Attitudes Toward a Vision  

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (NY: Doubleday, 1990),
"Shared Vision," pp. 219-20


Commitment: Wants it. Will make it happen. Creates whatever “laws” (structures) are needed.  

Enrollment: Wants it. Will do whatever can be done within the “spirit of the law.”


Wants it


Genuine compliance: Sees the benefits of the vision. Does everything expected and more. Follows the “letter of the law.” “Good soldiers.”

Formal compliance: On the whole, sees the benefits of the vision. Does what’s expected and no more. “Pretty good soldier.”

Grudging compliance: Does not see the benefits of the vision. Bust, also, does not want to lose job. Does enough of what’s expected because he or she has to, but also lets it be known that he or she is not really on board.


Accepts it


Noncompliance: Does not see benefits of vision and will not do what’s expected. “I won’t do it; you can’t make me.”


Resists it


Apathy: Neither for nor against vision. No interest. No energy. “Is it 5:00 yet?”





… a behavioral aspiration of the community, a clear, unambiguous statement of a fundamental belief about how the whole and all the parts intend to conduct themselves in pursuit of the purpose. … a precept against which all structures, decisions, actions, and results will be judged. A principle always has high ethical and moral content. It never prescribes structure or behavior it always describes them. Principles often fall quite naturally into to categories: principles of structure and principles of practice.


[those needed] to be participants in the enterprise in order to realize the purpose in accordance with the principles.


… a visualization of the relationships between all of the people that would best enable them to pursue the purpose in accordance with their principles. An organizational concept is perception of a structure that all may trust to be equitable, just, and effective. It is a pictorial representation of eligibility, rights, and oblations of all prospective participants in the community.




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