Forget Purpose Driven Organization

Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash

This piece is adapted from the show notes to Business Second Opinion Podcast episode #117. Use the embedded player below to listen now or subscribe to future episodes on the podcast platform of your choice.

A Purpose Driven Organization, According to Harvard Business Review

The July-August 2018 Harvard Business Review had a cover story on creating a purpose driven organization and the value it has for getting employees fully engaged and energized about the business. Recommendation from the authors, Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor, were practiced by my colleagues in the late 1960s through 1980s. There was a demand for a different way to do business, but “purpose driven” is not enough or even the best option. The article presents stories of where people become more engaged through one method, giving them purpose for their work.

Ninety percent of people work for someone else and do not own their own labor. Only twenty percent of people enjoy their job and feel engaged. That is bad news for both employees and employers. Business owners have few people who care for their customers and success of the business. Employees go to work every day to do something that does not give them any fulfillment through meaning or accomplishment. And they give back about the same, just enough to keep their job.

A Wholistic Framework, Outlined by the Harvard Business Review

The HBR article gives 8 essential steps for creating purpose in the workplace:

  1. Envision an inspired workforce. As a leader, convince yourself it is possible through finding examples that show up in your life and from stories of others doing so. Build the courage and belief that it is possible.
  2. Discover the Purpose of the Business. Look to what makes it meaningful to your employees because it is meaningful to the customer or consumer. This is to be discovered, not made up.
  3. Recognize the Need for Authenticity. If your employees think you are doing this to change them, it will not work. It will be manipulative and without integrity, and seen for what it is. They know when the going gets tough, you will abandon the effort— and them.
  4. Make the Purpose Message a Constant Drumbeat. Reference and embed it in everything to reinforce the commitment. Have all leaders deeply engaged and including it in everything they do.
  5. Stimulate Individual Learning. Engage all employees’ natural interest in learning and growing. Give people challenges that shows your faith in their ability to figure things out. Help them understand the relationship between their own job and the higher purpose.
  6. Turn Mid-level Managers into Purpose Driven Leaders. Teach them to talk about purpose and meaning. And the tell compelling stories about their own sense of personal identity and professional purpose. Make it tangible and believable by having authentic support from mid-level managers. No faking it.
  7. Connect Your People to the Purpose. Get employees connect the purpose to their day to day tasks. Ask people to share how they are making a difference on their purpose from their own work. Creating posters that describe what they do in the company that points to the purpose and their specific challenge in it. Put this message into memorable slogans.
  8. Unleash the positive energizers. Enlist the network of positive energizers who naturally have a positive orientation. Spread them across the organization where they take initiative and help other trust that this is happening. Foster buy-in by helping people associate with these energizers. They help people see the practical implications of the purpose for performance of people, the financial health of the business and competitiveness in the industry. The energizers communication purpose with clarity. They transform the whole organization.

A regenerative perception of the eight essential steps

After trial and error, my colleagues and I reconstructed the eight essential steps to mold a successful systemic process. There are so many fragmented and incomplete ideas in the HBR article, but without the larger frameworks, it looks so much better than the horrible places that so many people work. So, it seem scary, the idea of negating this.

Imagine if there are four levels of possibility and effectiveness and we are so happy because what we have is better than the less than great stuff we were experiencing before. If we don’t know there is a level three, much less a level four, then we stay clinging to the better which becomes the enemy of the best or most effective. That is actually what is happening with “purpose driven” organizations or so much other work in the world that wants to make things better.

The simplest and most often used tool for discernment, in the world, is polar contrast. That is, “Which is better between two choices?” We learned in school there are two choices, two opposites. We must choose, and it is always a forced choice. What will benefit us more in our critical thinking is a systemic framework that serves as a true reference for the whole of the possibilities so we can see the value behind the choices. The systems framework becomes explicit, rather than intuitive, as to how each option can lead to a different order of ends, not just to the options of a bad or better than bad choice.

We need a living systems understanding of how things work in a situation as a way to discern what all the choices are and the potential they portend. We need frameworks that organize and order for us how to make choices from a comprehensive understanding. Frameworks that are based on living, dynamic, real systems. That is what we use at Business Second Opinion and Carol Sanford Institute to examine articles and books to see what is missing and what is, and maybe even invisibly, erroneous.

Otherwise, we do as Herbert Simon (the Nobel prize winning economist) called, “satisficing” — taking the first better than bad choice we conceive of. Forced choices, with unexamined consequences, lead to satisficing. Satisficing is doing something better than the bad stuff and then getting stuck on the idea, that because it is better, that it is the right way, the best way, or even the only other option.

Carol’s Living Systems Rubric

As Herbert Simon would say, “The overall idea is too small and incomplete; It is a victim of Satisficing”. This is the beginning of why there is a critical need for living systems perspective. I offers five premises that are used as a reference for assessing ideas. They come from a Living Systems Rubric of sorts rather than a Human Potential Paradigm. It is about all of life and how it works, not just humans.

  1. Start with systems actualization to awaken a caring form of external considering, rather than an empathy form. Focus on the outside and connect agency. It requires working at multiple levels of work, or complexity, not just improved operation of employees tasks. You are thinking about how to evolve something while you do it. What is essential to the vitality of the system as a whole, beyond just getting specific work done?
  2. Working from self-actualizing, at best, with individuals. Maslow led us on a wild goose chase by borrowing someone else’s ideas and doing so incompletely. Using self-actualizing as the pinnacle leads us also to misunderstand his hierarchy of needs. It is not about building stairs to climb, but a way to view the same work from different planes of potential. Different perspectives rather than achievements.
  3. Leave behind assumptions about how you need to start with where people are and build a foundation.
  4. Work from the essence of the business and its corporate direction, expressing that uniqueness with customers and engaging the essence of markets rather than bettering existence of current customers.
  5. HBR starts with a problem and works from there. For example, “people are not engaged and need to be.” Purpose is known to do this for people, so let’s help them find purpose. A personal purpose. Find a heart-resonant connection with the customer for why they do their work.
  6. This is a satisficing idea since it is so much better than unengaged employees and it actually works. But this is not the level at which to stop if you want to grow and business and position it as non-displaceable in its market. There are better ways to get the engagement that have the ability to grow the business 35% or more in revenues, per year, and grow the people to be smarter and more innovative, bonding them to the company and their customers. It must go beyond the idea of workers tied to the customer’s need for them.
  7. Work on development of all beings, rather than performance. Personal agency is the real fulfillment of a work setting and it come from initiating an evolutionary change in the stakeholder’s, particularly customer’s life.

HBR is working from a very old paradigm of the human potential movement of getting people to bring more of their potential and express it more fully on the job. It is about using them for the purpose of the business by driving them with incentives or worse, fear and demands. But it is still getting them to give more and not necessarily doing what creates a more extraordinary individual. My living systems approach is not about using potential, but about growing each person’s ability to contribute and express what is unique about them. In the HBR approach, there is no starting from the essence of an individual and connecting it to the essence of the customer or stakeholder. It is about finding a purpose in what the current work is we do for them, generically for the customer and generically for the worker. Again, better than the old way, a satisficing step, but not a living systems way of working.

To move beyond satisficing, you need a different work design which I lay out in my book, The Regenerative Business. It activates a more demanding and compelling framework for engaging workers that ties together the non-displaceable direction for a business based on its essence and creates a lattice into which individual workers bring their promises to evolve the customer’s lives, not meet their requirements, based on their own innovation. It triangulates the business, the customer and each worker and projects them into the future rather than linking a worker with a customer as they are currently counted on but with better performance.

Design work to promote self-to-self interactions rather than improved role to role engagements. The real problem with hierarchies is that people do not think about what they think but about what others want them to think. HBR’s idea is very hierarchical, benevolently so, but hierarchical. It is based on the modern idea of leaders that inspire others, lead with openness, and believe in their workers. A strong aspect of the human potential movement. Again, so much better than the old command and control approach, but still a satisficing option.

The living systems approach is to switch to individuals all speaking to one another as unique people with ideas to be examined. The role of a supervisor/manager if they exist is to develop persons to think more completely and to have more self-mastery. Not to be the one who finds great answers, inspired and informed ones, and gives them to the workforce through open videos, pep talks, and information on the results. Each of the eight steps in the purpose driven organization article are initiated and led from a new type of leader that still reigns.

It is not about getting rid of supervisors, as Holocracy recommends. It is about shifting roles so that initiating comes from workers who are developing full responsibility for the success of specific customer nodes in their market, rather than being handed the work assignments and evaluation of success. It is truly moving the mind of each worker external to the business and planting it squarely in an amazing possible future for a customer, based on what will make the customer fully able to realize their essence potential. Now the worker has a demanding growth context that’s based on the evolution of customers, not serving customers for better performance that is determined by the top of the organization.


The living systems framework that can be very helpful is one that invites us to examine and understand how living systems work. They are always nested and the outcome effects all entities. In a family, we have individuals who are nested and affected by the family. And the family is nested in a community and even a nation and a global economy.

We are all aware of the stacked set of nests and how insecure we can all become when a recession hits, especially a global one. There are ripple effects but there also is the possibility of directing outcomes and intervening to be an agent. But we have to learn to see the possibilities.

One of these nests is the following. Envision a set of three concentric rings. The inner one is performance. The second if development and the third is evolution. You need all three but the greatest outcomes for meaning and contribution are nested in evolution. The reason we do so much satisficing is that we don’t have the mind needed. We have a performance mind. We have been trained to look for and pursue performance outcomes — that is, things we can count and add numbers to. But this mind working alone tends to drop out caring because you cannot count it. A wonderful part of the HBR article is that it invites the acceptance that it will pay off to connect people. And it will. This is true. But it is still satisficing. It does not transform many of the elements which are toxic to business and life. You need the other two minds, levels of the nest.

If we engage in learning to read all the energies at work in these nests we can build capability of people to be more or less successful in the nested working. We add the middle concentric ring, which is development. In the HBR piece, there is training and development, but not from essence which to me is the biggest missing thing from the purpose driven approach. It is better, a satisfying, but insufficient answer, therefore a satisficing answer.

The outer ring of the nest of rings is evolution. Evolution speaks to eras of a life or organization. In this mind, we are focused on the work of actualizing social and planetary systems in the world, in order to serve life.

About Carol Sanford

Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store