Some organizations are more positive than others. I flew to Atlanta to work with six people from a company that was trying to execute change and move into the future. I often have sessions like this one where I try to introduce the basic concepts and tools from our work in positive organizational scholarship. Positive organizational scholarship is the study of how to create positive organizations.
Often I find the going tough. Executives are suspicious of ideas that violate their conventional expectations. In Atlanta I had the opposite experience. The people immediately soaked in my ideas and extended the ideas in creative ways. It was joyful.
There was a reason for this willing reception. The people had previously lived through and benefited from a positive transformation. Their experience helped them to understand what other executives resist, that organizations, and people in organizations, can flourish and exceed expectations. People who have experienced flourishing know things that other people do not.
Interface is a company that makes flexible floor coverings including carpet tiles. In 1994 the CEO, Ray Anderson, had an unusual experience. Here is his account.
Frankly, I didn’t have a vision, except “comply, comply, comply.” I sweated for three weeks over what to say to that group. Then, through what seemed like pure serendipity, somebody sent me a book – Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. I read it, and it changed my life. It was an epiphany. I wasn’t halfway through it before the vision I sought became clear, along with a powerful sense of urgency to do something. … I agreed with his central thesis. … Business is the largest, wealthiest, most pervasive institution on Earth, and responsible for most of the damage. It must take the lead in directing the Earth away from collapse, and toward sustainability.
As result of this experience Anderson determined to maintain his business goals while also leading the world in industrial ecology (being friendly to the planet). This was a paradigm shift. Everyone in the company believed that Anderson had lost his mind. When he gave his first public speech about his intention, the people outside the company agreed that he had lost his mind and the stock price fell 40% in one day. The company entered a dark valley and began to move forward, “building the bridge as they walked on it.”
Since that time the company has grown into a billion dollar operation in 110 countries. It has been named one of the “Most Admired Companies in America” and it has been named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work.”
During my visit one executive told the above story in much greater detail. He kept saying, with emphasis, “It was a miracle, I lived through it and it was a miracle.”
His passion was evident. One of the women present responded, “I am not sure it was a miracle; we changed, we made connections, and when you make connections new things grow, you flourish.”
I think they were both right. When the relationships between people are enriched the whole system begins to flourish. In relationships of increased trust, the people collectively learn to do what was not previously possible. The people go into accelerated, collective and individual learning. In the process of flourishing, the cause and effect relationships are so dynamic and complex that they cannot easily be explained. The process of experiencing the unfolding of potential does feel miraculous.
When people experience collective flourishing, they do things that are not done in normal, fear-based organizations. Sometimes, afterwards, they do not even have the language to conceptualize what they did, but their memories are very salient artifacts of the experience. When they hear the concepts from positive organizational scholarship, they make immediate associations. They understand and they are able to extend and apply the concepts. This is why the above session was so generative.
Why is positive organizing hard to explain?
When have I experienced the unfolding of collective potential?
How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?