Missions with meaning

Last week I was delighted to join in proceedings at Rebuild21 in Copenhagen.
And, due to speaker shenanigans, I ended up opening proceedings. My topic was Meaning Organisations.

This is about 19 minutes on the topic.

The Meaning Organization, Will McInnes, NixonMcinnes from Rebuild21 on Vimeo.

The Meaning Organisation, so coined – at least according to my research – by the inimitable Umair Haque in his post The Shape of the Meaning Organisation, is “built not just to learn (and then do “business”) but, more deeply, to redraw the boundaries of prosperity, by doing meaningful stuff that matters the most.”

It is an organisation, and in particular for me a business, with a clearly expressed higher purpose that goes beyond accomplishing commercial goals, and in particular where that purpose solves a real-world problem that makes the world a better.

And it is still a business: for profit, agile, independent, effective, focused on results.

Umair himself describes Meaning Organisations in this second blog post as having the following characteristics, and though they’re nice I see this as one of the great man’s  quick splurges than some of his more carefully refined thoughts (so what I take from them is the feeling rather than the specifics):

– Significance
– Outcomes thinking
– Harmony
– Purpose
– Peace
– Love
– Ambition

It struck me that outside of the business world, it’s much easier to find Meaning Organisations. Most charities, not-for-profits and religious organisations are mission-led and have missions with meaning.

So why do we need Meaning Organisations?

I think it’s pretty obvious why we need Meaning Organisations, but for the sake of completeness here’s some context from my perspective.

Firstly, for many of us the meltdown in business and government over the past few years is the start of an unstoppable shift away from hollowed-out, profit-at-all-costs businesses which squeeze value out of people and the planet. As citizens, we’re sick of it. Business needs rebooting and rebuilding. (And some of the aspects that need rebooting are those I tried to convey at the Brighton TEDx talk on Radicalising Business).

Secondly, the workforce of today, embroiled in this changing, shifting world, needs to be thought of more as volunteers rather than military recruits. Gen Y want to know WIIFM. Everyone older than Gen Y has seen experienced redundancies in some shape or form, and knows that people have been expendable, there is no job for life, and are conscious of opportunities to become freelance (or Ronin), to manage portfolios of work, to take career breaks and all that other good stuff. In parallel, there has been a sustained trend towards more volunteering, towards coaching and mentoring – these and more I see as signals of our quest for greater meaning.
So today, if you want to the best talent, there needs to be Meaning as well as money.

Thirdly, because both of the above influence us as consumers, and it is my belief that consumers in Europe and the US (which is the extent of my cultural knowledge, and even then at a reasonably shallow level) are increasingly seeking out experiences, services and products with a narrative that is authentic, sustainable, stuff which has provenance. See the growth in sales of Freedom Food chickens, the rise of the micro-brewery, the niche bicycle design company, the resistance towards Tesco and other powerful supermarkets in small towns and villages, the Buy Local movement, the gastro pub.

So what are good examples of Meaning Organisations? Well I spent a reasonable time researching the topic of meaning organisations for the talk, but really I’ve only just started as everywhere I look I’m starting to find them. But what I’ve come across so far is that old nemesis from our days helping pioneer social media marketing in the UK: the whole ‘same old brands wheeled out as examples of excellence’ problem. Too few people doing it well?

Some of those regularly trotted out examples include:
– Google
Unilever Shakti
– The Tata Nano

In Copenhagen at Rebuild21 several Danish examples were repeatedly mentioned:


And then there was a stirring and hilarious speech from co-founder of Noma, the world’s best restaurant, Claus Meyer, on the New Nordic Manifesto which he co-authored and which has given confidence and purpose to thousands of Nordic food producers in the region. That manifesto and movement is abundant with Meaning Organisation-ness.

On great examples of Meaning Organisations, who are the British examples I wonder? Do let me know who comes to mind.

What is interesting is that many of these few examples are incomplete in their Meaning-ness. So Tata is the huge Indian conglomerate, but its Nano car is a business line that has provided the means to own their own transport to a huge new swathe of the Indian population by consciously designing a car that hits a $2,000 price point. There is rich meaning here. But this is not to say that the whole of Tata is therefore a Meaning Organisation.

Google has its underlying principles, one of which is ‘The need for information crosses all borders’. There is a sense, in this one principle alone, of a unifying goal, a purpose beyond making profits, a higher-order mission for people in the organisation to work towards.

Zappos would otherwise just be a shoe-selling business if it wasn’t for its brilliant, whacky, human colour and personality. A website, a warehouse and tons of shoes. Instead, it is an exemplar for us all in how progressive and radical culture can be scaled. If I had to reverse engineer Zappo’s meaning as an outsider I would have to stump for something around humanity – they celebrate weirdness, use the word ‘family’ frequently and have a strong emphasis on the individual being themselves and developing themselves.

It’s worth also mentioning Social Business and Conscious Business as other terms knocking around this area. I won’t go into them in detail here, but my feeling is that Social Business is confused between the Yunus school of Social Business and the Dachis/IBM school, so I can’t quite get behind that.

Conscious business, at least the definition developed by my friends and colleagues at SeeStep, I like for its wholeness. Whereas Meaning Organisation seems to sum up the purpose and meaning part of a contemporary business, there’s more to look at, and that’s where I feel Conscious Business is worthy of more attention and really comes into its own.

I guess the last thought I have is that Meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

What means something to you might not to the person next to you. So there is something about finding ways to attract people to our organisations who share the same Meaning, but also repel (or expel) those that don’t. Zappos famously have the bounty they offer to people to leave after their initial induction – not often taken up, but a clear and powerful signal that you should chose to be part of their organisation.

I have no idea how to end this post, other than to thank Sofus Midtgaard, the organiser of Rebuild21 for giving me the chance to investigate and learn more about this area further.


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