By Jeff Mattson
In her book The Outstanding Organization, author Karen Martin uses her 20+ years working with hundreds of successful businesses to identify four foundational elements that are present and essential in organizations that she, as an expert in the OD field, defines as outstanding. Those that make the cut as “outstanding” are only those that have “consistently delivered high value, relative to the alternatives, to stakeholders for years, if not decades.” The principles she discovered that provide the foundational framework for outstanding organizations to become just that are: clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement. In her view, these four elements are directly related to the amount of chaos an organization experiences. And, as you might have guessed, chaos is the root cause for an organizational diagnosis of anything less than outstanding.
Because organizations are just larger systems of people, I began to wonder if Martin’s foundational principles could benefit individuals as they applied the four principles to their lives, whether personally or professionally? As I began to noodle over this, I found wisdom to help us all reduce chaos in our lives and grow into our own outstanding potential.
To Martin, clarity “ranges from being clear about an organization’s purpose, to being clear about a particular problem you need to solve.” Within organizations, clarity is the first leg of the journey, or goal to achieve. With clarity, the organization runs as straight and efficiently as possible toward the focus it will take to best achieve the critical. Translating this to your life, are you clear about your purpose? Have you ever taken time to reflect and investigate who you are, and how you are best able to contribute to the world? You may remember doing this with a high school guidance counselor; or, perhaps you took an assessment in college as you felt the increasing pressure to be successful and get a high-paying job, because that’s what college graduates do, right? Both of these examples are natural times to explore deeper questions about oneself, but we should not stop there, only to have a 18+ year hiatus before we do it again. Triggered by feeling lost in a job we really don’t like, having forgotten who we are as we raise kids, or…(fill in the blank with your own impetus), it may be time to re-assess and find clarity in your purpose.
As individuals, we embody many different roles. You might be a spouse, a parent, a daughter, a son, a neighbor, a member of a particular charity, a boss, an employee, and so on. Have you recently spent time thinking and reflecting about your purpose within each role? Even more importantly, have you chosen these roles because they are clearly aligned with your core purpose and the contributions you were born to share with the world?
Clarity helps us discern what we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to. The net result of personal clarity is freedom, peace, and confidence. Sounds pretty nice, right? For example, if you have clarity that you are a people-person that loves and needs a variety of relationships in your life, and clarity that you have a gift of encouragement, this can allow you to move toward people in a variety of ways and likely impact lives. You may host parties, connect regularly in one-on-one meet ups at a coffee shop or over a pint, and enjoy group adventures. Chances are, within your key relationships, you have discovered that your words, whether spoken or written, have had a positive influence on people’s lives over time. Having personal clarity around your unique purpose and gifts that you were born to contribute to our world is a starting point for personal growth and for being an outstanding human being.
Regarding focus, the second foundational tool for success, Martin helps companies identify their “must do, can’t fail initiatives.” With the clarity of organizational purpose, leaders can focus time and resources so that they are actually being spent on those critical initiatives. The results for companies are outstanding. Taking into consideration your clarity of purpose, with knowledge of the gifts you possess to live out that purpose, what are your “must-do, can’t fail initiatives?” Once you determine these, get focused on how you spend your limited time and resources. In other words, what do you actually need to be doing in order to thrive? Or, what can you absolutely not afford to fail at in order to actually live out your purpose and feel authentically at your best? These are big philosophical questions, but they can be broken down into smaller pieces as you work through them. And remember, the answer will be very different from person to person.
Discipline is the third foundational principle that Martin says outstanding organizations have a core commitment to. She speaks of discipline as “practice.” For individuals and organizations alike, discipline is the practice of being “dedicated to tackling a pressing problem that, once mastered, will bring them to the next level.” Discipline can look like practicing the behavior of engaging or solving problems in innovative ways for an organization. It can also look like eradicating bad habits from your life, to practice the good ones such as setting healthy boundaries in relationships again and again until they are more natural and consistent. All of these things require practice — repetition with intention — that will bring you to a new place of growth.
My 6th grade band teacher, Jim Kvech, used to tell us that “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect performance.” In other words, a high level of attention on the right problem, addressed consistently in the right way, is the only way to mastery. Sure, there are a few instances where a person born with an innate gift to sing suddenly wins The Voice or American Idol after being an exclusive shower singer, but that is extremely rare. Most of the winners on these types of shows have developed their gifts over time — in church, at bars, or on the street. If an audit was done on your personal calendar, would the findings show you’ve put in the time with the discipline it takes to achieve your desired results? We hear it all the time from champions in sports, Kennedy Award Winners, and Oscar nominees: “Stay at it, hone your craft.”
When a person possesses clarity of his unique purpose and gifts, they are then equipped to adequately focus in on what his “must do, can’t fail initiatives” are, and then discipline themselves to engage in a rhythm of practice, solving new problems that propel them to grow over time. Sometimes individuals, and organizations full of individuals, can start out strong, only to lose clarity, focus, and discipline. The final principle of engagement must also be executed in order for results to be outstanding. At the organizational level, Martin says, that “employee engagement is a subtle, yet largest contributor to an organization’s success.” She says that people at their core want to engage in meaningful work and want to be recognized for a job well done. It is important to have systems in place that create environments for individuals, teams, and departments to perform, succeed, and be recognized for their accomplishments.
If this is true for people within organizations, it certainly would be true for individuals seeking sustained personal growth and success in their personal lives, too. Are you setting smaller, additive goals that include an appropriate measure of celebration when you accomplish them? Many of us forget this part or simply don’t prioritize it. It can be common to get eager to tackle the next goal forgetting to take a moment to celebrate along the way. People are inclined to have different levels of challenge in their goals, as well as different forms of reward or celebration based on their unique wiring. There is freedom in this element as the point is to create a system that you can thrive and achieve in. Setting up systems that are too lofty or unrealistic is a recipe for demotivation and even quitting; getting this system right, however, can provide a real boost for sustained growth in your life.
As we consider how clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement help us grow personally, it may help to apply the metaphor of a track relay, where four runners each run one leg of the total race. It takes all four legs — clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement — each running their respective part of the course and then successfully passing the baton to the next leg, for organizations to succeed in crossing the finish line in an outstanding fashion. Left unfinished, the race cannot ever be run. One must compete all four legs. I hope that with some reflection on how these four principles could be played out in your life, you are able to modify or create systems that allow you to thrive and grow into the outstanding human being you were born to be! Make these principles foundational in your life and you could be someone else’s inspiration.