What’s your purpose?

Here’s a little thought experiment, teed up by an extract from Aaron Hurst’s excellent book, The Purpose Economy:

Purpose is a verb

Like so many people, I always thought that gaining purpose in life was about finding my cause. When coaching or mentoring over the years, purpose always seemed to find expression through a noun — immigration, civil rights, education and so on. And yet this never accurately described the many people I knew who worked in jobs that had no ’cause’ but still felt a strong sense of purpose in their work, or who had found purpose working across many causes. What started to become clear to me was that defining personal purpose wasn’t about finding a noun, but instead about finding a verb — an action. It’s not only what you are doing, but how you do it and thereby relate to the world. For example, when we assemble a group of leaders in education, we think they share a purpose, but in fact, they only share a cause. Until they can understand the diversity of purpose in the room, the cause has little hope of moving forward or creating meaningful change.

The distinction between cause and purpose is a valuable one, IMHO, and one that bears closer consideration by all of us. Whether you’re an individual seeking to crystallise how and where you might find greater meaning and fulfilment in your work, or an organisation looking to better articulate your place in the world — why you do what you do, and how the world is a better place for it — it all begins with understanding that purpose is deeply personal.

In other words, purpose activation starts from within. If you want to ignite a passion for purpose among the people around you, be it colleagues or clients — if you want them to feel part of something bigger than themselves — then you sure as hell better be clear about what drives you to get out of bed in the morning and how you try to live that purpose every day through what you do and how you do it.

So to the thought experiment…

If you had to write a personal purpose statement, what would it look like? Taking a cue from Simon Sinek’s ‘golden circle’, how would you go about articulating the why, the how and the what (in that order, remember) of your purpose?

In the spirit of sharing — and deficient though it undoubtedly is, as a first stab at this — here’s how I think mine might read:

My purpose is to make it simple and desirable for business leaders to understand and act upon the power of purpose in their organizations.

Why? Because I’d like my daughter to inherit a better, more sustainable world than my generation has, and I believe that the corporation is the only institution pervasive and powerful enough to make that happen.

How? By persuading leaders with a story of hope and aspiration, not doom and gloom; by demonstrating that shared value – the reconnection of strategy and innovation to serving a higher social purpose – is actually a better way to bigger, more legitimate profit; and by illuminating that, while strategies and business models may come and go, it’s that higher purpose that endures.

What’s my contribution? Insightful, easy-to-digest thought leadership that makes the power of purpose impossible to ignore; and practical support to help organizations uncover and articulate their own enduring sense of purpose – one that grants the potential to survive and thrive over generations.

What’s yours?

Screw AppleWatch. Give me LYF!

Lordy, is it really 4 months since I last posted? Shame on me!

Well, it’s only fitting that I should break such a prolonged period of radio silence with news from my favourite discovery of 2014: the brilliant LYF Shoes.

If you haven’t come across this little gem before, clear 15 mins in your calendar to watch LYF founder Aly Khalifa’s talk from the Sustainable Brands conference in London last November. Seriously, do it. The design – not only of the product, but also the entire ecosystem and customer experience it spawns – is genuinely breathtaking in its scale and ingenuity and, as you pause and reflect on it, you’ll wonder why shoes would ever be made any other way in this day and age.

That’s why I couldn’t be happier to be one of the lucky few to be involved as an LYF Pioneer, shortly to receive my ‘LYF Fit Kit’ and begin the journey towards my first ever pair of custom-fit, one-of-a-kind, made-to-be-made-again footwear.

This may be the first time in my life that I’ve ever truly been an Early Adopter. I couldn’t give a stuff about all the hype surrounding the latest gadgets, like the AppleWatch, but LYF is different.

You see, I’m a sucker for anything to do with sustainability-inspired innovation, and the chance to play some small part in the development an enterprise with the potential to disrupt an entire industry is simply too good to miss. I also happen to be 6’7″ with size 14 feet, which means I’ve struggled for pretty much all of my adult life to find clothes – and especially shoes – that fit.

LYF, with me at least, has hit the mother of all sweet spots!

I’ll let others rave about the opportunity to design their own uppers and create a truly individual fashion statement (I am, after all, a 42-year old straight white male, which makes me something of a fashion vacuum).

What really intrigues me is the chance, for the first time ever, to own a pair of shoes that has been individually customised to the length and width of each of my feet (that’s right, folks, different sized feet receive different sized shoes!); more than that, to own a pair of shoes that will actually capture biomechanical data on the way I walk, using a device embedded in the heel, so that the design of the next pair I buy will be refined to fit even better; and all serviced by a closed-loop, circular business model that eliminates harmful substances from assembly, uses 100% recyclable materials, and spurs local economic development by encouraging micro-enterprises to spring up and fulfil all parts of the value cycle from Original Equipment Manufacture to assembly and retail.

Normally it’s my missus who has the exclusive preserve on getting excited about a pair of shoes but, on this occasion, I’ll gladly buck the trend.

Holonomics: the antidote to reductionism?

Come across a word like ‘holonomics’ (evocative as it is of systems thinking) and one might be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of scepticism. Fortunately, Simon and Maria Robinson, authors of Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, are very quick to dispel any whiff of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ surrounding their ideas. Holonomic thinking is not a “dogmatic annunciation” of a new methodology or toolkit, but rather a much more subtle and nuanced quest to expand our consciousness.

If all that sounds a tad esoteric, it really isn’t. It’s massively important, because our dominant mode of conceptualising the relationship between ‘parts’ and ‘wholes’ is broken – no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Mainstream management and organizational approaches remain largely rooted in the industrial age, where reductionism made perfect sense. Physical tasks could be split into relatively independent parts, each optimised through the division of labour, and ‘reconstituted’ by means of workflow systems. Relationships are framed by the metaphor of ‘business as mechanism’ – a system of discrete parts that fit together as a whole, based on sequential processes and a clear, linear understanding of cause and effect.

Of course there’s only one problem with that. It just isn’t the world we live in any more.

So, what’s the alternative?

Simply put, it’s to view businesses as organisms, not mechanisms – as complex, living, dynamic systems, rather than fixed hierarchical structures. Remove part of a machine and it ceases to function. Take a cutting from a plant, however, and you can grow an entire new plant. As Simon and Maria explain, “There is something fundamentally different about the organization of a plant, whereby the whole is contained within the parts.”

While they certainly aren’t the first (and won’t be the last) to posit the importance of this metaphorical shift, what’s different about holonomics is the ‘both/and’ nature of its expression. The essence of holonomic thinking is to assert neither the primacy of parts over wholes (as per the industrial age paradigm above), nor to do the opposite (a common trap of systems thinking). Rather, in an Opposable Mind sort of way, it’s to hold both the parts and whole in mind at the same time – each part as an authentic expression of the whole, and the whole as an authentic expression of the belonging together of all the parts (no shoe-horns required!).

That the optimum word in all of this should be ‘authentic’ – and that the quality of authenticity becomes ‘known’ through feeling and intuition as much as sensing and thinking – is something that should harbour a natural appeal for anyone making a living in the world of brand and design.

The beauty of the book (at least from my experience of reading it) is that it provides the scientific and philosophical underpinnings for what you always felt to be true, but perhaps couldn’t put your finger on why.

For example, if you want to truly understand what it means to encounter an authentic whole, then you’d be wise to familiarise yourself with phenomenology (the focal point of Part One of the book). Unlike Cartesian philosophy, which rejects the subjective perception of reality as the source of untruth, phenomenology embraces it as inherent to understanding the totality of ‘lived experience’. Of course, this ties in to the well-established notion that brands must speak to our emotions, but it goes much further than that. It illuminates why a truly authentic brand is not some form of artificial construct – a ‘superimposed’ sum of the parts – but rather it is something that ‘comes into being’ through the manner in which we perceive and experience its DNA in each and every part. (As I say In my own book, that’s why literally everything you say and everything you do has the power either to enhance or erode it.)

Likewise, if you want to understand how your organisation really functions (as opposed to how you think it should)  – or if you’re one of those people who still harbours the notion that the environment (biosphere) is a sub-system of the economy (business) – then Part Two of the book is for you. Here, Simon and Maria take us on a guided tour of chaos theory, systems thinking and complexity science, gently nudging us towards the realisation of the nested interdependences between business, society and the environment.

Finally, Part Three seeks to make all this good theoretical stuff more tangible by illustrating evidence of holonomic thinking in practice – from the ‘chaordic’ and ‘latticed’ organisational structures at Visa and Gore Associates to the ‘dynamic way of seeing’ embodied in Toyota’s production system (including an interesting perspective on what caused Toyota to drop the ball a few years back).

If any of that sounds like your cup of tea, then you can take a proper peek inside the book here. While you’re at it, maybe take a look at Marty Neumeier’s Metaskills too – a slightly different, but equally compelling and highly readable guide to developing a ‘higher level of knowing’.

Sustainability-inspired disruption: LYF Shoes

Traditional shoe-making is a nasty business, explains a video from LYF Shoes.

Cheap raw materials, exploitation of foreign labour, toxic adhesives and mega-heat ovens used in assembly, wasteful packaging, long-distance shipping and distribution… That’s a very long list of negative effects for the making and use of a product that, in the vast majority of cases, is ultimately destined for landfill.

Of course, all of this makes it an industry ripe for disruptive innovation. There has to be a better way, right?

Well, LYF Shoes (Love Your Fit. Love Your Fashion. Love Your Footprint.) looks like they may have found it – not just a product with a sustainable twist (a la Oat Shoes), mind you, but an entire sustainable system of design, production, distribution and consumption. A new and disruptively innovative business model.

Ready for the whistle-stop tour? Here are some of the headlines, viewed through the lens of the fundamental principles of design for sustainability, as described in my book

Clever!

Material inputs: How might you redesign products and processes to reduce the amount and types of materials used? Are those materials recyclable, so that waste is no longer waste, but the food for another process? Could your raw materials come from someone else’s waste (or your waste become someone else’s raw material)?

LYF shoes are designed from the ground up to use 100% recyclable materials – from the recycled rubber and plastics in the sole and ‘performance plate’, to the cork insoles (the cork coming from recycled wine bottles), to the all-natural uppers. What’s more, those uppers are precision-cut and printed on-demand, using an all-dry digital printing process, so as to minimize ink and material waste.

Very clever!

Modularity and longevity: What is the expected life span of your product? How easily can it be repaired, updated or put to alternative use? How easy is it to dissemble the product into its component parts to aid that repurposing/updating/re-use?

LYF shoes are specifically designed for ease of assembly and disassembly – five component parts that fit together entirely without glue. That makes it a doddle, either to extend the life of the shoe by replacing a single worn component (no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater) or, if the shoe has given up the ghost completely, to return it to source to be recycled and turned into a new shoe. 

Cleverer still!

Closing the loop: How can you make use of reverse logistics to reclaim discarded outputs and turn them into new inputs? How close are the points of production and consumption? Can these distances be shortened to further increase the efficiency of your value cycle?

Here’s where it gets cleverer still. The simplicity of design and assembly – no glue, no ovens, no screen printing – enables a decentralized model of production and distribution. It paves the way for local microenterprises to spring up to fulfil just about every part of the value cycle – whether that’s Original Equipment Manufacture (OEM – i.e. manufacture of the component parts) or the job of assembly and disassembly at retail.

What’s more, this model slashes the costs and impacts of distribution and packaging by synchronising the points of production and consumption. And with customers incentivised to return end-of-life shoes, by virtue of a buy-back scheme (those shoes easily disassembled at the point of return and their components sent back to OEMs for remanufacture), the LYF model creates a ‘closed loop’ at a local level.

Cleverest of the lot!

Imagine you had absolutely no knowledge of all this ‘under the hood’ stuff. Instead, just pause and reflect on the entirely different customer experience it creates:

  1. You get to design your own shoes – before they’re made! Initially choosing from a range of styles and textile patterns, as the business grows you’ll eventually be able to upload your own print for a truly individual fashion statement. And you get to watch those shoes being made – at the point of retail, in front of your very eyes, in a matter of minutes.
  2. The shoes you receive won’t only be more to your taste in fashion, they’ll be functionally superior too – custom fit, more comfortable (and only getting more comfortable with every subsequent purchase, as an embedded digital capture device tracks biomechanics and builds a user profile that can be used to refine the design).
  3. And if, for whatever reason, those shoes just aren’t doing it for you any more – hey, no problem! Simply return to the store and either have them ‘upgraded’, or trade them in for a new pair, safe in the knowledge that every ounce of materials will go towards make another pair of shoes for someone else.

Seriously, what’s not to love? And if this sort of business model innovation floats your boat as much as it does mine, don’t be shy – go forth and shout about it! Here’s a wee video worth sharing as an introduction to/summary of the LYF story:

The Ryder Cup: It’s about people, Phil, not process

Wow. That American press conference after the Ryder Cup was some car crash, wasn’t it?!

While the first words off every European’s lips were to praise Paul McGinley to the hilt for his exemplary captaincy, Phil Mickelson chose instead to use his to plunge a knife right between Tom Watson’s shoulder blades – a decision that throws the essential and enduring difference between the two teams into sharpest possible relief.

Whereas past US dominance in the tournament was always based on having the world’s best individual players, Europe’s more recent dominance (that’s now 8 victories in the last 10 Ryder Cups) is undoubtedly the result of having the best team dynamic.

Whereas US players (most notably Tiger Woods and Mickelson himself) have typically performed well below par in Ryder Cups, the self same setting seems to encourage the Europeans to play beyond themselves. In stark contrast to Woods in past tournaments, Rory McIlroy looked every inch the world’s best golfer in spanking Ricky Fowler 5&4 and, where Ian Poulter left off in Medinah, Justin Rose picked up at Gleneagles, seemingly reserving the best golf of their lives for this event.

Why is that?

Not for the first time, stories of McGinley’s captaincy remind me of approaches ripped from the playbook of one of the world’s great motivators and man managers – legendary British Lions coach, Sir Ian McGeechan, whose example every Lions coach since has borrowed from heavily.

For example, for Fergie’s team talk with the European team, read wheeling out Lions legend, Willie John McBride, to deliver a stirring speech and hand players their test jerseys. For all the motivational words and imagery in the European team room, read the names of past Lions legends on a plaque above every peg in the dressing room – reminding you of the amazing players who’ve worn that jersey before you, and whose legacy you’re now part of continuing.

Most of all, I’m reminded of McGeechan’s words about Jason Leonard – a man who, despite a world record 114 international caps as a forward, never started a test match for the British Lions. McGeechan spoke of the unwavering support Leonard gave to Paul Wallace – the man who took to the field in his jersey in that epic 1997 series against South Africa. That, said McGeechan, epitomises what it means to be a Lion and is what makes Leonard one of the all-time greats.

So what, you may ask?

This sort of stuff means everything to exceptional team performance, especially in a sporting setting. It taps into deep emotions. It says that what we’re here to do is bigger than you, me and this particular moment in history. It breeds that all-for-one, never-say-die commitment to the cause. It means that when teammates exchange a glance, what that glance says is ‘I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you down’.

In that context, every bit as surprising and significant as the setting of Mickelson’s implicit attack on Watson was the substantive point of his criticism – that the US’ recent failures can be attributed to abandoning the ‘pod’ system put in place by their last successful Ryder Cup captain, Paul Azinger, whereby the team of 12 were split into three groups of 4 who bonded over practice and from whom each player pairing was drawn.

An eminently effective formula this may have proven but, for me, Mickelson’s emphasis on having been “invested in [that] process” – his specific focus on reviving that particular system, rather than the recreating (by whatever means) the feeling of ‘togetherness’ it generated – is to entirely miss the point. (In fact, if you want to fully appreciate the difference between strategy and tactics, that’s a perfect example right there.)

Last time I checked, a process had never holed a clutch putt for a vital half point on the 18th green. It wasn’t a process that stiffed a wedge to within 2 or 3 feet to secure the concession that won this year’s trophy. It was a person. And until the US team figures that out – investing in the broader outcome of team togetherness, rather than arguing the toss over specific methodologies for achieving it – they may continue to find themselves on the wrong end of a drubbing.

On speech writing: Salmond shows true colours?

Beware the significance of every single word you write…

Listening to various leaders, in the wake of Scotland’s verdict in the independence referendum this morning, I couldn’t help but latch onto the very careful and deliberate insertion of the phrase “at this stage” in Alex Salmond’s concession speech – i.e. Scots have chosen not to separate from the rest of the UK “at this stage”.

Clearly he couldn’t help himself and you can’t help but think about what that reveals about the man.

Those three small – and apparently innocuous – words rather undermine all his other rhetoric about taking the ‘No’ vote on the chin and focusing whole-heartedly now on working “constructively in the best interests of Scotland and the rest of the UK.”

At best, the use of such a qualifying phrase makes him sound like a sore loser; at worst completely disingenuous (note also how his earlier assertion that the referendum would settle the independence issue for a “lifetime” has now been downgraded to a “generation”).

Alex, I know you don’t have kids or grandkids, but it’s time to go rent yourself a copy of ‘Frozen’ and sing along with Elsa. C’mon, you know the words…

“Let it go! Let it GO-OOOO!”

Yet more evidence that sustainability pays

For anyone who’s ever questioned the business value of sustainability, a new study published by Oxford University and Arabesque Partners (as reported in Forbes on Monday) should make for thought-provoking reading…

How sustainability drives financial outperformance

‘From the Stockholder to the Stakeholder’ (a full copy of which can be downloaded from Arabesque’s website) is a meta-study of more than 190 academic papers, industry reports, newspaper articles and books, and it provides some of the strongest evidence yet of the positive correlation between good sustainability practices and corporate performance. For example:

  • 90% of studies show that sound ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) standards lower the cost of capital
  • 88% show that they also result in better operational performance
  • 80% indicate that stock price performance is positively influenced by good sustainability practices

Short-termism is the enemy

The numbers above offer empirical proof of what most of us already know in our gut – that doing good is great for business – and their importance can’t be understated, especially in the context of four more very telling statistics quoted in the report:

  • 80% of CEOs view sustainability as a means to gain competitive advantages relative to competitors, and yet…
  • Only 33% of them think that business is making sufficient efforts to address global sustainability challenges; this is at least in part because…
  • 79% of them feel under pressure to deliver financial results in two years or less, and…
  • 86% say this is in contrast to their innate convictions

In other words, the vast majority of CEOs want to make business decisions over a longer time horizon and integrate sustainability more fully into their businesses, but feel hamstrung by markets’ narrow focus on maximizing short-term shareholder returns (an insight, by the way, that casts a very interesting light on Unilever’s abandonment of earnings guidance and quarterly reporting).

Sustainable growth: changing the frame

Therein (as the Bard once wrote) lies the rub and, as a growing number of influential business leaders are arguing with considerable passion and conviction (notably the likes of Richard Branson, Paul Polman and Arianna Huffington, under the auspices of The B Team), it’s precisely this narrow definition of value that needs to change if business is to succeed in building a better working world.

  • From share value to shared value – leaders make it their business to be a force for good in the world, not just through philanthropy, but by delivering core products and services that tangibly contribute to the wellbeing of people and communities. They do so on the understanding that businesses with ideals of improving lives at their core are substantially outperforming the general market (by 120% according to Havas Media’s Meaningful Brand Index).
  • From next quarter to next generation – what it means to be a successful business is judged by the capacity to create and sustain value over the long-term, including innovating new business models that decouple growth from environmental degradation. This is on the understanding that, among other things, there’s an estimated US$1tn in economic value to be unlocked by transition to a circular economy.
  • From financial accounting to true accounting – businesses illustrate their capacity to create value in a way that reflects the commercial, social and environmental context within which they operate, i.e. fully accounting for their impact on (and stewardship of) not only financial but also human, social and natural capital. They do so on the understanding that a business gets the investors it deserves and that, if they want to attract long-term investors, then they need to offer a more systemic view in order to build trust and confidence in their ability to create and sustain value over the long-term.

Purposeful. Enduring. Real. These are the watchwords that, for me, define sustainable growth.