Let me start by saying that I believe every organisation is already purpose driven today. The problem I see is that the vast majority work toward the implicit purpose of profit and growth. So when I refer to ‘Purpose driven organisations’ I mean organisations that have defined an explicit purpose that truly acts as a guiding principle and is not just a mere internal or external marketing tool.
Why an implicit purpose is harmful
Often I find myself confronted with an argument that a push for purpose is pointless, as markets will either support or reject it through the laws of supply and demand. First of all it’s quite exciting to see that the demand for purpose, both in the field of talent acquisition and that of conscious consumers, is growing (more on that in another post). But more importantly, purpose is not a tradable commodity. It is the reason something should exist in the first place, including the organisations and markets themselves. Somewhere along the way we have allowed market thinking to permeate outside of its functional container to achieve complex collaborations, into becoming the reason for the mere existence of these collaborations. With the market as its driver, our society will simply organise itself around profit and growth. To me this is not a far stretch from sci-fi scenarios like ‘‘The Terminator’’, where our tools decided it was time to start using us for their benefit.
If discussions on morality and values are subjected to market thinking, or simply avoided altogether, we will end up spending our time supporting organisations that are the best at growing, regardless of what is feeding them or what their contribution to society is. I think our world is full of examples where growth driven organisations cause excessive wealth, health and other discrepancies between different groups in society. This is what I deem harmful.
Collective morality and values to assert purpose
Since purpose is a point on the horizon to aim for, you will always need to interpret reality to see if you are getting closer to it or not. This interpretation should ideally be measurable and objective. But even choosing the right metrics itself is a subjective exercise, that, if left to one person, will in time get corrupted by conflicting interests. So how then do you objectively test whether or not an organisation is moving towards its purpose or away from it? It is my believe you cannot. Or at least not fully. The closest you can get, is to find a system that allows everyone acting within and affected by the organisation to reflect on whether the purpose is being met or not. But more importantly, a system that will allow everyone to act upon a perceived discrepancy. Either by changing course, changing the purpose or leaving the organisation. This is what I understand ‘self organisation’ to be. Obviously it will not be workable if everyone constantly changes the course of the entire organisation by 180 degrees. Fortunately there are a few of well thought through operating systems available to help organisations pragmatically organise around purpose. Holacracy being the most notable at this stage.
‘Self organisation’ is not the goal, but a means to become purpose driven. It is not there to serve as a tool for the people in the organisation to express their personal needs. It is essential to surfacing whether an organisation is acting within or outside its set purpose. The closest you will get to an objective measure is to extract the sum of interpretations on how well a purpose is being pursued and achieved. This collective interpretation cannot be separated from the personal morals and values of the individuals acting within the organisation.
Purpose will self correct excessive moral discrepancies
If an organisation will truly be able to assert its course to purpose by using ‘collective perception’, the organisation will have a built-in mechanism to avoid unacceptable excessive discrepancies. And ‘(un)acceptable’ here is not an objective, measurable term, but a simple resulting average every purpose driven organisation will create on the basis of its collective understanding of what acceptable means. As soon as the organisation acts outside of ‘acceptable’, it will self correct.
Markets as a tool for purpose
Where does this leave the markets then? Pretty much at exactly the same place as they are now, except that they no longer govern our reasons to organise. Let them work their magic on pricing and quality of our tradable commodities. With purpose pulled out, we’ll be able to place things like healthcare, schooling, safety and our environment outside of the markets. As it stands today, everything is a commodity; with a very high price to pay for those without the proper means to afford those commodities. On top of that there is no place in market thinking for the collective needs of our environment as it does not have an immediate market value and thus no voice or role to play.