Managing Complexity: The Cantuña Story of Talent, Opportunity and Belief Written by Esther Clark Drucker Essay Competition 2013

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Managing Complexity: The Cantuña Story of Talent, Opportunity and Belief

Written by Esther Clark

Drucker Essay Competition 2013
What happens when you combine talent with a belief in building something beautiful and relevant? And what happens when you unite talent, belief and opportunity? Talent becomes inspired and begins to create amazing works of art, develop solutions to humanity’s toughest problems and, almost effortlessly, people from all walks of life start to share ideas, passions and actions. They start to connect and they begin a journey of exploration, innovation and creation.

I live in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, a World Heritage Site, and an architectural and cultural haven. We are the highest capital city in the world: two thousand eight hundred meters above sea level in the Andes Mountains of South America. We have beautiful churches, colonial buildings and sprawling plazas all bespeaking collaboration between talent, opportunity and belief.

I am constantly reminded of the importance of belief when I visit the city’s colonial core. I am a fan of storytelling and I love to hear stories such as the one about Cantuña, an indigenous architect, who believed so strongly in his project that he made a pact with the devil in order to finish the chapel adjacent to Quito’s most famous church – San Francisco – on schedule and on budget (two words we often hear in business meetings today). The story goes that Cantuña finished the chapel on time but did not place the last stone so that his pact with the devil could not be consummated.

There are many stories in business, art and science and most of the success stories have a common factor: belief. Belief in creating a vaccine for polio (Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin), belief in a connected world (Alexander Graham Bell), belief in an orchestra playing what we hear in our heart (Beethoven), or belief in challenging the technological status quo (Apple computer).

In business, we tend to focus on the tangibles: resources, markets, z minus x. We have lengthy discussion in board rooms and team meetings about what should be done about problem “a” or how can we increase the “b” unit profitability. We even talk about engagement, getting customers to “like” us, and, sometimes, listening to stakeholders and creating relevant products or services. But opportunity and talent cannot excel if they are not connected to belief. Belief is what sets us apart from the animal world. Belief is what makes us human. Belief is what makes us try the impossible and it’s also what gets us out of bed every morning: belief in providing for our families, supporting our communities and, in general terms, serving our fellow human beings.

Belief can motivate an entire movement; the Civil Rights movements in the US, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and Gandhi’s peaceful revolution were all sparked by a shared belief in non-violent protest to change the status quo. Belief can cross geographical, religious, racial, social, political, functional and economic barriers.

Belief is closely tied to entrepreneurship and innovation. Entrepreneurs naturally have a strong belief in their business idea and how they will make an impact on the world. As human beings, we are driven to find solutions to problems around us. Entrepreneurs are human beings that find solutions to problems and translate that solution into a product or service we can use. There are many metrics to predict failure or success of new ventures but it is the belief behind the idea and behind the entrepreneur that will ultimately get the idea noticed, funded and adopted by society. While the opportunity and talent must be described and evaluated, it is belief that makes the entrepreneur, investor and market come together and make the idea work.

Belief is also tied to leadership. Belief is intangible and immeasurable but it is fundamental in leadership because it answers the question: why are we doing this? Leaders are effective when they can paint a picture of what the organization will accomplish in the future and they inspire people to follow and promote that vision through their work and their interaction with others.

When there is a higher purpose or a belief in a cause whether in business, science or art, there is less room for fear and more space for innovation and problem solving. Belief is grounded in contribution; it opens up possibilities for collaboration because humans are focusing on the things they believe in rather than simply the things that they make or things they are “responsible for”. Decisions are made with the larger organizational purpose at heart; resulting in unexpected connections between departments or functions, products and market, products and purpose.

Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company once said: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” It takes someone with a vision of the future to imagine something that does not exist; but it takes talented people – imbibed with belief in the vision – to make it work.

Belief is what makes talent and opportunity unite to create something of value for humanity whether in arts, science or business. When the architects, artisans and patrons built the beautiful churches in Quito, Ecuador, it was a belief in a higher cause that enabled them to dream of what could exist and then translate those ideas into action. Many of Quito’s colonial buildings are built from intricately laid stones – each interlocking with the next – forming a tangible portrait of the mental and physical efforts involved in creating such a masterpiece. And when they ran into problems associated with heat from the equatorial sun, or the afternoon rain storms, or the supply of gold leaf paint, they found solutions because they believed they could.

Storytelling is a way to help hold organizations together in spite of adversity or fear of failure. Stories of the founder, of how a mistake turned into a profitable business unit or how an intern turned her social media skills into real value for the company all intermingle with the different talents in the organization to create a shared sense of purpose and belief for what they are doing. 3M is often cited in business schools as the classic example of a mistake (reusable pressure sensitive adhesive) was converted into 3M’s most famous business unit (Post It Notes).

Belief does not stand alone. Cantuña had construction materials, a plan and various talented artisans that made the Chapel of Cantuña a reality. He had sculptors that decorated the interior with representations of saints, a rococo style altar and various adornments that fit into the vision of a beautiful chapel befitting the San Francisco (Saint Francisco) of which the city is named; Quito’s full name is San Francisco de Quito. Cantuña also had funds to work with and resources at his fingertips. He was also working under the beautiful blue Quito sky which has inspired – and will continue to inspire - innumerable writers, artists and thinkers.

Today, organizations (private, public, for profit, not for profit) with well-articulated values and beliefs attract and retain the best talent. It is belief in what the organization is doing and what higher purpose the organization serves that will ultimately make that organization better able to manage complexity and take advantage of opportunities.

An organization cannot exist in a vacuum if it’s going to be relevant tomorrow. It’s just as Shakespeare wrote when immortalizing his lover in Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” It’s the sharing of belief in what purpose the organization serves that will be vital to its survival after its original creators move on and its original products and services grow obsolete. Only when the idea exists beyond the eye of the creator – whether the creator is an artist, scientist, entrepreneur or innovator – is when it becomes part of society and part of human history.

In recent years, organizations and society have witnessed a shift in how information about their company is viewed, shared and evaluated as a result of the rise of social media and access to the internet. But word of mouth advertising and testimonials are not new; it is the speed and ease of information exchange that has changed. Some organizations have embraced information sharing – whether through social media, blogs, town hall meetings or community events - and in doing so they have leveraged talent from outside their organization to build a loyal following and help them to make better decisions based on improved engagement with their stakeholders.

Providing spaces for dialogue both in and outside organizations about what the business stands for and why it exists is a way for making complex issues melt away because it provides a focal point – or metaphorically speaking – a compass by which decisions big and small can be made. It encourages members of the organization (talent) to identify with the company, take ownership for their actions, make suggestions and find solutions to problems.

Belief, opportunity and talent; it is these three things that are indispensable elements to creating relevant businesses and organizations today just as they were in colonial Quito. Through storytelling – like the story about Cantuña - organizations can reach the hearts and minds of talent both inside and outside their company. Belief in a higher cause unites people to try for the impossible, be innovative in their solutions and manage complexity wherever they may find it – in Art, Science or Business.


Esther Clark – Drucker Essay Contest

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