As the name suggests I am a big fan of the POSIWID concept. It makes sense in a Forrest Gump kinda way (purpose is as purpose does). It is also a great way of understanding organisational failure, often driven by inappropriate performance management which drives behaviour towards one purpose when the stated organisational purpose is something quite different. You know, such as the classic call centre management guff around “we value our customers” and rather than actually measuring value provided to customers they measure how quickly staff finish calls – which is about operational efficiency and not customer value! #facepalm.
So here I am loving POSIWID and then I came across something different. I found another way of exploring purpose. This time as an emergent property of the relationship between the system and its environment. The concept of structural coupling is not new but it is worth further consideration…
Structural coupling is a term devised by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to explain the organisational processes that sustain living systems. It reflects the co-relationship of different organisms that emerges over time. In short it is about how purpose evolves over time.
To give a simple example:
My bike + me represents a system for a pleasurable commute by means of cycling from home to work each day
But one day it rains (I know, it happens!). The ride is less pleasurable but it is still a commute to work. Slightly different purpose.
Then another day I see Bikey McBikeface the local cycling hero going in the same direction so I decide to race him. Now my commute has a new dimension which includes cycling faster than Mr McBikeface, or at least trying to. Again a slightly different purpose.
Then another day I ride my bike to go to the shops rather than work. A different purpose altogether but the same core system elements.
This is the coupling part of the relationship. The bit which determines changes to purpose through the relationship.
The structural part suggests there are limits to those possible changes which are restricted due to the structure of my system. This means my bike + me will not suddenly by able to fly to work (although that would be cool) as that is not a capability of the system in its current form.
The point is that purpose evolves over time as a result of the interactions and exchanges with the surrounding environment. Therefore this suggests that the purpose of a system is not simply what it does right now but something which can and does adapt overtime in relation to context.
This doesn’t make POSIWID wrong. It is simply insufficient for taking a more holistic view of purpose over time. I am not going to change my name. But I will feel very insufficient for a few days.