Many people are fed up of hearing the word ‘purpose’. Like all concepts that gain traction it is easy to assume it’s a trend and we have arrived at ‘peak purpose.’ However, that conclusion would be wrong – and ironic. The reason why purpose appears as a fad, is because many companies who pronounce they are purpose-driven, aren’t. The reason for this is that purpose is not easy. The reason it’s hard is because it’s not superficial at all – it is deep and radical.
We have been so doused in ‘business-as-usual’ that it’s difficult to see our blind spots. Since my teenage years, the nature of business-as-usual has been my preoccupation, and then profession and vocation, via a BSc in Management, a career as a consultant, a Masters in Sustainability and a PhD in consumption behaviour. I now grasp this complex topic enough to summarise why and how it has taken us down a very dangerous path.
‘IT COULD ALL HAVE BEEN SO PERFECT – EXCEPT WE FORGOT TO CHECK THE SYSTEM WAS NOT DESTROYING ITSELF’
Various neo-classical economic thinking was cherry-picked into a relatively coherent and conveniently simple ideology: let companies focus on profits for shareholders, while the free market, tweaked by government, churns out maximised wellbeing based on the eminently rational choices of citizen-consumers. What’s not to like? Especially not as an investor or manager when your painfully repressed self-interest is been promoted and then rewarded through institutional alignment.
It could have all been so perfect – except that we forgot to check the system was not destroying itself and everything else with it. Businesses have become optimised ‘resource-to-market-offering’ transformers, and revered by government and society for it. But no one in power was asking, and checking, if the ultimate capital base was being sustained or that society’s wellbeing – the entire point of the system – was actually being enhanced, equitably.
So, it’s in this context that purpose enters. Purpose represents a rejection of the myopic view of business as a profit-driven cog in an automatic wellbeing machine. Rather than rely on outdated assumptions that a free market optimises long-term wellbeing for all automatically, purpose instead anchors a company’s very existence, and its measures of success, to the ultimate ends of an economy: wellbeing. And in a way that deliberately stewards and restore the ultimate resources (human, natural, financial etc). This includes making sure that the stakeholders a firm relies on to create wellbeing outcomes are nurtured.
So, while we may be getting bored of hearing about purpose and seeing it so superficially done, it is important we realise that in this small window of opportunity we have to ensure global society’s sustainable and democratic future, purpose is radical and hard, but the best hope we have. The onus is on us to nurture it while supporting and holding to account the executives trying to reinvent their businesses from within.