Have you noticed how the concept of organizational purpose has become muddy and unclear?

In pre-Industrial days, it was understood that a business was nested within a community as well as within a living ecosystem and, therefore, it existed to serve and enhance life at each of those levels. Money may have been a necessary means, but it was not the driving purpose.

In more recent decades, that view shifted: the purpose of business came to be understood as making money for shareholders. More than anyone, we have Milton Friedman to thank for that belief, but more broadly, it’s an artifact of the dominant worldview of separation and extraction.

In recent years, the harms of that singular aim have become increasingly evident. The problems we face as a species have grown to crisis proportions. And the demand for business to be of broader benefit has become a powerful force for change.

In response, as one recent article reports, “companies are spending time and money grappling with huge social problems like systemic racism, income inequality and climate change.”

However, the article also explains that they are doing this “to appease employees, customers and shareholders alike.” The implication is that companies are doing it only to stave off criticism, and only up to the point that those stakeholders are sufficiently appeased. It’s a weak form of motivation. Lipstick on a bulldog, some would say.

And so, for too many companies, it’s been an awkward dance, as they cling to Milton’s mantra for dear life while adding a flourish of corporate social responsibility here, a shimmy of sustainability there, a nod to diversity and inclusion along the way.

To signal their sincere intentions, many leading companies are appointing “Chief Purpose Officers,” the article goes on to say. “A company’s purpose or mission statement was originally about ‘what’s within our four walls,’” says the chief purpose and inclusion officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “But more and more it’s about what’s outside of our four walls.”

And that’s where the water gets muddy: if these are side issues, as Milton would say they are, how could they be part of the organization’s purpose? If they are not side issues but are truly core to the company (as the word purpose would imply), then why would we need a separate person (a Chief Purpose Officer) to attend to them? Why wouldn’t they be integrated across the organization as strategy? Somehow, this trendy new position feels like “purposewashing.” More fundamentally, what about the thing that the organization *does* – its product or service? Isn’t that the company’s purpose? And what about making money? Where does that fit in?

To find our way to clarity, water may be a more helpful metaphor than the four walls of the PricewaterhouseCoopers quote above. It’s as if, between our hands, we hold a cup of water that represents our company. We tell ourselves that this cup, this water, is isolated from society and that we’re only responsible for the water within our cup, except for the times that we tend to what’s outside the cup. But the broader reality is that we’re immersed within the ocean of society. The water within our cup is the same water that surrounds us. The organization is a microcosm of society. What we do within our company flows out into society and effects change, just as changes in society flow into our company. In this way, we see that “corporate social responsibility” includes responsibility for the part of society within the organization, as well as beyond.

The metaphor helps us recognize organizations as the new commons. After all, where else in modern society can we gather to become better humans and to cultivate a wiser society together – as we absolutely must if humanity is going to make it through? These days, few of us belong to religious communities, where that might once have been the intention. In most places, there are no longer piazzas and public squares where we can assemble for this reason.

With this perspective, we might distinguish between an organization’s purpose and its Purpose. In our businesses, we come together in shared work. This is our collective vocation, our calling – the product we make or the service we offer and the effect we hope it will have on those it touches. This is our purpose. It is our excuse for coming together. But I would say that the Purpose – the organization’s larger reason for being – is to create a practice ground for a more thrivable world, in ways that only we – in this place, at this time – can. Not because consumer research or investor relations tells us so. Not to appease. But because it’s all the same water. It’s all life. And we are called by these times to be steadfast stewards of life’s ability to thrive.

Importantly, and with no apologies to Milton Friedman, profit is not our Purpose within this understanding of business and the world. Money is simply a flow of resource, one potential means among many to serve both purpose and Purpose.

With this understanding, I start to see the potential in a Chief Purpose Officer role, though I wonder if what is really needed is a Chief Coherence Officer, whose function would be to ask continuously: How can our purpose be ever more coherent with our Purpose? How can our ways of working be ever more coherent with our evolving understanding of the wisdom and healing that are needed in the world? There is a real and ongoing need to facilitate that kind of bold, expansive conversation and shared learning across our organizations.

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