On purpose and hope

There's a phrase painted along the corridor wall, on the way to the cafeteria, of a building I frequent. I'm assuming it's read by lots of people, walking by it to buy their lunch, although when I pointed it out to someone the other day she said she'd never noticed it.

I think it's supposed to be motivational or inspirational but I'm not sure. It reads 'Purpose is better than hope'. I find that a deeply puzzling and somewhat disturbing statement. Each time I go past it I wonder why purpose is better than hope? How is it better? What makes it better and in what circumstances? I wonder who painted it on – were they following instructions, who chose the phrase, what did they intend by it?

In my organisation design work, I often begin with asking 'what is the purpose' of what the organization does or should do. Simon Sinek talks about this as 'start with why'. He says:

'By "why," I mean: What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?'

And I get the need for purpose. Indeed, I think it would be rather difficult to design without knowing what is important and what matters. I've also found that usually getting to some common understanding of an organisation's purpose takes time and effort and is less of a thought process and more of an experiential process – how does what we are doing or aiming to do contribute to what we believe matters? ('If it doesn't why are we doing it?' is the next design question). Getting to purpose is a try-it-out somewhat emergent process, as activities in the book Designing Your Life demonstrate.

What I don't get is why purpose is better than hope. That's the bit I find disturbing. What is the comparator about? It seems malign as if purpose tramples on hope and I think we need hope. I'm with the thought attributed to poet Emily Dickinson that 'hope inspires the good to reveal itself'.

A while ago, I read Rebecca Solnit's 'Hope in the Dark'. It's a marvellous manifesto on the power of hope. More recently I read an essay by her. In it she quotes from Michael Foucault: 'People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does.'

This suggests to me that purpose is not better than hope. They are at least on a par – interdependent and inextricable one from the other. If you think purpose is better than hope then there is a danger that you are not looking at potential consequences of your purposeful actions and, perhaps, that you are not designing with the intention for good.

In organisational design, it is our responsibility to consider the hope inherent in the purpose and really take a look at how we can make the attempt to set things up for good outcomes even though we know that no matter how many business cases we write or how much risk mitigation or stakeholder engagement, or impact analysis we do, the work does not have certainty or certain outcomes.

In Solnit's words 'we need not only to embrace uncertainty but to be willing to know that the consequences may be immeasurable, may still be unfolding … Think of hope as a banner woven from those gossamer threads, from a sense of the interconnectedness of all things, of the lasting effect of the best actions, not only the worst.'

The 'lasting effects' of organisation design work we cannot know and there are usually huge tensions and contradictions in the work. Think of someone whose job we eliminate or automate in our downsized designs – what impact does that have on that individual? Does that 'matter' if we have created different jobs for others? (Read the book 'Would you kill the fat man?', David Edmonds).

At best, we work in the hope that our methods, approaches, and mindsets work in favour of the humanistic values (see my blog on this), that colleagues I work with aspire to.

Solnit puts this position well, saying, 'I use the term hope because it navigates a way forward between the false certainties of optimism and of pessimism, and the complacency or passivity that goes with both. … Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. It's informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we may play in it.'

I'm minded to scrub out the phrase on the wall and substitute the phrase. 'Live with purpose and with hope.'

How do purpose and hope inform your organization design work? Let me know.

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