Purpose is a popular theme amongst business gurus, consultants and strategists these days. Business magazine Forbes publishes articles that urge its readers to make purpose “a pivotal part of your business strategy”. Motivational speaker Simon Sinek tells leaders to “Start with Why”. Leading the charge are the B corps, who are building a movement of businesses that “balance purpose and profit”.
This makes good business sense. There is plenty of research to suggest that articulating a clear, non-financial, purpose leads to greater staff engagement and productivity, and thus greater success for the business in the long-term. After decades of lazy, amoral assertions that the purpose of business is business (i.e. making as much money as possible) it is dawning on business leaders and wider society that having a purpose beyond profit is good for business.
But is it enough? We face a climate emergency — even the UK government has admitted it. There are other large-scale crises too — ecological destruction, social fragmentation, political instability and extreme inequality. And in an emergency, it is not enough to make a small change of direction. You need to slam on the brakes and have a radical rethink.
So what does this mean for business, which plays a central role in these large-scale dramas and has a big part to play in their resolution?
Last Tuesday a group of us met in London to explore this question. We were a diverse bunch that included business advisers, activists, a business owner and an educationalist. What we shared was an interest in the subject and a passion for doing something about it.
Of course, we came up with no neat conclusions, no clear solutions to these “problems”. That was hardly the point. The aim was to come together, trusting that by sitting together and engaging in deep listening, we could find meaning together, in a way that would help each of us live our lives more fully and wholeheartedly.
We had framed the gathering as a “dialogue”. Dialogue, in the sense given by physicist David Bohm, is not a debate, discussion or negotiation. It is about a collective search for shared meaning, insight and wisdom. Dialogue is a type of practice, rather like mindfulness or yoga, one that trains the mind to be more open and leads to greater clarity.
William Isaacs, author and consultant who has led dialogues in large businesses (using it for example, to heal divisions between unions and management in a steel plant), has described four key practices for dialogue:
- Listening — really paying attention to someone, rather than waiting impatiently until you can make your point;
- Respecting — granting others the right to hold a different opinion from yours;
- Suspending — suspending judgement, and leaving your attachment to your own ideas outside the room; and
- Voicing — valuing your own inner voice, and being willing to speak out even when it feels uncomfortable.
Our group did a listening exercise as a warm-up. In pairs, each of us shared three pieces of information about ourselves — two that were true and one that was false. The other person had to tell which was which. By paying close attention to my partner I was able to spot the lie. I was reminded powerfully of what true listening means — you have to engage your whole being.
From then on, the group set the agenda. This was done through use of “Open Space Technology”, a pre-eminent way of enabling a group to set its own agenda and run its own sessions (there is more information about Open Space here). One of the qualities of Open Space is its simplicity — there are just four principles and one “law”, the “law of two feet”. This law says “If you find yourself in a situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet to move to somewhere more productive.” Many organisations would be transformed for the better if they were to adopt this simple law!
Within 10 minutes, the group had come up with a list of topics to discuss, and had distilled them down to seven, including the following:
- How can businesses use their power for good?
- Heart, soul and emotions in work;
- The power of stepping out of your comfort zone;
- How to create radical collaboration; and
- How organisations and societies can cope with, and grieve for, collapse.
These topics were explored in small groups in three consecutive sessions of 40 minutes each. Not surprisingly, given the title of the gathering was “Shifting the Conversation”, much of the discussion was about shifting — shifting from thinking to sensing, shifting out of our comfort zone, shifting from profit maximisation to service to the community.
We talked of how challenging it is for individuals in established organisations to shift. We used, as our archetype, a mythical brand manager for Cheerios breakfast cereal. Such individuals are locked into a system that is directed towards pursuit of short-term growth and profit and have learned to ignore the impact on the world around them. It may be too much to expect them to shift to a more compassionate and human way of working. A shift is more likely to be triggered by disruption from the outside — hence the importance of protests such as Extinction Rebellion.
Businesses depend on predictability and stability. That’s why the actions of activists such as Extinction Rebellion are perceived as threatening by so many large established businesses. They resort to denial or defensive actions. Yet, from a societal perspective, the disruption is not at all harmful — it is a necessary part of the shift. And when disruption occurs, new types of business appear, better adapted to the new emerging order. In this context, we talked of a new consciousness in business emerging, including new ways of organising such as B Corps, sociocracy, and Teal.
I noticed a tendency for the group to talk about the need for others to shift. It is an easy habit to slip into but one that, in my experience, lead to frustration and a feeling of disempowerment. I try to encourage people to speak from their experience, using “I” and avoiding judging others not in the room.
We discussed some of the tools, techniques and maps that can help us navigate our way through times such as these, when we can experience powerful emotions such as grief, sadness, anger or emptiness. In one group we talked of “The Work that Reconnects”, a powerful body of work developed by Joanna Macy, an environmental activist and scholar of Buddhism and systems theory. Her work is based on the insight that the fundamental dis-ease we feel comes from our dis-connection from each other and all of life. Macy teaches us to start with gratitude, a powerful, even revolutionary act in a society where we are groomed to be dissatisfied and seek solace in consumerism.
One group looked at emotions, and at questions such as how to engage with our feelings in a work environment, and how to put more trust in our intuition. There is a need, they agreed, for stronger, braver conversations at all levels within businesses if we are to see the shift that we need.
The session on “Stepping out of our comfort zone” talked of the stigma of activism and of their admiration for Greta Thunberg’s boldness. They agreed there she has helped shift the public dialogue from “Are you against climate change?” to “Are you for a better, more inclusive world?”.
A shift that I personally am trying to promote and practice is to spend more time in nature. With that in mind, I led a session in the local park on “what we can learn from the trees”. It was a fine, sunny day and many of the group were attracted to that session. As we basked in the sunshine and enjoyed the feeling of the warm breeze on our skin, we talked of how rooted and non-judgemental trees are, and of how easy it is to take trees for granted. I shared a personal story of how a neighbour is exploiting a beautiful quiet spot in the garden next to ours for commercial gain, and how I am wrestling with how to respond in an appropriate and non-violent way. It seems to me that the neighbour is not intentionally selfish but rather unconscious, and that this is a reflection of wider society and its attitudes to nature.
After many rich and absorbing conversations, we closed the day with an exercise called “shared economy”. The organisers shared with the group:
- how much it had cost to put on the event (mainly room hire and drinks);
- how much we had received in donations so far; and
- how much we hoped to recover in contributions.
The participants were then asked to write down a figure on a post-it note, representing the amount they were willing to contribute to costs. This exercise served two purposes. It enabled a sort of financial re-balancing, so that as organisers we could receive something back for our time and investment, and others could have a chance to contribute. And it gave us all a less transactional experience of money.
Money is one of the key drivers of our economies, and our businesses, and just as we need to re-think the role of business in society, we need to re-think our relationship to money. For more information on the whys and hows of the shared economy exercise, see this recent blog post by Ria Baeck.
It was the first time I had led an exercise like this, and I felt quite uncomfortable, as I believe many of the group did initially. Yet afterwards many expressed their gratitude. They felt treated like adults and the transparency over the finances clarified questions that were in their mind. And we received very close to the amount that we wanted to recover, which was a pleasant surprise.
We closed the event without any firm conclusion. No surprise there! The complex question of business and its relation to the environment is not one you can solve — it is one to be engaged with, like life. What seems clear, though, is that gatherings like this can help. As Joanna Macy said: “In these troubled times, whatever you do, don’t do it on your own.”