What is the role of purpose in the future of business?

Speakers at The Purposeful Enterprise Summit

What do we understand by the idea of ‘purposeful enterprise’? Why purposeful and why now? Purpose is something that comes and goes in the business fashionability stakes but there’s no doubt that there is a new interest in the idea of it having a role to play right now in the future of business.

As a brand consultant for the first 20 years of my career almost all the challenges placed before me and my teams by business came down to two questions. How can we be bigger? How can we be better? Those questions could be answered through brand communications and marketing strategies for growth, clever product development, corporate social responsibility and latterly, sustainability strategies.

Volatility Uncertainty & Complexity is the New Norm

As the pace of change sped up at the beginning of the 21st century, the questions started to change. Fuelled by globalisation, the arrival of exponential technology and computing power, the internet of things, those questions changed. After the financial debacle of 2008 they became really focused on how can we be more resilient? How can we be more agile and adaptable? How can we shape our organisations to be future fit? How can we survive ongoing disruption in our market? How can we engage, innovate, stay ahead of the curve or even just keep up?

We live in a period where increasing volatility, complexity and uncertainty is the new business norm. I can’t remember a more complex, high speed, unsure time, nor a more exciting opportunity to be in business. Because for the first time I really believe all businesses have an opportunity to contribute something meaningful to the future of humanity and the planet.  Something beyond simple philanthropy, CSR or even sustainability. A chance to ensure we all thrive on an interconnected planet for generations to come.

What place can purpose have in the future of business?

Although we tend to focus on globalisation and technology as the driving factors behind the intense changes we are experiencing, there’s also another factor which has been the growing interest in consciousness. Whether you want to describe it as conscious capitalism, conscious business, or business with purpose, I think that may be just semantics. It manifests in these terms in the business world, but it’s really a phenomenon in human evolution that is taking pace at the same speed as innovation in technology.

The idea for The Purposeful Enterprise Summit took shape in my mind over a period of 12 months last year. It was a period of intense reflection for me when I was trying to work out what the hell to do with ‘the rest of my life’!  Not a mid life crisis, just a mid life evolution. It’s always a privilege to give yourself time from the daily grind to look around you and explore just what’s going on in the world. I discovered amazing organisations and people I had never heard of while I was bouncing from one consulting contract to another – and I thought I was pretty clued up! Wrong! It’s impossible to highlight them all but here are some of the real gems along the way:-

  • Otto Scharmer’s ULab 2.0 Transforming Business, Society & Self: participating in 2.0 during the Autumn was a huge connective experience with almost 75,000 other people from all over the world on a journey through change process Theory U, allowing rapid prototyping of a project at the end of the course. The Purposeful Enterprise Summit was my 2nd prototype. If you get a chance to participate in 2016, take it.  It was amazing.
  • Sustainable Brands: firstly in San Diego listening to Jeffrey Hollender talk about building Sustain Condoms on Forum for the Future’s net positive model which contains both social and environmental purpose. And again at Sustainable Brands London in the Autumn, listening to successive presenters still talking about the need to make the business case for sustainability.
    COP21, which seemed like an amazing achievement to get so many nations to agree, and felt at the time like a threshold stepping stone
  • Singularity University, exponential tech and Peter Diamandis’ great reads Abundance and Bold and Schumacher College in Devon which focuses on systems thinking, deep ecology, environmental science, indigenous wisdom and mindful enterprise
  • UN Sustainable Development Goals: the re-shaping of the Millennium Development Goals to something more ‘human’, which has made them so much easier to engage with on a micro, local, national or global level offers a fantastic framework for anyone and everyone to do something meaningful

My fundamental conclusion (and assumption) at the end of that year was that we have a huge opportunity for all businesses to play a part in the unfolding of the future on planet earth. Something beyond the business models of the past based on generating shareholder and stakeholder value to incorporating all life in a more collective approach. Something beyond sustainability and regenerative business into net-positive or future-fit – even when we feel we lack the imagination to see what that future looks like.

In this time of incredible threshold crises on the planet – climate change, environmental degradation, loss of species, population shifts, changes in working patterns and futures, persistent inequality, energy, water and food challenges, emerging health issues that we have never seen before – we can choose to be overwhelmed and shrink inside ourselves. We can take comfort in the many distractions on offer – mine tends to be cake – or we can find inspiration and fulfilment. Or somewhere in between.

I’ve always worked for global brands. I’ve loved the impact and influence they can have on the world. I’ve hated the greed represented by the encouragement of constant consumption which I have helped fuel, the distraction of loving things instead of people. I still believe that global brands have a massive role to play in reshaping the role of business in supporting an abundant future for all life the planet. But I believe it is the impact of a new generation of innovators, disruptors and entrepreneurs who might have the biggest impact on our collective future.

What better time to get into business?

When there are so many challenges to solve, and profit to be made from making a difference. With the Sustainable Development Goals top of mind, why wouldn’t you want to create an enterprise that tackles energy, inequality, biodiversity loss, or health? That is what purposeful enterprise means to me. It can be commercial, social enterprise or charitable work – that’s just the legal entity.

So The Purposeful Enterprise Summit has been a way to challenge my own conviction that in the future all business – no matter what shape or legal entity, charity, social enterprise, business or institution – would have to be purposeful in some way. And by purposeful, I mean engaged with the grand challenges of humanity and the planet as expressed in the SDGs. Whether you are a local plumber, or a multinational. It’s a no-brainer for me. Not everyone on the Summit agrees – don’t you just love it when debate happens?!?

Speakers at The Purposeful Enterprise Summit

Here are some of the different views you’re going to hear about in depth during the Summit. It would be daft to put it all down here because of course I want you to listen to the amazing wealth of insight in the interview series, but here are a few tasters.

  • Giles Hutchins, author of Future Fit describes and discusses purposeful enterprise as one of many strategic initiatives which mask a real underlying need to embrace a fundamental shift in our logic; in how we think, perceive and create.
  • Sharon Lawler Jackson of European Sustainability Academy doesn’t think we’ll see a merging of organisational types any time soon; that we will always have commercial, social and charitable distinctions.
  • Richard Barrett of the Barrett Values Centre considers every single person and organisation must and should, put purpose and values at the centre of their business, and will, because organisational and personal evolution are inevitable.
  • Finn Jackson author of The Churning (not yet published) believes that engaging with purpose is the only way to create organisations that will truly engage future generations.
  • Sally Uren of Forum for the Future clearly believes in the model of net-positive and she, along with Jeffrey Hollender, talk extensively about how organisations like Sustain Condoms, Kingfisher and Tui are making that work.
  • Jos de Blok CEO of Buurtzorg on what it’s like to have created a ‘teal’ business without realising it!
  • Jenni Lloyd, of The Purpose Lab, and co-founder of Meaning Conference shares her views on why purposeful projects in your locality is a great way forward.
  • KoAnn Vikoren Skyzinierz, CEO of Sustainable Brands shares the conference theme of Activating Purpose and her experience of providing thought-provoking ideas to sustainability directors for the past 5 years.

And that’s just a few….

The Purposeful Enterprise Summit

If you haven’t signed up to The Purposeful Enterprise Summit 2016, just click on the image above and you’ll go straight to the home page. It’s completely free and runs from 11-13 April. You can watch live of at your leisure over the period of the following 7 days. I really hope there’s something for everyone. Did I get everyone I wanted to speak to? No. Not this time. But there’s always round two…. and guess what? I’ve already lined up interview no 1 for the Autumn version of the conference with Satish Kumar, the founder of Schumacher College. Watch this space too…..

Join the discussion One Comment

  • As someone who discovered in 1980 that “Purpose is the Source of Power” and has spent my career since then building a philosophy and practice of organization based on that insight, I applaud what you are doing. I look forward to the conference and to further engagement,

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