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Working Wider Starts With a Cause

by Christopher Meyer on 12/15/2009

Perhaps the most dramatic change leaders face when working wider is that nearly everything they relied on to get results inside the organization (e.g. clear vision, goals, values, operating norms, clear roles, process excellence, etc.) fades or even impedes progress when working at the edge or beyond.

Inside the firm, these factors create alignment and community.  There, your unit’s objectives matter to others because at some point they fall under the overall corporate mission.  Besides that, a common element of your firm’s culture is likely some objective setting process which everyone goes through.  It may be ugly or effective but in any case, developing objectives is one of many shared experiences.  Collectively, these routines create our corporate cultures.

Once you venture from home base, your infrastructure and culture fade rapidly in value.  Outsiders do not share them.  Instead, the character and quality of your mission and presence takes precedence.  Obviously ordering people around is not the preferred leadership style inside but once outside, it’s not even an option.  Everyone brings their own perspective, capabilities and experience to the party and getting to common ground takes effort and time.  You can bet that everyone already has plenty on their plate so there better be something attractive enough to get their attention.

The attraction that draws people together is the cause.  I use cause because “mission” has implicit corporate meanings that are used to focus people on specific internal objectives.   A cause is bigger.  A cause is about changing some part of the world.  It’s bigger than any single player and done right, exceeds the collective effort as well.  This might be a small focused change such as the first wireless mouse or something far grander such as launching the micro lending industry in India.  It doesn’t have to be curing cancer but it does have to be compelling enough to overcome the existing momentum that currently drives people.

In a conversation last fall, John Seely Brown described leading a cause as similar to leading a quest in online role playing games such as World of Warcraft. Role play gamers can choose to align with or against anyone.  They come together in working guilds  based on how well one can attract the others to the quest.

Working outside one’s boundaries tests not just who we are but that for which we strive.  When working wider, ask yourself, “Is this a cause that’s compelling to me?”  If not, the chances of it being compelling to others are slim.

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