We are excited to share our revised framework for building collective action and driving transformational change; just click the link above to download Systemcraft. Continuing this theme, Wasafiri’s Managing Director Dr Kate Simpson dives into the question of “How does systems thinking drive purpose? How do you build purpose-driven organisations?”
In the world of ‘business writing’ the subject of ‘organisational purpose’ has probably generated more nonsense than any other subject; and there is strong competition for that top spot. It is not that there is anything wrong with the desire to be part of and lead organisations with a purpose of which to be proud. The problem is the way we often go about the work of identifying organisational, or indeed personal, purpose.
Systems thinking can help us to create and lead organisations that really are purpose-driven; organisations that live up to our aspirations. But first, we have to understand what a purpose is and what it isn’t.
Purpose is not what you decide, it’s what you do
Every system, every organisation has a purpose. This purpose is, in effect, the outcome(s) that the organisation produces. And the way we identify an organisation’s purpose is not by looking at the website or annual report, it is not by interviewing the CEO or joining in with a visioning session, rather it is by observing its behaviour. Such purpose may not be written down, may not be explicit, may not even be intended or desired but it is the purpose the current state is actually serving. For example, a school produces graduates (its purpose) it also produces dropouts or ‘fails’ (also its purpose). One of these may be desired and intended, but both are the purposes of the system – both are outcomes of the way the system acts, choices that are made, the rules of the game, and so on.
Much of the business talk about ‘purpose’ focuses not on what the current outcomes are but what a select few would like the outcomes to be. There is nothing wrong with having an aspiration for a greater or different purpose. But getting there won’t just happen because it is what we want to be true. Instead, we need to both create a desired purpose AND take the time to observe and understand the outcomes the current system has actually evolved to deliver. Then we can do the work of change.
Changing your purpose means changing your organisation
Purpose is an ‘outcome’; it is the product of a whole set of activities, incentives, what gets invested in and what doesn’t. So, if we want to change an organisation’s purpose, we can’t just add a new one on top of the existing system and expect things to be different – like adding nuts to the top of a sponge cake and thinking you have created a vegan salad. Sure you can add nuts but if the main ingredients are still sugar and eggs and flour and the way of cooking is baking – then give or take nuts you will still produce a cake – every time. If we go back to our example of a school, it may set its ‘purpose’ as ‘ensure every child thrives’ but if school-funding and daily activity are shaped by comparative achievement in defined areas (e.g maths, English, science) and measured in exams, then the organisation will still produce some who pass and some who fail. Ensuring every child thrives may be a great value to have and strive for, but it will not become the organisational ‘purpose’ around which behaviour is organised.
In truth many organisations purposes are far more prosaic than they might like (or claim). Their own survival and continuity are often primary alongside career advancement and providing an attractive place to work. There is nothing wrong with these purposes. But if we want our organisation to have different and greater purposes then we will have to change the very nature of our organisation. We will need to do the work to evolve an organisational system that really does serve this purpose. And we may find that this new and bigger purpose is in tension with some of our existing purposes. Then what will we choose?
There is at the moment a groundswell of interest in ‘purpose- led organisations’. To the degree that this is about organisations recognising their social and environmental contract, taking responsibility for their impact and externalities, and seeking ways to be responsible, then this interest should be applauded and encouraged. But the work to do is not about adding in purpose; rather it is about changing the current purpose our organisations serve so well. The work of change takes more than adding some well-intentioned ‘nuts’ to what is already there. Rather it is the bold work of changing the very outcomes our organisations create.