You know that feeling when you spend two entirely life-affirming days with a bunch of people who totally get it?
Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a bit of a junkie for these kinds of gatherings. For me, it is so important to spend time with people who understand where you’re coming from, and this is especially true for people working to make the world better. It can seem an insurmountable challenge when you’re working in isolation - and sometimes (actually, often!) you need an injection of energy and perspective from others moving in the same direction.
Unsurprisingly, I have lots of thoughts / ramblings / opinions about the goings-on of the last two days, and in the interests of sorting through the mess of them - and creating some kind of sense - I’ve written some things down here. There were a few key themes that resonated for me, many of which are threads of ongoing conversations, some of which were entirely new (and very timely). If you were there too - or equally, if you weren’t - I’d love to hear what you make of all this…
Let’s break this down from the top…
The Global Context
We’re in a period of immense change. We know this. If you’ve read arguably the two biggest books of the last couple of years (Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything) you’ll know that the systems that govern us are at breaking point - and the two big feedback loops (the economic system we created and the environment we rely on) are sounding major alarm bells.
Matthew Bell from EY threw some macro trend stats around in one of the first sessions. There are a lot of us. We’re younger and more connected than ever. Almost 50% of occupations will be replaced within the next 20 years. We’re becoming highly urbanised, and the shape of the global economy is shifting quickly away from the West. It’s predicted that global water demand will outstrip supply by 40% within the next 15 years. Ballpark cost predictions for climate adaptation are in the $70 - $100 Billion range - per year. And really, the only ones with the capital and agency to do anything about this are a bunch of rich (mostly white) people (mostly men) who own most of the world’s assets and capital, and who seem pretty comfortable in their ivory towers (my words, not Matt’s). Our very humanity is being challenged by inequality.
Back to First Principles
Piketty, Klein and many others argue that we’re faced with a HUGE opportunity to reengineer the systems we’ve created so that they actually serve us. I couldn’t agree more.
So if that’s the case, I think it’s really useful to step back and think about what we value. What is actually important? What do we want to happen? What are we working towards?
The accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, to the detriment of equality, the environment and actual wellbeing? Because that’s what’s valued in our current economic system… And Piketty and Klein have shown that these outcomes are actually part of the design of the system (and Marx actually articulated this long before either of them did). So if they’re not the outcomes we want, we need to design a new system that supports what we actually do want. Amanda Keogh’s simple question about what we’re actually working towards - what is the metric we’re trying to shift? - was a killer. Jeremy Mah’s innocent question about whether we had defined “Purpose” for everyone in the room at the event touched on this too. They’re smart those kids.
You know that old saying “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”? (It was William Bruce Cameron who said that, not Einstein by the way. Thanks Matt Wicking for that little tidbit.)
As the wonderful Jane Gleeson-White explained to us in her opening keynote, we’re dealing with the result of many years of outdated systems. Accounting frameworks that were created to keep track of the financial and manufactured capital of Agrarian England, Medieval Italy and the Industrial Revolution are not working for the world we live in today.
Social capital, human capital, intellectual capital and natural capital need to be added to our accounting frameworks. Unless we learn to value what is actually valuable it is really hard to make values decisions. Without metrics and measurement, we’re flying blind, and prioritising outcomes that aren’t financial and/or measurable will continue to be a challenge.
Sharing is caring
One theme that came through loud and clear (much to my delight) is the need for organisations to become better collaborators. We’ve seen over and over how easy it is for profit based organisation to find a way to collaborate - it’s easy when there’s money at the finish line, but we need to get much better at doing this for the benefit of shared values.
Some great examples of that were showcased over the 2 days of Purpose. I am super excited by the work being done by the Future Business Council, the B Corp movement, and Conscious Capitalism, but I think it is really critical that we get better collaborating on issues based work too. Collective Impact is more than a buzz term, and it should be getting air time beyond the NFP sector. There’s no reason purpose-led for-profit businesses can’t be supporting Collective Impact goals in a more substantial, collaborative way. The whole of Purpose was a testament to this - and I’m so grateful for the amount of work that organisations like Wildwon put into the ongoing development and facilitation of this space. Forums like this are so critical if we’re going to succeed on this front!
It is so easy to forget that an organisation is a part of the community, not apart from the community. It’s also easy to forget that unless an organisation can truly provide value to the community it serves, it won’t be around for long. I was delighted to witness many a conversation which totally flipped the “build it and they will come” mentality into something far more interesting.
Lauren Capelin spoke in detail about what it means to harness the power of community to build something meaningful, and this is something we’ve been talking about a lot on the work I’m doing currently. There’s no denying that doing this kind of work is much harder than the “transmission model” we’ve become familiar with over the last 50 years, but it has the potential to be so much better!
One of the greatest things about operating in any business right now is that you can have real, meaningful connections with the people you’re working for - your community. Make the most of these opportunities. Get to know them, and not just in a “market research” kind of way. Start a dialogue, and be grateful for any lessons you are able to learn.
If the lessons aren’t quite what you wanted to hear, you have to be flexible enough to change tack. You’ve got to work where you find yourself and be humble enough to recognise that being in business is not a static exercise.
If you’re to actually have impact you need to lead, support, enable - build capacity in your community. If you’re lucky you’ll gain a whole cohort of long term committed brand ambassadors. If you don’t succeed on that front, then with any luck you will have still built something great.
One gem that was echoed a lot by the likes of Ben Burge, Simon Griffiths, Abigail Forsyth, and of course The Unfuckers, is that the “holier-than-thou” model of cause-led marketing is a dead horse. It does your organisation and (and the sector at large) no help to be continually relying on the heart strings to sell an inferior product or service. Whatever you’re selling needs to be superior to the alternative on as many possible fronts - quality, price, transparency, brand + identity, value. If you’re struggling to get there, then you’ll struggle to hit any kind of scale, because the market for bleeding hearts is small and shrinking.
Organisations need to change
Uncle Jason Clarke, the founding father of the Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the “mind” of Minds at Work, talked about how organisations that exist to serve egos, to build status and to create hierarchy are entirely at odds with actually doing good work.
The business world is certainly not alone in this. There are so many “impact” organisations who trumpet “values”, but get tripped up by the unspoken stuff (shadow values) that are really driving them. It’s only when you call this stuff out that you can set it aside and actually move on to doing the work. This is an uncomfortable process. It takes leadership (which seems to be desperately lacking across the board) and it takes courage. But as Hello Sunday Morning’s Chris Raine explored, we’re in a hugely fortunately position - and we can afford to take some risks for the sake of our collective future.
But this shift is easy to talk about and much harder to do. Many excellent speakers talked about how much easier it is to start from scratch with values at the forefront, rather than trying to bolt a values framework on to an existing organisation. The classic Buckminster Fuller quote applies here. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Build your best case scenario. This goes for culture, business model, or system.
Something that I know resonated with everyone in the jam-packed Eternity Playhouse Theatre at the end of a very intensive 2 days, was Jason Fox talking about finding ways to create a sense of progress in the work you’re doing, and Kyra Maya Phillips talking about pirates.
The blessing and curse of doing purpose-based work is being one of those people who questions - everything, incessantly. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, to question the value of the work you’re doing on a many-times-daily basis.
Find a way to create a sense of progress. Create feedback loops (metrics and measurement if possible) so that you can see it. Help yourself to get a sense of momentum and strive for continuous improvement.
But what do you do when you’re in overwhelm mode? When you feel stuck or unsure and you don’t know what to do. You do something. You have to do the work. Chunk it down systematically and move through the steps in as logical a fashion as you can. And then give yourself a high five.
I loved Kyra's advice to move your thinking away from SHOULD - what should I do - which comes loaded with a sense of obligation and fatigue before you've even started, and towards CAN - what can I do with joy, passion and drive.
Freedom comes from focus - my new life’s motto.
For me, the final session of the 2 days was an absolute killer, with truth bombs exploding right in front of my eyes. Matt, Kyra and Jason got right into what it takes to sustain ourselves in doing this work, and this was a surprisingly common topic of conversation at the after party.
Having lived through a pretty horrendous burn-out experience (and I continue to work through the impacts on a daily basis), I really can’t reiterate this one enough.
You have to pay yourself first - and not just in cash-money. If we’re to be able to truly sustain the kind of change we want to see, then I think we have to model a more conscious way of working. Fast-paced, hyper-connected, convenience culture is leading to an awful lot of negatives. The antidote is not more and faster - it’s time to unplug and reconnect - with ourselves, our values, the people and the world around us.
I didn't make the most of it (silly me), but I was delighted to see Walkshops in nature as part of the 2 day program. The wonderful Jane Spence from the Hello Nature Project and the crew from The School of Life Australia, and my dear friends from The Centre for Sustainability Leadership were the perfect antidote to a full on couple of days. The wonderful Josi Heyerdahl from WWF spoke about this in more detail in one of the main sessions, and it made an awful lot of us think about exactly why we're here.
Remember to schedule moments of quiet. Build in mini rituals. Celebrate when you knock over a goal - big or small. Do things that make you happy - no matter how small it is in the grand scheme of things. One thing’s for sure - it doesn’t matter how much good work we do - if we make ourselves miserable, cynical, strung-out assholes in the process it’s not going to be worth it in the long run…
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately - which was nicely crystallised in some beautifully articulated words from Jirra Lulla Harvey - is how late to the party the western world is to a lot of the ideas that indigenous cultures have been using for years.
I feel like you if you look closely enough you’ll find the germs of much of the thinking embedded in the latest business literature is stuff that people much older than us, and much more connected to themselves, each other, and the land have known for millennia. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
I’ve got the nugget of a project along these lines forming. Will see how it evolves…
And along the same train of thought, I was really impressed with the effort Wildwon had made to acknowledge a diversity of opinions, particularly with regard to gender balance. I think we all know that by excluding a bunch of people from the conversation (unconsciously or otherwise), we’re the ones who lose out. There is no lack of talent out there, if you know that it might look different to what you expect. It is so important to acknowledge your own prejudices - often - and to get comfortable with staring directly at them. I’d love to see this continue to be proactively tackled by us as a Purpose community. Affirmative action can’t go too far in my view.
The one thing we didn’t discuss at Purpose (not that I’m suggesting we should have necessarily, that certainly wasn’t slated as something that was to be discussed in this forum - it is an ongoing conversation in other forums) was the lack of leadership at a policy and government level. In my opinion, just like the thoroughly outdated accounting systems we’re dealing with, we’re also dealing with thoroughly outdated modes of government.
I saw Yanis Varoufakis speak at The Wheeler Centre’s Interrobang recently, and I feel like this was the central thesis of his talk. He can see that a globalised society needs vastly different governance, feedback loops, accountability and responsibility than what was required in the past. He spoke at length about the difference between being in power and being in government, and the fact that the influence of our economic system seems to be trumping our political system. Democracy is a tricky thing, and so far it has been incapable of dealing with the huge challenges thrown up by how fast we’re running at our environmental limits, and the slight inconvenience of discovering at the exact same moment that our economic system certainly has it’s limits too.
In the absence of a government (national or international) to articulate our goals as a society, I think it is super critical for us to do this as a community. This is an ongoing iterative process, and I think the media have a super important role to play here, but I’d love to see our little emerging community taking a stab at it too. I feel like everyone is hesitant to take ownership of this as a task - and understandably in a lot of ways, it’s a big one and I don’t know how anyone acquires the kind of credibility required to do it with legitimacy and a sense of collectivism - but it’s worth having a crack, isn’t it?
The other (related) elephant
I have a HUGE amount of respect for many of the amazing entrepreneurs who spoke at Purpose. There were some really great companies represented. Marque Lawyers, Who Gives A Crap, Keep Cup, Powershop… We heard many, many tales of successful entrepreneurs folding purpose into their business and they are to be hugely commended. *rapturous round of applause*
BUT I feel like the challenge of running a successful business, that meaningfully delivers impact, pays their staff enough, hits scale, makes money, markets itself well (without guilt tripping), measures their impact in a transparent and integrated way, and finds the time to bring other fledgling impact entrepreneurs along for the ride, while avoiding career burnout, is an entirely unfair responsibility for individual entrepreneurs with limited resources to have to shoulder.
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m trying to shirk responsibility - I know we operate in a space of immense privilege, and perhaps I’m giving our power as individuals too little credit here, but I really feel a far greater degree of responsibility has to fall to the large corporations and wealthy individuals who have benefitted most from the mess they’ve created, and to the political bodies that have let them get away with it.
And as proud I am to see each of these guys up on stage talking about their successes, I can’t help but feel that it is just like a bandaid covering up a slashed artery. I want to know what real game changing stuff looks like. What does it take to actually hit the systems level and see real change? Perhaps it is already happening around me, but I’m just struggling to see it?
What I do know is, we can do both - and we can definitely be better on both fronts if we’re pulling in the same direction.
Based on the conversations that have taken place over the last two days, we know that purpose-led business is the future of business - no longer just a fringe modus operandi. At a time when there is such a high degree of cynicism of the business community, it is incredibly inspiring to hear from a bunch of people who genuinely care about doing good in the world, about doing it at scale, and about finding a way to do it for the long term. Purpose 2015 genuinely feels like ground zero for a cohesive team of people taking this to the next level here in Australia - and making the most of the incredible good fortune we have in this country to expand the Purpose way of doing things far and wide.
So I put it to you - Purpose 2015 attendees: How do we build on the momentum of an event like Purpose - how do we meaningfully facilitate collaboration opportunities to scale this kind of purpose-led thinking from fringe to mainstream? What role can you play in helping Wildwon and others make this happen?
I was seriously impressed by every single person who was in the room at Purpose. From the attendees, to the suppliers, to the sponsors, to the volunteers donating their time to be a part of it. This was by design too - with Wildwon taking a very curatorial approach to getting good people on board. I was so happy to see so many CSL Alumni. A real family reunion!
I need to make mention of a particular few though.
Matt Wicking - for facilitating the whole event with authenticity, empathy and beautiful sense of quiet humanity he brings to every room.
Jason Fox - for really putting things into perspective, and bringing a great sense of humour to what could be a heavy conversation.
Sarah Fortuna - for her lovely, effortless facilitation and conversation throughout the two days, and for some delightfully honest chats.
And finally, to the ever wonderful Sally Hill (and her partner in crime Yvonne Lee, and their incredible team). For being such an amazing human being, for leading a movement with quiet determination, grace and such a clear vision and sense of self. And for one of the best possible speeches on the subject of #justinbieber #myreasonforbeing #myonetruelove #purpose2015.
- A more in depth wrap up of Day 1 and Day 2 of the conference and the Storify by the Wildwon crew.
- An actual reading list of books mentioned throughout the conference compiled by Pablo Gil
- A beautiful chat between Pico Iyer and Krista Tippett for On Being
- A great podcast by RadioLab about how anyone can justify their values - even Rhino Hunters
- I swear it wasn't that type of event, but the Communist Manifesto was quoted
- Learn about Purpose-led business models
- Learn more about the Natural Capital Coalition
- Learn about the Science of What Motivates us - 2010's leading business idea as raised by Jason Fox
- Get some Charles Eisenstein into you - with his Sacred Economics
- Read about the Gross National Happiness work being done in Bhutan
All image credit goes to the amazing Jarra Joseph McGrath for Wildwon. Whatta guy.