These past couple of weeks, I’ve been reflecting on an interesting paper from the British Academy – Principles for Purposeful Business: How to deliver the framework for the Future of the Corporation.
Essentially, it’s a treatise on closing the ‘say-do’ gap on purpose, setting out principles and pathways for taking us beyond the rhetoric and hardwiring it into organizations everywhere. And there’s a lot to like about it – not least its definition of corporate purpose, the simplicity and clarity of which stands in sharp contrast to the Business Roundtable statement published a few months back:
The purpose of business is to solve the problems of people and planet profitably, and not profit from causing [them].
I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love that – not just for what it says about anchoring corporate purpose in broader societal goals (as represented by the SDGs), but also what it implies about our notions of ‘prosperity’ and the essential role of capitalism in furthering it. It encourages us to shift our perspective on how and why markets work from their allocative efficiency to their effectiveness in promoting creativity, problem-solving and the diffusion of innovation.
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. After all (as some smart McKinsey bods argued a few years back), life isn’t better today than it was in 1800 because we’re allocating the resources of the 19th-century economy more efficiently; it’s better because of the vast array of innovations (life-saving antibiotics, indoor plumbing, motorized transport to name just a few) that have become available to much (if not yet all) of the world’s population.
In other words, prosperity can’t be properly understood by looking at just monetary measures. Maybe it’s better understood in terms of the accumulation of solutions to human problems – the ultimate measures of societal health and wealth (and business success) being the range of problems solved, and how widely available those solutions are to all.
I do have my reservations, though…
Aside from the undoubtedly excellent definition of corporate purpose – plus a few abstract references to the wellbeing of humanity – the report is strikingly devoid of any kind of human expression. From ownership and governance to measurement and performance, the principles outlined (while useful) are all largely ‘mechanistic’ in nature, steeped in the mindset of the lawyer, the accountant, the economist, the management consultant and the academic.
As highlighted by a purposeful pal of mine, amid some WhatsApp chat-chat about the report, a big part of the problem today is surely that we’re already drowning in these perspectives – and have been since time immemorial. At their worst (embodied by the likes of Frederick Taylor and his scientific management theory), it’s these perspectives that have led us to spend the best part of a century trying to drive humanity and its imperfections out of the system, so perhaps it’s no great surprise that a humanist perspective is missing from the narrative.
But when it’s our essential humanity that’s now seen as the very thing most critical to business and society thriving over the long term, those deeper philosophical underpinnings need to be there, e.g.:
- Understanding what it means to be human at work in an era of increasing human-machine collaboration, and how to nurture that
- Recognizing that any business (at least at its founding) is fundamentally a social enterprise – a coming together of people to solve a problem/meet a need that they couldn’t address alone
- Appreciating our innate desire, as humans, for connection – with nature and with each other
- Framing the need for change in terms of finding the antithesis of an economic model seemingly designed to pry ourselves from our human natures, dampen our passions and keep ourselves from constructing a ‘whole’ and meaningful story for our lives
To that last point, the WhatsApp chatter generated a series of ‘from… to…’ statements that bear closer inspection and deeper thought. If the mood takes you, I’d invite you to have a think about these, and maybe share other ‘mindset shifts’ you’d add to the list:
- From engineer to artist
- From physicist to biologist
- From economist to spiritualist
- From specialist to generalist
- From consumer to citizen
- From parts to systems
- From economics to holonomics
- From mechanism to organism
- From extractive to regenerative
- From ‘more!’ to enough
- From scarcity to abundance
- From growth to scale
- From financial returns to impact returns
- From transactions to relationships
- From bureaucracy to community
- From organization to self-organization
- From control to nurture
Something to ponder over the festive break, anyway.