There are so many things we routinely call beautiful. Why aren’t organizations one of them? People, nature, animals, art work, buildings, food, drinks, cars, profound experiences, certain actions, hairdos, even shoes, can be and are deemed beautiful. It’s hard to think of some class of entities members of which might not be called beautiful. There are standards of beauty for many of these categories, rules by which an entity is judged to be beautiful or not. There are “beauty pageants” and ”beautiful baby” competitions. There are experts who have credentials in assessing aesthetics. In this celebrity-status world we live in, the “beautiful people” occupy special positions of importance and stature.
Having said all that, however, I imagine it would be as strange for you as it first was for me to consider the notion of a Beautiful Organization. Why is that? A well-designed suit, a creatively engineered building, a carefully aged single-malt Scotch could all be deemed beautiful. We would all “understand” even if we didn’t agree. And, yet, an organization being called beautiful likely would make almost no intrinsic sense to anyone.
When we say something is beautiful, we are, of course, making a judgment. We are saying that it satisfies some standard of excellence or aesthetic standard. We are saying that it brings pleasure to the observer or participant. A beautiful sunset, after all, induces a certain awe and appreciation. It makes us pause to enjoy it. Being in the presence of something beautiful brings us closer to a world beyond the day-to-day ordinariness of life into the presence of something wonderful and rare, something worth savoring, taking in. Seeing or experiencing something beautiful touches us, providing us with an experience beyond the normality of daily life. When we are in the presence of something beautiful, even for a brief moment, we are transported in a joyful and uplifting way. We come away from an encounter with beauty enhanced and enriched. It feeds us in a way some term “spiritual”. When we are in the presence of something extraordinarily beautiful, like a timeless work of art, a profound poem or a person we can be transformed. We have all had this experience. We know what it feels like.
What would an organization need to look and feel like to be felt to be, and called, beautiful? That is the question. It taxes the imagination to conjure that.
Perhaps we need to first come to grips with why organizations routinely are not beautiful to us. What is there common to organizations such that they we do not experience them as things of beauty. Are they corrupt? Are they mundane? Are they so intrinsically “normal” that we do not experience anything like being in the presence of something beautiful when we encounter them? Is it the nature of organizations in and of itself, because they are big and impersonal, that they don’t allow us to encounter them in that way?
Let’s entertain the question, “What would an organization need to be for it to be called beautiful?” Let me meander a bit. Please allow yourself to do the same.
One frame through which to answer this question would be Organizational Purpose. A beautiful organization would almost certainly have an inspiring purpose and would do something of outstanding social value. As someone suggested, “It would give more than it received”. It would be concerned about something in a way that would be seen as remarkable. A truly inspired purpose and an organization true to that purpose could, in itself, elevate an organization to the “beautiful” stratosphere. We think about Mother Theresa’s organization, the Missionaries of Charity. Their purpose is “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” They work with people dying of AIDS, lepers, social outcasts and refugees. They take nothing. They care for those no one else will and they do it “wholeheartedly”. Does that feel beautiful? It does to me. It feels noble, extraordinary, selfless. It certainly gives more than it receives. It gives asking for nothing in return. And it gives to those suffering people neglected by everyone else. Beautiful, yes?
A second lens through which to assess its “beautifulness” might be Organizational Culture. “What would it feel like to work in a beautiful organization?” is an intriguing question. Several things come to mind. People would be uniformly happy and fulfilled, leaving work at the end of the day more alive that when they left home at the beginning of their day. They would feel they have a valued place, they make an important contribution and they are recognized and rewarded for that contribution. Workers would trust their managers and management and vice versa. Employees would support and develop each other. The processes, systems, procedures would be formed with both the care and well-being of everyone and the success of the organization in mind. They would fluidly grow, change, morph to best achieve both objectives. People would feel at home in the best sense of that word. Everyone affiliated with a beautiful organization would feel proud to belong. Perhaps they would even feel loved, valued, taken care of. That would be beautiful, yes? When I worked with the MPO organization at Intel years ago, we gathered frequently over a year first to craft a vision and set of values, then to design a way of working together and then to establish and manage a number of breakthrough projects that we hoped would lead to them being extraordinary. I remember at the last of those meetings talking with the members of the group about what had been accomplished. I remember saying, “What we’re all feeling here is perhaps the closest to what love looks like in an organizational and business setting”. The caring, belonging, sense of purpose, selflessness and generosity that was part of the culture in MPO then was remarkable. It was clearly beautiful.
A third and final lens is that of Organizational Leadership. Leaders would inspire everyone in the organization through their example. The Executive Team would embody the values of the organization in a way that was exemplary. They lived to inspire, mentor, develop everyone in the organization, to treat people and groups outside the organization fairly and honestly, and always would be looking to partner with others in a way that benefited everyone. They would be perceived as caring about everyone touched by their organization. They would foster that sense of family and deep common purpose that is uplifting and intrinsically motivating.
I’m hard pressed to think about any other lenses which when looked through would yield the same kind of richness and texture as Purpose, Culture and Leading By Example. Certainly Business Results need to be produced at a level sufficient for the organization to prosper. But, it’s hard to think about anything within Business Results that we would universally see as beautiful. Of course, I know CFOs who would vigorously argue with that comment! I can hear one saying now, “There is nothing more beautiful than making our numbers quarter after quarter, and doing it in a quality way. That is beautiful! And I see what he was saying. The precision, reliability and quality of how they were produced is almost like the beauty of an elegant mathematical solution, or the gracefulness of a thoroughbred horse in full stride. Is it useful for us to speak about beautiful financial performance?
Perhaps this line of thinking merely a flight of fancy, a journey to the land of the imaginary beautiful organization. On the other hand, perhaps there is a need for us to bring an aesthetic appreciation to the design and evaluation of all our organizations. Is it possible that if we all held ourselves to a standard of excellence around beauty in the same way we hold ourselves to standards of performance around business results we could be living in a different world? A more beautiful one?