Why finding purpose feels impossible and why we should be talking more about balance
Balance is a necessity in every aspect of life. Knowing if we are in or out of balance directly affects our ability to survive and thrive; therefore, this thought piece brings something new to understanding balance and by association purpose.
Adaptation and homeostasis are the natural world's way of creating an unstable equilibrium. This dynamic system is unpacked and repurposed to present a solid argument for leadership teams and boards of directors to shift questions to ones that understand how to balance two powerful opposing forces. Balancing the development of the new whilst maintaining and preserving the existing has always been challenging, but here is a model that makes it easier.
In nature, we observe that organisms with little or no adaptation to ever-changing environments struggle to survive, whereas those that are pushing the evolutionary envelope and mutating into more suitable candidates for their ecosystem thrive. We also know that homeostasis and memory are key factors in maintaining stability. We find the same duality phenomena is reflected in the business world as we try to find a balance between creating new and maintaining what we have.
Nature does not favour new over old but ebbs and flows, appearing to have a fluid, ever-changing dynamic stability; however, businesses try to prioritise based on a purpose, and this piece highlights that often there is an unwillingness to consider both perspectives in balance, which is detrimental. What are the right questions to ask to determine if your purpose or strategy will disrupt fragile balances or if you are aligned and can thrive?
This is a 20-minute read which will challenge your perceptions and presuppositions of the role you inhabit and the role your ecosystem plays on you.
Can you, I, us, society or business have a single purpose?
In our natural world, two dependent systems keep our fragile life from ending. One is the ability to mutate and adapt, and the other is maintenance (homeostasis) and memory. When we observe the dynamic expansions and contractions in our natural world, we see the two-sides of this dynamic system competing. We can label these forces as “error creation” and “error correction”, and there is a never-ending ebb and flow between the two states, which creates a dynamic stability or an unbalanced equilibrium; two oxymorons which we will explore below. The ability to see both sides of a perspective gives us a wider vantage point that can help us unlock powerful insights into why a single unified purpose is not feasible, why AI will not take over, and how to avoid failure in times of uncertainty.
Is believing in a unified purpose a protective delusion?
The theory of evolution is a scientific explanation for how life on Earth has changed over time and how different species have arisen from common ancestors. It is based on the idea that all living things share a common ancestry and that the diversity of life we see today results from gradual changes over millions of years through a process called natural selection. Natural selection is the process by which certain traits become more or less common in a population based on their effects on survival and reproduction. Random mutation being the way to create new traits and adaptation, are central to the theory of evolution.
Homeostasis is maintenance, it refers to the ability of an organism to maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in the external environment. It is essential for the survival and well-being of an organism, and disruptions to this balance can have serious consequences. Memory refers to the process of storing, retaining, and retrieving information both individually and at a societal level; consider here how history, culture, law and even paintings and architecture are memory. Memory gives an organism the ability to maintain a sense of stability despite being in a changing environment, as one is able to recall the expected outcome of a familiar circumstance. Homeostasis and memory are critical for stability and survival.
These concepts, mutation & adaptation and homeostasis & memory, have been observed for thousands of years, and as humans unpack the complex connectivity between them, we can better articulate what we observe, which is why it can be so difficult to find and follow a singular goal to its completion. The connection between them has elements of both immediacy and delay: mutation demands an immediate response from homeostasis, yet also drives changes over time through immunity responses"; In the long run, human changes create environments for different mutations.
To the observer who notices that there are no arrows, there is a reason for that. It is about the connection, relationship, and coupling, not the directionality of flow.
Life is often framed as a competitive arms race: the survival of the fittest between living organisms that adapt to a constantly variable, but ultimately stable system. Mutations are randomness in the complex life coding system that creates new traits. Mutations can create an advantage in the arms race as they can lead to unique traits which make an organism fitter for its environment. Advantageous traits tend to thrive, whereas non-advantageous traits will either cease to exist or live on at a subsistence level.
Cyber security is positioned as a similar modern-day example of an arms race, but in reality, it is one system (virus) that is looking for a vulnerability to give it an advantage, and the other system running anti-virus is responding/ adapting to prevent it. The virus can only be created because the system has a fundamental flaw (weakness), and it is a race between those who want to uncover it and those who want to hide it, but the flaw exists. It is not the same.
One could use the free market economy as a modern example of this phenomenon of mutation and homeostasis, whereby we use the words “innovation” and “competition” as synonyms for “mutation” and “survival of the fittest”. To describe innovation as solely beneficial, or solely detrimental would be incorrect; likewise, it is not reasonable to suggest that stability is solely one or the other. In all aspects of life, there is a balance between chaos and order, mutation and homeostasis, and innovation and tradition. Therefore, when we re-frame our thinking, we see that believing in a single, unified purpose is a delusion, as this singular goal only represents one side of a dynamic system whereby control on one end does not create the end game, and we only have a bright future because we have two.
A preference for labelling
If I gave you a choice between “innovation” and “mutation”, which one do you associate with value, creativity and growth?
Transposing the words that describe our natural world directly into a business environment would create fear, uncertainty and doubt. “We are working hard on innovation” sounds more impressive and reasonable than “we are creating new mutations.” “We mostly operate in a competitive market” sounds so much more plausible than “it is an arms race for the survival of the fittest”. Words matter, and because they do, we can use words to create dynamics to be more or less willing to discuss and debate hard topics in the boardroom.
The next section utilises the word “error”; in this context, an "error" is the gap between expected and observed. I understand that many readers will want to stick with their natural framing of an error as right/ wrong, but “error” can mean:
a moral offence;
belief in something untrue;
the state or condition of being wrong in conduct or judgement;
a mistake, blunder, lapse, or slip;
a deviation from perception, expected, accuracy or correctness;
the difference between the observed and actual
Error in this work is closer to the framing of the lower three bullets than the top three.
How does a system based on “error creation” and “error correction” sound?
The dynamic of our natural world system is that one system is creating something new and different whilst the other is trying to correct and mitigate the change. One is bringing in the new, and the other defending the existing. One is the hope of something better, whilst the other is happy not to take the risk and maintain the same. Both sides create risk; strangely, different risks are created by each side, but nevertheless, risk. Error creation, in this instance, is invention, innovation and creativity. Error correction is stability and familiar processes that we know (and trust) from historical experience. The risk in the former is change, and the risk in the latter is to become not relevant. They are different risks.
The risk in the former is change, and the risk in the latter is to become not relevant. They are different risks.
How often do we translate the message we receive from leadership that we need to be both “more innovative” whilst simultaneously “improving efficiency and effectiveness” as a demand to compromise on everything and lack focus? Perhaps we should see this balance as the maintenance of an equilibrium of "error creation" and "error correction" because it creates something new that we label as value.
Leadership that fails to recognise there is a need for balance will fail; we first need to determine where we are in the system and which system we favour; from there, it should be easier to determine what journey we are on and where the north star is.
This is not “trial and error”, as before a trial, there has to be a hypothesis, and the error is a deviation in the results from the expected/ predicted. It is neither “error and trial”, where an error is created without a hypothesis and using some measure, one tries to determine if the error was successful. Then there is AB testing. However, these are all controlled point methods and are not about dynamic reactive complex systems.
The answer to the universe, world and everything (#douglasadams)
To fans of The HitchHickers Guide to the Universe, we know the answer is 42, but the question remains; we just needed another 5 minutes! My struggle with the answer, as given, was whether it was relevant when the question was asked or given since 7.5 million years passed, and a lot happens in big time frames. I would have loved to have asked Douglas.
So often, there is a dynamic between two competing ideas, both trying to be the more important single unifying idea or purpose. Humans want to be both heard and belong. It is not that one is better than the other, but one is more error creation (listen to my new idea) and one more error correction (stability of belonging). Some business leaders will say their purpose is “shareholder primacy”, whilst others say their core purpose is to “improve the lives of their customer”. This is a nonexclusive club - and there are many others - however, most companies settle on a purpose that is a compromise. It is safe to say that business purpose varies depending on the specific goals and values of the company and its stakeholders. It could be argued that the purpose of a business is to balance creating more value for the majority of the customers, shareholders, employees, and wider society as a whole than the destruction or erosion of value for others. Purpose itself is achieved through various competing ideas, such as developing innovative products or services, providing high-quality customer service, maintaining ethical business practices, and contributing to the ecosystem the organisation operates in.
When we reflect on this concept, we see that a business is itself demanding that it “creates errors” and “correct errors.” Remember, this is not “mistakes” or moral pearls; this is seeing innovation as creating change, which is an error to the system of no change. Businesses need to create new ideas and innovations but also correct errors that try to change the stability of process efficiency. Leadership needs to craft a level of instability whilst maintaining equilibrium. Note: another framing of “error” could be morally unethical behaviour and trading without reason whilst insolvent. These activities are not errors; they are illegal, and it is not what we are focused on.
Leadership needs to craft a level of instability whilst maintaining equilibrium.
Perhaps we should accept that there cannot be one single unifying purpose, and we exist in a place where some individuals, leaders, and teams favour change (error creation) and some stability (error correction), but without both, we would lose our ever-changing dynamic stability.
The Purpose and origin of Innovation (as an example of error creation)
Innovation refers to the process of creating something new or improving upon an existing product, service, or process. The purpose of innovation is to bring about positive change and to solve problems more effectively or efficiently. Innovations can be incremental or disruptive, with the latter representing a significant shift in how things are done.
The origin of innovation can be traced back to human curiosity and the desire to improve the quality of life. Throughout history, humans have constantly sought ways to improve their lives, whether it be through inventions such as the wheel or electricity, or the development of new technologies like mobile phones and the web. Innovation has played a vital role in driving progress and advancing society.
Innovation has become increasingly important as businesses seek to stay competitive and meet the changing needs of consumers. Companies invest in research and development to create new products and services to improve efficiency, increase profits, and create new market opportunities. Governments also encourage innovation through funding research and development, providing incentives for businesses, and fostering collaboration between industry and academia.
Overall, the purpose and origin of innovation are rooted in human ingenuity and the desire to create something new and better. Innovation has been and will continue to be a critical driver of progress and growth in all aspects of society, including how we achieve sustainability.
We like innovation as long it is not called error creation or mutation, but the reality is, no matter how hard we try, they are one and the same. If you naturally align with an error correction ontology, you may have a creative mindset and enjoy the process of disruption, change, and the outcomes of instability.
There are exceptions: fraud, bribery and corruption.
The Purpose and origin of Accounting (as an example of error correction)
The origins of accounting can be traced back thousands of years to ancient civilisations such as the Babylonians, who kept records of their transactions on clay tablets. In medieval Europe, accounting was used primarily by merchants and bankers to keep track of their financial transactions. The original purpose of business accounting was to provide shareholders with accurate and timely information about the financial performance and position of an organisation.
Accounting is a system of recording, analysing and summarising financial transactions to prevent errors, provide accuracy, and present information that is useful in making business decisions. Over time, accounting has evolved into a sophisticated discipline with its own set of principles and standards. In addition to serving the needs of businesses, accounting also serves the broader needs of society. For example, accounting information is used by governments to track tax revenues and by investors to make investment decisions. Accounting also plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of financial markets by providing reliable information about the financial performance of companies.
We may naturally align to the framing of finance as long it is not called error correction, doing the same, preventing change and improving stability, but the reality is, no matter how hard we try, they are one and the same. If you naturally align with an error correction ontology, you may have a more accounting mindset, whereby you will naturally look for order amidst chaos and create stable processes out of a loose set of desires.
There are exceptions: fraud, bribery and corruption.
How do other business functions align?
Marketing, sales, and product development appear to tend towards error creation, with operations, legal, and accounting systems tending towards error correction. It is possible that where technology and HR sits is critical to the overall balancing culture of the company and if the company favours error creation (creative, imaginative, innovative) or error correction (stable, historical, and dutiful.)
The descriptions above used “tend towards.” The basic function of accounting is to remove errors, but it also has to improve continually because of the necessity of continually correcting new errors. The basic function of marketing is creativity, never repeating campaigns and coming up with new and different ideas. But if marketing were only creative, it would not be able to align and build upon what is already there and how the market behaves. Creative flair for error creation is tempered by the history and context of error correction. All functions demand both, and we need to understand how the balance is created by the purpose, function, and culture of the team.
Teams define culture. Teams are made of individuals who are either going to be more aligned to error-creating or error-correcting. Whilst we prefer to label individuals as “creative” or “checklist,” these do describe the characteristics, leadership attitudes, and biases that are critical to determining what function a department actually fulfils. These balances are not simple; indeed, they are complex.
Creative flair for error creation is tempered by the history and context of error correction.
A board needs to comprehend, appreciate, and understand if the balance is right. If a board is not diverse in thought, skill, and discipline, that balance may not be found or is easily lost, and the culture of one or the other can lead a business to failure, especially with an overly dominant financial focus as accounting tends to focus on being financially risk-averse. It is worth noting that balance, in this sense, is not about equality; the balance creates enough errors to improve continually (agile) but with enough error correction to be resilient.
The balance must create enough errors to improve continually (agile) but with enough error correction to be resilient.
The error creation/correction model can scale to other forms of thinking:
Fear can be seen as error creation, whereas trust is error correction. There is undoubtedly a complex relationship between fear and trust that is both immediate and develops over time. Trust can correct fear that is related to an error originating from the past, but trust can also create a new path.
The concept of 'self' is error-creation, whereby we tend to express our individuality within a system of societal norms and memory which seeks stability and error correction. Individuals create eros, and their movement (many followers) creates a change which eventually becomes the new normal.
Freedom allows for error creation, whilst control demands correction from deviation. Too much freedom or too much control both appear terminal based on history. Prison and punishment systems struggle with this balance on so many levels, even using “error correction” as an idea in a different context.
Both error creation and error correction harbour risk, and both can be seen as creating more risk. Benefit demands an understanding of the value and cost of moving away from the known and can be seen as both more error creation (advantage) and correction (prevention).
These examples are non-linear, and balance does not necessarily mean 50:50 and perhaps a less controversial language might be to substitute “error” with “difference.” The difference is the way in which two things, when compared, are not the same.
What else have you observed that represents two sides of a dynamic complex relationship, where one or both favour error creation and one error correction?
It is worth pondering about how and why we try to reduce the complexity of the balance into a single ROI figure in order to pass a hurdle and justify a decision. Can ROI ever capture consequences?
What happens when we get it wrong?
Wrong, in this case, is where the balance is lost, and too many errors or too much correction ends in survival becoming unviable, with death being the only inevitable outcome. Business failure.
In the wild, a mutation that does not provide an advantage can easily be lost, and an overly controlled stable environment can dwindle to nothing if it fails to adapt to modernity.
In the economics of a business, the same is true: an innovation will not give an advantage forever, and the next innovation may not provide a new advantage. Equally, too much control and stability as a result of finance controls and regulation will result in the company becoming outdated in comparison to its environment or ecosystem - the result is the company or sector will enter a slow decline. #banking
A company does not exist on its own but in a complex ecosystem, and the balance may be achieved within the ecosystem and not just in the health or balance of a single company. In nature, the predator-prey model often forgets that the rabbit/fox needs other food and water, as well as the rabbit/fox having other threats. A company may well be out of balance in itself, but balance is remediated by others in the ecosystem, which is why strategy is not just about innovation, but the balance that is maintained by the ecosystem in order to create dynamic stability. It is important to understand who is moving towards stability and who is moving towards innovation; otherwise, the whole ecosystem itself can fall out of balance.
This highlights that any theory of error creation/correction must embrace relevance on at least four levels: individual, team, organisation, and ecosystem. A purpose may articulate what you want, but a purpose that is not dynamic in its ability to move and balance error creation and error correction at all levels is going to be short-lived.
Reframing AI away from “Intelligent Machinery.”
Defining the term 'artificial intelligence' presents us with a problem. The problem is that human intelligence fundamentally depends on a balanced system where error creation and error correction co-exist. Many of the most historic creative minds, insightful thinkers and leading scientists were neurodiverse (error-creating) and spent their lives fighting systems of error correction (academic, power, religious.) Flat earthers, climate deniers and Copernicus with the heliocentric model of the solar system are a few that history has thrown up.
Using the lens of error creation and correction, we can say that we are building ever more advanced error correction systems from big data tools, identification and removal of bias, better accounting, DNA manipulation, eradicating viruses, and using tech to provide compliance, governance, and oversight. In this perspective, it becomes more obvious that we do not currently focus on using ever more advanced tech to actually create errors as a route for advantage. If AI were like nature, an AI that only corrects or one that only creates errors could not survive.
If AI only needs to find and fix errors through the error correction lens, then AI will only be half a system and will be artificial but not intelligent. Data can be error-correcting and error-generating, but if we don't know this part of the ontology, we will never be able to gain more intelligence.
The diagram below expands on this thinking to suggest that there is more than just one system on the error-correcting side. Error correction is more complex as it needs to amend errors which are not advantageous, and promote the development of errors which are. It is equally true that the error creation side has to have a system that moderates errors, or it would be too wild, and create destruction before the opportunity arose to test if a new trait provided an advantage. The closed-loop system is full of complex feedback loops to both control and promote; with both immediacy and delay. What is evident is that the system is neither stable nor unstable but has pulsing oscillation, which keeps it in a delicate balance.
The axis of thriving and death
What came first, the chicken or the egg?
In a world where error correction (driven by the desire to use experience and the past as the solid foundation) is the initiation or y-axis, and the response is error creation (creativity, invention and innovation) or x-axis, we get thinking dominated by being controlled first, and being unstable second, which creates the volatility and ambiguity that allows for dynamic stability, it is a place where we can thrive and grow. This could be our economic and political world viewed through the lens of law, policy, study, social norms, culture, and data.
In a world where error creation (driven by a desire for change, innovation, creativity, adventuring, pioneering, and invention) is the initiation, and the response is error correction (finance, risk management and control), we get instability dominating our thinking, and the environment is unbalanced, yet still in equilibrium. Complexity and uncertainty become leading ideas. In a place of unbalanced equilibrium, we are still able to thrive and grow. This could be our economic and political world viewed through the lens of research, hypothesis, invention, ideation, hope, and imagination.
It would appear that: dynamic stability + unbalanced equilibrium creates a balanced system that thrives.
What we should avoid are too much control and too much error - the question is, what do any of these worlds look or feel like, and how will we recognise them?
The last thing a fish will become aware of is water teaches us that our current environment can feel normal when in reality, it may be out of balance. If we cannot see or know the balance, we have lost our propensity to manage change.
Why does all this matter
Leadership through one lens (unbalanced equilibrium) depends on being curious, whereas leadership from the other lens (dynamic stability) demands a focus on efficiency and effectiveness, but both perspectives need to continually improve how they inform and direct decision making.
We often see fantastic single-idea books that encourage leadership to optimise decision-making towards growth driven by error creation (how to disrupt yourself, agile, reinvention, cross the chasm, the new normal, change management, repurpose, innovation, re-engineering); it is likely, with such a narrow focus, to lead to poor decision-making, as the benefits and outcomes for error correction are ignored or suppressed. This is equally true in reverse, and there are equally brilliant books that optimise for error correction (efficiency, time management, effectiveness, infinite, leadership, tick lists, ethics, merit, principles, governance, accounting, and statistics).
If we try to get the balance for a better outcome from both error creation and correction, we will likely get sub-optimal results for both. Even with all the resources in the world, nature still ebbs and flows, as it cannot optimise for both and has learnt to make compromises, but we thrive because of it.
The title of this long read is “Why finding purpose feels impossible”; on reflection, the title could equally have been “Why a singular unified business purpose is impossible for everyone”. If we accept we have to balance error creation and correction, a single purpose has to favour or optimise for one or the other, which means that many employees and stakeholders feel the stated “purpose” does not align with or represent them. Balance is rarely 50:50, it can come in many forms: 0:100, 80:20, 99:1, etc. Balance exists, but the context is dependent on the purpose you are trying to achieve. This is where exceptional leadership comes into its own.
The takeaway for leadership
A critically important task/ role for leadership, the board, executives, and governance are to determine:
If our organisation favours error-creation or error-correction
Where is the balance for our organisation?
Are we in balance? If not, are we planning to or sourcing the skills necessary to improve balance?
How is balance in our ecosystem achieved, what are others doing?
Is our organisation/ecosystem in or out of balance, and does our action change anything?
The most important purpose for leadership, the board, executives and governance are to understand and determine if our organisation and ecosystem are in or out of balance.
The problem with strategy and purpose is that we can have agreed and have an agreement, but that does not mean we agree. Working out balance is complex, whereas how we are performing against the plan is rather more straightforward.
To determine and find balance, we must shift our focus from individual, singular and expert towards collective, group and ecosystem. Whilst the former is positioned as strong leadership, and the latter is portrayed as introducing delay, compromise, tension and conflict - it is evident that to thrive, we must know how to find and deliver balance.