Developing a blueprint for purposeful business

Written by
Clare Grist Taylor

05 Mar 2020

05 Mar 2020 • by Clare Grist Taylor

A Blueprint for Better Business is a small charity with a big idea: to challenge the assumption that the primary purpose of business is profit. We spoke to Blueprint CEO Charles Wookey to find out more. 

Why is purpose your main goal for change?

Blueprint has its origins in the 2008 financial crisis and the sense, in the aftermath, of a complete breakdown in trust between business and the society it’s meant to serve. Working with a group of top business leaders, we concluded that underlying this was the dominant idea that business is all about maximising shareholder value. 

Related to that was the thinking that people’s primary motivation at work is financial self-interest — leading to a business philosophy where success is perceived to be solely about aligning that individual self-interest with what a profit-maximising business requires. We think that leads to a double disconnect: between business and society and also in terms of human motivation. 

Our focus on purpose challenges the received wisdom around the primacy of profit, looking back to the period before the free market orthodoxy of Milton Friedman and The Chicago School. There are plenty of historic examples of large, highly commercial, successful companies — such as ICI — that were linked to, and rooted in, their environments. 

We want businesses to be inspired and guided by a purpose that serves society as well as meeting commercial imperatives. This kind of purpose is a driver for success rather than a brake. 

Does a focus on purpose also lead to better staff motivation?

It certainly helps, but it’s not enough on its own. Companies can have a clear sense of purpose, supported by the best purpose statements, and still not be a good place for people to work. That’s why Blueprint has a dual focus on purpose and the importance of human relationships, whether that’s the relationships with and between employees, or external relationships with customers and suppliers. 

Often, that’s about a shift in perspective, taking a longer-term, relationship-building approach rather than focusing on short-term gain. We recently worked with a company facing the need to introduce new automated technology to cut costs. By reframing the problem from simply “how can I save the most money?” to “how can I create meaningful jobs?”, the CEO was able to enlist the support of his staff and move the company to trialling four-day-a-week working. 

We’d like businesses to see themselves as human systems. It’s tempting to measure success in terms of objective, data-driven measures and processes that are easy to see above the waterline. For us, it’s the rest of the iceberg that sits underneath that really matters — criteria that are driven by behaviour and mindset. One of our collaborators describes this as wanting people to feel that they are “a valued member of a winning team on a worthwhile mission”. 

Your work is about changing behaviours and mindsets. How do you create lasting change?

It’s hard and it takes time. For maximum impact, our work is often focused on the leaders of larger organisations. Traditionally, these leaders are yearning for those data- or process-led solutions; we need them to see that, actually, the key driver is really mindset change. 

So, we encourage business leaders to see purpose not as a project or initiative, but to develop conscious awareness around its importance in all areas of the business. They need to understand the scale and depth of what mindset and behavioural change means and to be thoughtful about how to go about it. We want them to become ‘midwives’ for change. 

In most organisations, there are plenty of examples of good practice and experimentation. Rather than taking a problem-based approach, we aim to give leaders the psychological permission to be curious about what works well in their organisations, to learn from this and to spread the word. It’s about releasing latent potential. 

Action-addicted leaders need to give themselves permission to take time out for reflection. But it’s important to avoid the trap of ‘phoney catharsis’, where reflection leads to some level of understanding and analysis but falls short of action. That’s why we developed our Five Principles of a Purpose Driven Business and Framework to Guide Decision Making

The principles are intended as a provocation, a simple, but not exhaustive, diagnostic to help people frame their own discussions around purpose and people and move from reflection to action: what are we doing well; what might we do better? 

The Framework digs deeper, helping organisations to define purpose while outlining, in more detail, the behaviours they need to show to sustain that purpose. They’re intended to work hand in hand, helping to raise levels of consciousness and embed intentionality around the choices businesses face. 

Can smaller organisations learn from your philosophy?

Yes, the Principles and Framework are scalable and also designed to be used by NGOs, charities and other organisations. Our website includes tools for SMEs, such as a six-step-model and case studies. These leaders can feel isolated and assume high levels of personal responsibility for the results of their actions; we hope these resources can help channel that drive in ways that empower them and their teams. 

We have designed additional resources for individuals. The 10 Steps to Fulfilment at Work lists simple and practical steps which anyone can take, to help feel more engaged and motivated. 

What should a business do if it wants to find out more?

Explore our philosophy and tools. If you’d like to know more, we’d love to hear from you.