Living vs. Legacy Organizations

One of the characteristics which make us uniquely human is the ability to form organizations. An organization is a rather remarkable creation; a collection of resources brought together to fulfill a purpose. Although the purpose of an organization can be written, a plan developed, processes and procedures drafted, an organization only comes to life when people are placed into positions. The paradox of an organization is that it can continue to exist well beyond the lifetime of any of its members, but yet it can age to the point of being unable to function as intended. The primary mission of the leaders of an organization is to keep it young. 

As social beings, we are all members of organizations. Some of us are a part of many organizations while others limited involvement to just a few. We stay in organizations as long as we are receiving personal value and our circumstances of membership have not changed.  Personal value is initially a measure of why we joined the organization. In service organizations the reason may be the satisfaction gained by providing service to clients of the organization. It may be the satisfaction gained by being a part of the organizational structure. The reason may be the contacts made by participating in the organization, networking. Over time, the basis for personal value tends to shift. As an example a member may join looking for networking opportunities, but then shift to value service to clients. Another shift could be from intent to serve to valuing position in the organization. People are the only assets of an organization which ask why they are engaged, determine how effectively they are deployed, and can change their minds over time.   

Organizations are created for a multitude of purposes and take on a multitude of structures. It is convenient to divide organizations into two major categories; For Profit and Not for Profit.  For Profit organizations are businesses. The intent is to create value for their stakeholders.  Typically, the intent takes the form of creating wealth for those invested in the business. A business will continue to exist as long as its owners believe it will earn an acceptable long-term return on investment.

Not for Profit organizations are service and support organizations. They also exist to create value to their stakeholders. The intent is not, however, to create a return to investors, but rather to function in a manner which gives support to individuals, groups, causes or other organizations. A support or service organization should only continue to exist if it is providing real value to its stakeholders in the present moment. If the organization ceases to create real present moment value to its stakeholders, the resources used to support the organization should be redirected to organizations which are creating value.        

Both for Profit and Not for Profit organizations can be categorized as being either a Living Organization or a Legacy Organization. A Living Organization is one which is intent on achieving its purpose. It is structured to perform its functions. The future is a frame of reference for achievement of its purpose. It is organized to employ available resources to make progress today, the present moment. When asked, members tell of what the organization is doing in the present, not past achievements or plans for the future. The Performing Organization is a dynamic structure, changing itself based on the needs of the tasks at hand.  

A Legacy Organization is intent on continuing its existence. In the early years it most likely was a Living Organization with many notable achievements. Over a period of time it began to become rigid. The structure became difficult to change. Individual groups within the organization were expected to look like and act like all other similar groups. The frame of reference for the future became the organization’s ability to sustain itself. A high degree of importance was placed on filling positions rather than completing functions directly related to its purpose. The concept of sustainability related more to the flow of people through defined positions than the functions needed to achieve the intent of the organization.

A Living Organization says, “This is what we do; therefore, this is what we are.” It identifies functions, which need to be accomplished, and structures itself to get the job done. The Legacy Organization says, “This is what we are; therefore, this is what we do.” It constantly reinforces structure and looks for functions which can be accomplished with the existing structure. It seldom actually finishes the job preferring recurring cycles with gradually decreasing performance. Legacy Organizations always find something to do. Their actions tend, however, to honor their intent rather than move toward achievement of their intent. Honor is a characteristic of Legacy while achievement is a characteristic of Living.        

The life of an organization can and should exceed the productive life of its members. It should be in a constant cycle of renewal. The absence of renewal allows Legacy to take over. Living is, however, not lost. The cycle of an organization turns from Legacy back to Living when the collective focus changes from structure to function. The beginning is when what we do becomes more important than who we are. In a large organization, it needs to start with a new generation. A new generation, which is committed to be aligned with intent and function rather than structure. It starts in the belly of the Legacy Organization. The odds of its survival with intent intact are low. The odds are in favor of it being reabsorbed into the greater Legacy Organization or its members leaving the organization disenchanted. Although the odds of moving a Legacy Organization back to being a Living Organization are low, it is worth the effort.  Change can be created. It is possible to recreate Living. And if in the end Legacy wins, the new generation effort provides a wealth of knowledge and experience to those who are intent on achievement of the function. A new Living Organization will appear and the cycle will begin again.    

Joe Schumacker

May 2013

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