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In my last blog post, I shared a document we created about ten years ago, “Decurion’s Operating Philosophy.”  Over the decade since we first shared that document with our members (employees) and prospective members, we have made several efforts to refine and clarify the way we explain our approach to business.  In this post, I present one of our earlier efforts, “A Note on Decurion’s Operating Philosophy.”

What do we mean by “the operating philosophy”?  We have said that it is not an ideology, not a set of ideas in which to believe.  It is, instead, a set of practices in which to engage.  The dictionary definitions of “philosophy” that come closest to what we mean are “a system of ideas concerning…a particular subject” and “a system of principles for the conduct of life.”  But these come out too heavily on the side of ideas and fail to mention practices.  The dictionary defines “operate” as “to be in action, to produce an effect.”  This gets us closer to what we have in mind.

The operating philosophy is a combination of ideas, practices, and commitments.

Among our commitments are our purpose, values, and axioms.  Our guiding ideas include wholeness, developmental growth, and the quadrants (more on these in future posts).  And our practices include the five practices of context:  personal excellence, professional discipline, business competence, servant leadership, and learning community.

There is, however, an important point not captured by these examples.  Many of our guiding ideas are not ideas only, but ideas and practices at the same time.  Others are both ideas and commitments, depending on the perspective one takes.  And some are simultaneously ideas, commitments, and practices.  Systems thinking, for example, is an idea and a practice.  Flourishing is an idea and a commitment.  Servant leadership is an idea, a commitment, and a practice.

So what are the elements of Decurion’s operating philosophy?  Among them are:

  • Providing places for people to flourish
  • Excellence, respect, clock building, servant leadership, learning, and compassion
  • Ensuring that work is meaningful, that it allows us to develop ourselves, to contribute to others, and to create something excellent and enduring
  • Treating people not only as means but also as ends in themselves
  • Creating conditions for individuals and communities to develop
  • Pursuing profitability and human development as part of a single whole
  • Bringing together meaning and the basics
  • Living an undivided life
  • Building an excellent, enduring institution
  • Jim Collins’s notion of the hedgehog concept, applied to each of our businesses
  • Michael Porter’s idea of gaining a sustainable differential advantage by crafting a strategic fit among interlocking activities
  • Engaging with others through our principles, practices, and guidelines of community
  • Recognizing and managing all four quadrants
  • Acquiring through daily practice on the tasks in front of us the dispositions we call tacit habits and communal commitments
  • Using both hierarchical and communal governance
  • Generating collective intelligence through learning communities
  • Seeing what’s really happening, sharing that information, and acting appropriately
  • Making people more autonomous, more capable, and more powerful

Is there an “elevator version” of our operating philosophy?  (This would be the version one could convey to another person during an elevator ride.)  At the moment, there is no such version.  (Parker Palmer says that when asked for an elevator version, he replies, “I take the stairs.”)  But that does not mean the operating philosophy is amorphous or unduly complicated.  Members of the Decurion community are acting from it constantly.  Whenever a crew member treats a guest as an end and not a means; whenever an individual brings a rigorous, systematic, and disciplined approach to work; whenever a group addresses difficult issues authentically—these Decurion members are realizing the operating philosophy.  And here I use “realize” in two senses:  “to be fully aware of” and “to convert into a fact, to make real.”

How does one come to realize or know the operating philosophy?  One could study its elements as ideas or align oneself with them as commitments.  The most fruitful place to begin, however, is to practice.  Through practice, we acquire the elements of the operating philosophy as settled dispositions, as part of the way we naturally approach our work.  The final step is to gain enough perspective on the operating philosophy that we can not only benefit from it but also build it for the benefit of others.

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