Finding “real meaning” in business gets personal, gritty, and small.
‘Tis the season. Christmas season, I mean. And, it has me thinking.
We sit on the threshold of a holiday that for most comes to symbolize the warmth of gift giving and the joy of a pause in life to reflect on gifts received. Sure, it’s commercial. Sure, it’s loaded with obligation to dangerously hollow things like no other holiday in the western world is.
But it sure is fun.
Driving along a few days ago, I was fortunate to hear an ad on the radio. “Come, learn the real meaning of Christmas” it said. It then went on to outline the extravaganza that a large church was investing the time, money, and people into to outline the “real meaning of Christmas.” It was the “real meaning” that struck a chord with me. I wondered what innocent bystanders (that is, people who are neither Christian, nor steeped in western “Christmas” tradition) would say the “real meaning” of Christmas is by observing the actions we take during the season.
Would they say the real meaning was entertainment?
Celebration of the birth of a single individual so long ago?
Establishment of the basis of a world religion and interpersonal philosophy?
I suspect that the innocent bystander would attend the Christmas extravaganza and come away with a sense that Christmas is quite a show, but perhaps not a sense of the”real meaning” of Christmas. They wouldn’t understand the deeper personal and metaphysical meaning of Christmas from watching a show any more than from seeing a Christmas tree…
…and, you know what? That’s fine. You know why? Because real meaning comes from experience, not an extravaganza. A life changed through the Christmas story rarely (if ever) happens because “you said so.” It happens through reflection and immersion and individual commitment and confession.
In other words, It’s what’s inside the box that counts…Not the wrapper.
And that, my friends, is where real meaning in the Christmas sense has applicability to real meaning in a business sense.
A legion of consultants, practitioners, executives, and managers have put their faith in the power of extravaganza to create change. They–like the church in the radio ad above–put together light, sound, and live animal shows (ok, maybe not the live animals) in hopes of creating an emotional experience for their organizations or clients. They hire outside speakers, event planners, and communication experts to expound on the great position a company is in or the great new direction it will take. They make it clear that a charged emotion is the key to alignment with strategy.
And they are right.
But they are wrong.
Because a charged emotion may be necessary to conversion, but it’s insufficient for sustained change. All the focus is on the wrapper, and not on what’s inside the box.
So, if excitement about a clear vision delivered in a compelling way is the wrapper, what is inside the box when it comes to corporate strategies that actually steer an organization?
Well, personal meaning may come first. Does the steering of the strategy touch on the personal hot buttons of the organization. This can be purpose (what are we doing for the community, our customer, etc.?). It can also be self interest (what’s in it for me and my career?). It can also be about others (how does this strategy impact Milton down in the basement?). Personal meaning comes in different flavors. One wrapper can seldom hit on them all.
The second is probably leadership credibility. If I see the extravaganza, it hints at credible change to come. A leader is born. A changed organization, renewed purpose, or new challenge are all both frightful and compelling things. They need credible leadership.
The third thing inside the box may have to be an honest appraisal. And, this is where the wrapper of an extravaganza most often falls short. In the push to put a glossy finish on the strategic vision of a company’s strategy, we lose the factual appraisal that we just rode for miles in pain on the back of a donkey and gave birth in a stable after being rejected from the local hotel. Our circumstances aren’t glossy. They are as humble as possible. Sometimes, we have to admit it once we are inside the box.
The fourth thing inside the box deals with what people have to bring…It’s the requirements. Our glossy wrappers tend to minimize requirements. They tend to underplay the difficulty of actually steering an organization in a new direction. They underplay the late nights. They underplay the hard conversations. They underplay the personal commitments that will be challenged, change, or even cancelled. In the Christmas story, we focus so much on the baby in the manger that we often forget the journey of the kings, or the sacrifices of the parents. Transformative change comes with requirements. Those are hard to convey in a glossy wrapper.
And, finally, I’d have to say that from personal experience we all need to have a sense of the consequences likely from the strategic vision. Glossy extravaganza wrappers are great at booming out a new vision, but awful at being candid about the consequences of that vision. The Christian tradition actually does this quite well, once you get past the secular Christmas wrapper. Adhering to the true meaning of Christmas is actually hard. It was likely hardest for the man the baby in the that feeding trough eventually became. But, it was still hard for anyone who chose to actually follow. In corporate terms, consequences belong inside the box. Not all will make it to glory in a given strategy. It’s ok to say so…Humane, even.
In this holiday season that has become so overrun with glossiness. Let’s not forget the dank and, yes, small circumstances that underpin the real meaning. The thing that corporate strategies that actually create changed organizations have in common with Christmastime conversions that stick is a focus on the gritty, dirty, and simple realities inside the box at the expense of the glossy, gold plated wrapper on the outside.
Maybe your organization can benefit from some time inside the box. If you are reading this…Maybe it’s up to you.