Authenticity is an Evolving Process of Search and Discovery

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The Trap of Authenticity

Do organisations need to be authentic?

It’s a question that came up as I was talking to a colleague recently. He runs a program for the London Stock Exchange designed to accelerate growth in mid-sized companies so that they will become big enough to list on the LSE faster.  One of the firms in the program right now refuses to let their name be known – they’re afraid that their customers will think that trying to grow is inauthentic.

It’s an interesting problem – the firm makes food and their brand is built on edginess, and non-conformity.  If those are brand values, you can see where collaborating with the London Stock Exchange might not seem cool.

And yet, for the owners, both impulses are true. They want to build an offbeat firm, but they want the impact of that firm to be big.

This reminds me of a section from Herminia Ibarra’s excellent new book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leaderwhere she talks about how for people, trying to be authentic often prevents them from growing (she also talks about this idea in the Harvard Business Review). She says:

…authenticity is misunderstood and highly overrated when it comes to making the transition to new and unfamiliar roles. Because doing things that don’t come naturally can make you feel like an impostor, authenticity easily becomes an excuse for staying in your comfort zone. The trick is to work toward a future version of your authentic self by doing just the opposite: stretching way outside the boundaries of who you are today.

The classic definition of authenticity is “being true to oneself.” This seems simple enough, but it raises an all-important question about identity: which self? We are many selves. As William James put it, “A man has as many selves as the roles he takes on.” Roles are the different hats a person wears: the hats vary, but the person wearing them is the same; she is always true. But which self is true when you step into an unfamiliar role?

That’s the problem: if being authentic is being true to yourself, if you interpret this to mean that being true means doing the same things that you’ve always done, in the same way, then you can’t grow.

Authenticity is a Process, Not a State

Here is the way around that problem – think about authenticity as a process, not a state. If “authentic” is something that you are, then it is hard to see how you can change, because that means becoming something that you currently are not.

Nilofer Merchant is thinking a lot right now about what she calls onlyness:

Onlyness recognizes that each of us is standing in a spot only you stand in, a spot that no one else occupies. It is a function of history and experiences, visions and hopes. That unique point of view is the genesis of new ideas, the ones that challenge the status quo, or improve upon the existing condition. Thus, original ideas come from onlyness.

Merchant is describing a process – your onlyness depends on how you’ve gotten to where you are, and how you continue to proceed.  This means that authenticity derives from the process of becoming yourself – it is the journey, not the destination.

This is also the conclusion that Ibarra reaches:

By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.

What Are Authentic Firms?

Does the same idea work for firms?  Probably.

Compare what we’ve just been talking about for people with this discussion of authentic organisations from CV Harquail:

Authenticity is valuable because organizations that act authentically create a more accurate and more abundant expression of their unique values, capabilities, and purpose.

Being authentic effects the type and quality of the products, services and experiences that an organization offers.  When an organization acts from its identity, it expresses its ‘one and only’-ness, who that organization is that no other organization is. Because acting authentically draws forward the indigenous qualities inside the organization, an authentic organization creates behaviors, products and services that are specific and unique to that organization.

That’s why it’s important for organisations, and that is why the edgy food firm is worried – what if listing on the LSE isn’t seen as being consistent with their unique values?

As with people, the way around this problem is with purpose. I think that this firm isn’t being clear enough on what their purpose is.  If it is just to be edgy, then yes, being associated with the LSE is a bad move.  On the other hand, what if their purpose is to transform the way people think about food?  You can still do that in an edgy way, but for a goal that big, reach and voice matter – being a public company could help.

Right now, I don’t think they know what their purpose is. Harquail says:

Even when an organization’s purpose is unclear, under-communicated, or misunderstood, an organization drives towards its purpose. Because our need for purpose is so great, we long for tools that might help us clarify, communicate and understand our collective purpose.

How do we find it? Here’s a great idea from Justine Musk:

Shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs. Ask yourself what it is that you have the potential to bring to the world that is so unique and compelling and helpful that no computer could replace it, no one could outsource it, no one could steal your product and make it better and then club you into oblivion (not literally). Then develop that potential.

Just like people, firms need to think about authenticity as an evolving process of search and discovery, not an unchangeable state of being.

(the cartoon is from Hugh MacLeod’s Daily Newsletter – subscribing to it is worthwhile)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.