Learn how radically rethinking the purpose of your organisations will influence the world.
An examination of purpose in organisations.

The following is a summary of some of the insights Refresh Interactions have discovered in delivering multiple workshops around the world on the subject of purpose. It is in the form of a letter written to a client.

Dear client,

We have had many conversations with you on how to create an organisation that is meaningful on the one hand and financially successful on the other. In those conversations we felt there was a lack of clarity about what the purpose of the organisation was. In our experience, we have seen many mission statements that tried to define a purpose. However, they would rarely capture the essence of an organisation, nor were they believable or even utilised.

Therefore, we share the following observations on how to create an organisational purpose that works. We point out how to find the soul of an organisation. In many cases we come across well written mission statements expressing desires, wishes and intentions to contribute to the betterment of the world. Yet however thrilling the future promises contained in these statements are, the present patterns of organisational behavior do not inspire the confidence that the promises can be fulfilled. The truth contained in purpose cannot be discovered and understood by the analysis of cause and effect alone. There needs to be a deeper reflection on the transformative processes that our society is experiencing. It requires a thoughtful and conscious examination of the current assumptions governing social and economical reality. In short, it requires the creation of a new mind. 

Finding the soul Refresh Interactions is exploring the timeless values of organisations that are not dependent on an individualistic type of leadership, but are led by individual initiatives within the context of a community. The main condition needed is to find the common ground: the soul of the organisation. Refresh Interactions have identified 5 elements of an organisation’s soul that need to be understood to transform companies into communities. These are: 

1. values — the values define the framework of cultural cohesion within a community 

2. purpose — the purpose is the extrinsic motivator that provides meaning and direction.

3. whys — the why is the intrinsic motivator that provides happiness and energy.

4. hows — the hows are the strategy and systems that are put in place to manifest the organisation

5. whats — the whats are the tangible outcome of these hows (i.e. the products and services).

In another letter we will elaborate more about the comprehensive insights of this model, but in this reflection we share our view on the purpose. We hope it helps you to get a new perspective on how to create a meaningful organisation.

Purpose as a calling

In essence, the purpose is a calling. Not a vague voice that literarily calls you, but an attractor. It is an external motivator that requests the organisation as a whole to stand up and contribute to something bigger. The purpose is in that sense ‘a need’ expressed by its surrounding system. This ‘need’ would have to be fulfilled. And everybody has in principle the qualities, abilities and skills to contribute to answering these needs.

Systems in systems: the source of the purpose

One of our axioms is “everything is connected”. Whether you perceive this from a spiritual perspective or purely a physical one, everything in the universe is connected! And if a deep understanding of this connectedness is considered, it is logical to imagine that everything is influencing everything. Only when the system is perceived as a whole, we can start to understand what is preventing the system being in a just and sustainable equilibrium.

There are many ways of describing systems in systems. The view-point we take is that an organisation is encompassed by a ‘social system’ which is surrounded by an ‘environmental system’ which is surrounded by a ‘spiritual system’. And we as individuals operate within these systems. It is ‘a need’ of the system ‘above’ you that provides you with a purpose. So what are the ‘needs’ of the economic, social, environment or spiritual systems that organisations are ultimately nested in?. The need of these systems are defined by its natural tendency to strive for stability, to decrease the entropy of the system, and to find an equilibrium that benefits everyone within that system. In case of an organisation and social system, we at Refresh Interactions use the maxim: make the world work for 100% of humanity.

Understanding the systemic needs of society will allow us to contribute to it. Our ethos is not to fight the existing reality, but to try an reduce the fundamental causes of the disturbances in society. As Buckminster-Fuller stated: “we can never change things by fighting the existing reality; to change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete”. It is the ‘purpose’ that is the connecting element between us and the system “above” us. This gives the whole ‘organisation’ meaning in the context of a specific field of social, environmental or spiritual justice. By understanding what the purpose of your organisation is, you are discovering what your unique place in the system is. Although the purpose in itself might not be unique, your place in the system is.

Social justice

Something that is part of the system and is out of equilibrium can be seen as pathological. Think of topics like poverty, hunger, the unsustainable use of resources, mobility and global warming. These are all different symptoms of systems out of balance. Refresh Interactions has built a tool based on the research of Dr. Arthur Dahl which provides good inspiration for finding purposes in the context of social justice. The tool can be found here. One of indicators in the tool from the education domain is ‘access to and participation in scientific advancement and technology development’. Such an indicator or right should be an integral part of society, which all humans should have access to in one way or an other, in order to build a just, prosperous and sustainable civilization.

Purpose is a need of society as a whole; a call to contribute to social justice, in order to make the world work for 100% of humanity.

All purposes are adding up to find a social, environmental and spiritual equilibrium. This equilibrium equates to justice for the system as a whole and not just for the individual parts. We can all understand that a purpose or mission statement is not something that is viewed from a marketing nor branding perspective. It has in principle nothing to do with positioning in the landscape of competitors or customers. It is an external drive, a calling, that makes you really want to serve a specific need of society. It is the truereason d’être of the organisation, seen from the outside and attracting the people within the organisation towards it.

A meaningful life

By understanding what your place is in a whole system, you allow yourself to understand the ‘reason d’être’ of your company. From this perspective it is easy to see that whenever an organisation is not fulfilling its capacity to contribute to the system it loses its meaning for existing. In fact, it is preventing society and the system from moving forward. It is standing in its way. However, when an organisation is able to live up to its purpose, it becomes more meaningful and helps society advance. The meaning of an organisation is derived from its volition and capacity to live and manifest its purpose.

Reactive vs creative

Being able to answer the systemic needs of society requires creativity and not reactivity. It is not about responding to a symptomatic situation. Because a balanced system demands constant attention, the need for social justice is constant and demands you to consider the way your organisation manifests itself in the best way possible, given the current circumstances. Your actions will be different every time you consider this. In that sense, when one learns to live up to a purpose, that person or organisation overcomes the limitations of the given situation because they have another, more timeless source to tap into. With a purpose you become creative rather than reactive. Using your purpose as your main driver and strategic attractor, you become both adaptive and generative. The generative energy of an organisation is derived from a true insight into the timeless needs of society. These needs are then met with innovative, new and timely solutions, fresh experiments and new actions to contribute to the larger whole. Considering this, it becomes apparent that the true innovation engine (the ability to translate ideas into reality) of the organisation finds its energy in the purpose: the external motivation.

Systems in systems: connecting the dots

The purpose statement is an expression of the need of the system above you, with a focus on justice for the entire system. Organisations contain many systems within. Think of institutions, teams or individuals. By supporting that these sub-systems understand their position in the system (i.e. the organisation), they can understand what they can contribute to the whole (i.e. society). When these sub-systems do not understand what their purpose is within the larger system (or the way things are connected), it is hard to find the motivation to contribute to this calling. In finding the true purpose of the the organisation (in this case ‘the system’), you allow the organisation to derive energy from it. And when you help the sub-systems to examine and find their own purpose within that system, you start to connect the dots and build relations based on a common purpose.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

There is a big trend — thanks to people like Peter Senge and Simon Sinek — in thinking about ‘Why we do what we do’. What is our driving force as an organisation or as an entrepreneur? And what the biggest motivator and attractor is for potential clients and co-workers. It is an up-step in discourse to go from talking about ‘what makes us stand-out’ to ‘what do we really want to do?’ What is it that gives you joy and happiness? And it is of crucial importance to ask these questions. Because when you experience what you love to do as successful (with whatever measurement tool you want use), it gives a lot of encouragement and strength to continue doing this. It gives an experience that it all makes sense.

Although most of the why-conversations we have had ended up with a conversation about ‘what it is that you love to do’, some of them went to a deeper level. Instead of the conversation being focussed on ‘what you love to do’, it was more about what ‘you could contribute to others’. By reading the work of Viktor Frankl and the (recent) publication that followed it, it became clear to us that we can separate two important drivers for people’s motivation: the intrinsic motivation (what fulfills you with happiness) and the extrinsic motivation (what fulfills you with meaning). The first being the Why and the latter being the Purpose. We have experienced in our work that it is of great importance to understand the difference between the two drivers, as well as what those drivers are. Committing yourself to a task of great importance for the whole (purpose) is never easy. It is challenging and sometimes very uncomfortable. When you can find the intrinsic energy to live up to this, find the joy and happiness in directing ourselves to such a cause, you are better equipped in fulfilling this meaningful life.

The limits to growth

This might sound like a clear concept to work with, but the reality is often very challenging; not to say mostly disconnected to the purpose. Our current social and economic systems are mainly designed around growth. When the growth rate of the economy is decreasing (i.e. just the growth rate, not even the shrinking rate), we are in great trouble. Now a days it is the growth that is defining the “health” of the system, not the equilibrium of the resources used for producing and sustaining it. Already in 1972 the Club of Rome (CoR) published Limits to growth, which outlines various scenarios of humanity and the environment they live in. The recent publication that followed is even more clear on our common future (2052, by Jørgen Randers who contributed to both Limits to Growth and all reflective publications by the CoR that followed). It is clear to us that there is a limit to growth in the physical sense.

The same for organisations: what are the limits to growth? And, when and how could we recognize these boundaries? These limits are defined by the capacities that a system has to sustain its regenerating contribution to society, including its entropy. Simply stated: what is the optimal size for the organisation to manifest its purpose in today’s world? If the organisation becomes too big and to hierarchal for its capacity to learn and if it loses to much energy in sustaining the system itself, it has reached its limits. The organisation would then benefit — considering its will to survive and have a meaningful purpose — from shrinking its size to a more appropriate size. Size in this sense is based on three main measurements: turnover (growth), profit (growth) and amount of people. The latter is already under critique lately, but the former are quite often still a status quo to measure the success of organisations.

The shift from timely success, to timeless contributions

The limits to growth are mainly defined by the tangible world. Money, production, footprint, people, available resources, the regeneration of these resources, etc. Also the premise that we strive for a just, prosperous and sustainable civilization does not seem to allow limitless growth. It needs to be in an equilibrium. Nothing new, from a conceptual perspective. But in reality we are struggling with this.

The way we measure success of who we are and how we manifest ourselves, is relative. We measure success by comparing it with others (e.g. market share, competition). And the objective measurement indicators are mostly tangible: perceived objective outcomes of our efforts. These are timely results and explain more about yesterday’s and today’s world, than about tomorrow’s world. Could we shift this measurement paradigm, and look into the realms of limitless growth. The less tangible really defines who we are: our purposes, our values, and our whys. It seems to us there is no limit to what we can contribute to in terms of beauty, love, justice, tolerance or balancing the way we are manifesting our purpose into reality. We believe — to enable the systems to sustain themselves — organisations and people should shift the paradigm from focussing on timely success (measured in turnover, profit and people) to the timeless level: the way we are able to contribute to society based upon purpose, whys and values.

Action will change the world, perception will change action

Obviously it is not our measurement that is going to change the world, nor is it the words we use (no mater how beautiful they may sound in statements). It is the actions that we take that influences the systems. In turn, it is our perception of the world and ourselves, that influences the way we behave and thus the way we take actions. Therefore the main component we should change is our perception. When we start to think comprehensively about ourselves as human beings, from the external purpose perspective, we change our perception of who we are, what our place is in the system and how we operate. The shift to a primarily purpose-driven organisation, allows the organisation to contribute to finding this equilibrium in social justice, and therefore live its purpose (i.e. the reason d’être).

A meaningful organisation

So in order to transform your organisation to a meaningful organisation, we believe you should elevate the purpose of the organisation from an internal belief to a need from the higher system: the need for social justice. This will change your perspective of who your are as a community, and therefore allow people to experience the meaning that comes from serving others. It is not your purpose that makes you unique, but rather how you take actions in contributing to this purpose.

We are curious to know your thoughts and insights on this matter or purpose, so as to enrich our thinking. We do not claim to have all the answers, but we do claim that comprehensive and communal insights can lead us in a good direction. We therefore invite you to participate and take actions in this great enterprise to design new models that make the old models obsolete.