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Five learnings on purpose from a Global Pandemic

Five learnings on purpose from a global pandemic

In 1944 Churchill, in working to form the UN, famously said “never let a good crisis go to waste”.  What Churchill knew is that a crisis overturns assumptions.

Nearly 70 years later, what lessons can we learn from our own crisis?

What seems certain is things will not be the same again.

The tyranny of the office has been overturned. We know our people can be trusted. Great Place to Work surveyed 800,000 employees and found stable or increased productivity after employees started working from home.

The sterility of hierarchy has been subverted by Zoom. Once you’ve seen your CEO in his shorts, hierarchy is dead.

This opens the possibility of new way of working. One that is flexible, creative and  fun. Where offices are places of creation not compulsion. And where colleagues are collegiate because, fundamentally, we all care about the same things.

But it’s not going to happen if we don’t learn five key lessons.

1.  Purpose drives human happiness and organisational performance. But only if it’s authentic, consistent and real.

Playing at purpose won’t work anymore.  If you say it and don’t act on it, will call you out. Publicly and painfully. As Brewdog is discovering. 

Evidence from the Contexis Index® of Organisational Effectiveness consistently shows that purpose drives productivity.  But it’s not the words. We see high levels of purpose awareness but zero impact if people don’t believe the purpose is real.

Organisations in 26 countries already use the Index to understand the true impact of purpose on happiness and productivity in their businesses. And the numbers show that people who truly believe in the purpose the organisation serves are up to twice as happy, committed, innovative, loyal and clear as those who don’t.

2. Flexible working can be productive, creative and better for health, wealth and happiness.  But only if sustained by purpose.

There’s a been a huge shift to flexible working. But is this a hidden productivity time-bomb? According to the New York Times, organisations are struggling to sustain productivity. Microsoft saw a large spike in productivity, but this declined over time. Why is this?

Numbers from the Index show that remote workers appear hyper-sensitive to organisational purpose.  Of course, all employees who identify with purpose are significantly more engaged. But the impact of purpose on feelings of commitment and responsibility amongst remote workers can be up to 3x stronger than amongst their office-based peers.

Why?  Harvard’s Tsedal Neeley finds that the “basic difference between [dispersed] teams that work and those that don’t lies in the level of social distance—the degree of emotional connection among team members”.  An activated purpose appears to effectively bridge that social distance and overcome flagging morale and commitment.

3.  In a flexible and unstructured working world, autonomy is everything. But that takes ownership. Because people who own care.

Purpose unlocks remarkable commitment. But only if purpose is activated by a strong sense of ownership. Purpose isn’t abstract. It must be mine.

Southwest Airline’s vision is to be the world’s most loved and most profitable airline. What happens when ‘loved’ collides with ‘profitable’? How are a thousand decisions across a $26bn corporation made. And who makes them? The answer is they are referenced to the company’s purpose and made autonomously by all 56,000 employees.

When his grandson fell into a coma Mark Dickinson was on a business trip in LA and raced to get to his grandson’s bedside. Delays and unsympathetic officialdom meant Dickinson arrived at his gate 12 minutes late for his flight. Southwest is notorious for turning its planes faster than its competitors, in pursuit of its vision to be the most profitable airline. 12 minutes late is an eternity. Yet, the pilot was standing at the gangway, waiting. There was a significant cost to the airline for this act of kindness.

What can we learn from this? That purpose clarifies decision-making.  That employees will do the right thing when given the ownership to act with autonomy. It’s no accident that Southwest is consistently in the top spot for customer experience.

4. Without trust people can’t act on purpose.

There’s one more learning from the Southwest story. The pilot knew purpose was real and, whatever the cost, he would be backed not blamed. He trusted in the authenticity and consistency of the purpose. In fact, the airline said “we fully support what our captain did.”   Time and again we see organisations that work to build trust experiencing huge uplifts in openness, creation, innovation and growth.

5. And the last lesson? All this is possible. But it requires leadership

Purpose lives throughout an organisation, aligning energy and commitment, clarifying and accelerating decision-making, and driving innovation and opportunity. But it starts at the top. With the consistent and authentic actions of its leaders. Above all, that takes courage.

John Rosling

John Rosling, entrepreneur and founder of Contexis, ex-FTSE top 10 companies, and leading thinker on the value of ‘purpose’ to organisations.