I talk a lot about organizations as living systems and about aiming for thrivability. But what exactly does this mean? How does it work? And how do you know when your organization is “thrivable”?
To explain what I’m talking about, let me share a beautiful story of thrivability at work here in Montreal.
Culture & Language Connections is a small language school, less than a year old, but full of life from day one. AJ and his wife, Keiko, founded the company because they wanted to create a vibrant space where people could forge rich relationships and grow personally in the process. Learning a new language was simply the medium for this larger purpose. And their focus on building relationships extended both inward and outward into the community.
About seven months after opening, they asked me to help them with marketing. The company was doing well and growing nicely, and they felt ready to take it to the next level.
My first step was to sit in on a steering committee meeting, in which I asked the eight or nine people around the table to tell me why they worked there. These are some of the things they said. Notice the life-centered terminology:
“It’s amazing watching students blossom, open up, gain confidence.“
“It feels real, authentic. You can almost feel the pulse of the place.”
“We’re allowed to be silly!”
“This isn’t just a job or a place to work. It’s a part of the staff’s life. Several of us were working late one night a few months ago, and as someone was leaving, he said, “Go home, AJ!” And AJ said, “I am home!” That’s how it feels here.”
“There’s lots of love… and passion.”
“When I came here for the first time, I was cynical. But this place changed my energy. Now, it’s like this place is infectious. When I’m away for a few days, I start to feel down. I need to get back. “
“This is something we’re sharing and evolving together. It’s all so much serendipity. We’re kind of following the energy.”
“The place, the people, the passion. It feels like something is growing here. It’s miraculous. It works.”
“Leadership feels effortless, like breathing.”
“It’s not a university. It’s not the government. I had experience in those and it was dead. Here, it’s alive. It’s home. I feel safe, at home. It changes the meaning of work. And here, I discovered that I love teaching.”
“The feeling here is warm. There’s laughter. They trusted me immediately. And I felt like I wanted to be part of it.”
“We all have some affinities in common, but beyond that there’s some kind of chemistry holding the community together.”
I have to say, I get emotional every time I re-read those comments. Tears are a frequent occurrence at the school, too: tears of joy and gratitude at the chance to be real and connected and fully alive.
So how does this work, then? What’s the rubber-meets-the-road outcome of all this love and passion and “following the energy”?
The outcome is that things get done quickly, creatively and beyond all expectations.
It’s as if the organization is kind of a fertile container in which initiatives can quickly and easily sprout, with almost no effort. In fact, they never refer to themselves as an organization or a company. Instead, they talk about “this space.” It’s a beautiful physical space, but this isn’t all that they’re talking about. They’re also talking about the space between them and encompassing them. In my language, they’re talking about the emergent level of life that is the whole of them together.
Here’s a powerful example of just how fertile the space is that they’ve created.
AJ and Keiko first met in Japan, where she is from and where he was teaching English. So naturally, they focused on attracting Japanese students to their language school in Montreal, among other nationalities.
When the earthquakes and tsunami hit Japan recently, they put out an invitation to the Japanese community in Montreal: come gather at the school and let’s be together and comfort each other. And they also opened up their phone lines to allow people to call relatives in Japan.
That Saturday, those who gathered felt a strong urge to do something to help people in Japan. The idea of a fund-raiser came up and they took inventory of what skills they had between them. “We know how to do Japanese calligraphy.” “We know how to paint nails.” “We can make cookies.” “I could do face painting.” It was a jumble sale of offerings, but it was what they knew how to do. And so they threw together a Facebook page announcing a bake sale the following Saturday from 1pm to 5pm.
When my kids and I walked in at 1:30 that Saturday, I was overwhelmed at the crowd of people, many Japanese but most not. It was a full house, with amazing energy. And the level of organization was astounding. Friendly volunteers with professional name tags were everywhere you looked. There were clear stations for each offering. What knocked me out most was seeing that one open classroom had been transformed into a full professional nail salon, with a line up of six ladies bent attentively over their customers’ hands. There were even two men waiting to have their nails tended, so much was the will to participate and contribute. And there were thoughtful details, like a huge wall poster where we could write our wishes and prayers for Japan.
The next day, I ran into Keiko at the grocery store and congratulated her on a successful event. Despite the short event duration and just a week’s preparation for their “bake sale,” I was sure they must have raised hundreds of dollars. I was way off. “534 people came,” she said. “We raised close to $10,000.” And we stood there next to the oranges and cried together.
This is what thrivability looks like. Crying next to the oranges on a Sunday morning because of what human beings are capable of doing together in a space that is full of life.
Can you imagine?