Bringing purpose to life (thx Pete)

On Tuesday I went to a discussion on 'Bringing Purpose to Life'. I was attracted by the ambiguous title. Was it about bringing purpose into our personal lives, as in 'The Purpose Driven Life', or was it about how to turn a company 'purpose' from a statement like into something 'alive' and inter-actable with? Or was it something else? It turned out to be a bit about both and more.

Pete Burden (@peteburden) facilitated the conversation. His view is that 'Purpose is an important topic. It comes up regularly in leadership and management conversations. Having a purpose can help, but it can also be tricky.'

What is 'tricky' about purpose? Pete gave a rich introduction well-laced with references. Purpose is often abstract, static, and reified. You see purpose statements on laminated plastic credit-type cards as wall posters. What makes a purpose 'come alive' is not the statement itself but the constant interplay of subjective, emotional, relational, social conversations – both formal as in 'Steering Groups' and informal as in 'gossip' related to what people think the purpose is. He suggested that 'meaning is internalised via dialogue' and 'actions related to purpose are contingent on the situation.

Following the theme of 'the situation' Pete mentioned Mary Parker Follett's work and I've just read her piece on The Law of the Situation (extract from The Giving of Orders). In this she's talking about giving orders saying that as situations changes then orders change (watch Charlie Chaplin working on an assembly line – a 3-minute clip). Similarly with purpose – it shifts and changes in action.

You can see how this works if you apply different situations to the purpose statement. Take this purpose "to refresh the world, to inspire moments of optimism and happiness, and to create value and make a difference." (Guess which organisation has this). Making this statement 'come alive' in Holland is likely to be very different from making it 'come alive' in Gambia.

Concepts in the statement – optimism, happiness, value – are interpreted and understood differently depending on the situation, the individual and various other factors. Here Pete tossed in Bourdieu and 'Habitus', Peirce (on semiotics) and Mindell on ProcessWork.

With a brief wash of the theory in mind we turned to small group discussion. Pete asked 'What do we think are the assumptions of those who developed the purpose?' and 'What do we think are our assumptions as we think about the purpose?'

So if we go back to the purpose statement I mentioned earlier "to refresh the world, to inspire moments of optimism and happiness, and to create value and make a difference." Asking the two questions indeed raises some tricky considerations.

'What do we think are the assumptions of those who developed the purpose?' For example are we assuming that those developing the statement had a view that moments of optimism and happiness can be inspired by a product or service? What are we assuming they meant by 'create value' – what type of value and for whom? Ditto 'make a difference'. Is there some implied assumption that employees go along with the statement, or is it ok to challenge it? How do these concepts change in a situational change? The answers help shape the design of the organisation.

The second question 'What do we think are our assumptions as we think about the purpose?' Once I did some work for a tobacco products company. I had a bunch of assumptions about the company and had to answer all kinds of bafflement from people, with their assumptions, who asked me why I was working for it. (It wasn't about the money). I wonder if we examine our own assumptions enough as we come to OD work?

By the end of the afternoon my curiosity that led me to attending had gained me:

  • New (to me) writers and theories to explore
  • Useful ideas to take into my organisation design work that 'purpose' is an on-going reflective process of enactment and not a static statement: as the situation shifts, the purpose shifts and the design shifts The image offered was of a Calder mobile, but my image is of a Janet Echelman moving interactive web.
  • A reminder to examine the assumptions I bring to my OD work and an interest in the assumptions the other players in the work are bringing.

Do you think organisational purpose changes with the situation? Let me know.

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