Noble purpose?

Try answering these questions:

  1. Do you work for an organisation where most people would answer the question “why did you apply to work here” with an answer that aligns their choice of job with the fundamental purpose of the organisation - whether that is education, care, environment or development? These factors are mentioned long before, and possibly to the exclusion of, other explanations such as it pays well, it is secure, it offers an interesting role to develop my CV or was all that I could get in the current market.
    YES = 3 Points
  2. Do colleagues tend to be pretty opinionated about the overall decisions needed to achieve the fundamental purpose of the organisation?
    YES = 1 Point
  3. Are staff certain about how they should personally contribute to the overall mission – and how their own time should be spent working towards it?
    YES = 2 Points
  4. Do you work in the public, charity or NGO sectors or another sort of organisation with a dominant purpose other than profit?
    YES = 1 Point

If you scored 5 or above points you probably work for what we term a ‘Noble Purpose Organisation’ or NPO. These have many benefits in terms of delivering social gains, often fostering commitment and corporate memory through long lengths of service and providing motivating work. Increasingly the new generation of workers want to make a difference to the world we live in, as in this example from the design sector. NPOs can provide such meaningful work.

That’s not to say that other types of organisations – most notably for-profit businesses – don’t look to engage us in the work we do for them. We all try to find meaning in what we do, whether that effort is for a drinks company or a development agency. However, there is something a bit different about the environment in an NPO, where the admirable work of the institution is generally held as the main reason for coming to work and other motives (power, socialisation, rewards, personal achievement, fun, etc) are absent or hard to declare.

But because of this, working in an NPO can bring its own particular challenges. Only the other day, one of us had a conversation with an upset member of staff in a well-known NPO, one of the most loved charities in the UK. They were distraught by the frustration they feel at work in trying to make a difference. They are dismayed at the obstacles they experience from their colleagues. This is a pattern we have seen many times:

  • Office politics can be the norm, often in a way that is perplexing to new recruits
  • The motivations and actions of co-workers are regularly questioned and differences in point of view amplified
  • Personal interpretations of right and wrong, as well as what makes for a ‘noble purpose’, come to the fore
  • Alternative points of view can be hard to present without leading to arguments
  • Acknowledging the presence of other personal motivations (such as pay, profile or influence) is hard or impossible
  • Raising some of the issues at work about power or ambition is almost impossible.

Maybe you have experienced these things too. Why can it be so hard to work in organisations with such fine aims? We call it the NPO Paradox.

What can be done about this? In NPOs, perhaps more than in other places, the role of leaders is crucial to developing healthy workplaces. This may seem counter-intuitive given the plethora of self-motivated people. But it is essential to check the dynamics that can make the working environment so toxic and non-productive.

So, what steps can leaders of these organisations take to foster a culture where staff can work well together to get a great job done?

  1. Pay as much attention to the organisation as the purpose – ie aim to improve the form as much as delivering the function
  2. Be aware of the gaming that can get in the way if leadership behaviours are not right. Do all you can to check that by identifying and living the values you believe are essential as a leadership group (see this resource on organisational values)
  3. Develop professional ways of working that are both lean for the job to be done now and also insightful into those changes that will be needed in a continually changing world (see these resources on lean thinking, change management and resilience).

More generally, if you work for a Government department, third sector organisation, health care body or science community, take the time to:

  • reflect on the patterns and motivations you see in yourself and others
  • think of what you can do at whatever level to help healthy ways of organising
  • invest in, and support, insightful and strong leaders.

With this, NPOs can be the very best places to earn a living and make a contribution.

Brilliant Thinking : made easy

Do you ever:

  • find yourself in meetings wishing you’d been able to say something more impressive on the spur of the moment
  • discover that people haven’t read or really understood what you were trying to say in your reports or proposals?
  • take a long time to prepare slides for your presentations that are then a bit too detailed and not as interesting as you’d like them to be
  • wish you could ‘wow’ colleagues and customers a bit more in your dealings with them.

If you do, then come along to our next Brilliant thinking made easy 2-day programme on 23rd and 24th March 2011. Drawing on the structured thinking ideas used by great speakers, leading strategy firms, high profile research organisations and famous business writers, this course is for anyone in business who needs to build their confidence and capability in helping and influencing others with their questions, insights and ideas.

We’re also taking bookings for our next Facilitating and chairing meetings made easy course on 15th March. You can find details here.

Both these courses can be tailored for in-house for teams of between 8 and 16 people. Email us at for more details.

Want more good ideas?

Here are a couple of our recent blogs available from the idenk Blog. You can subscribe for this here. You can now also opt to receive these via Twitter.

What’s your Plan B?

When facing changes in our work or personal life it helps to have a ‘Plan B’ as well as a ‘Plan A’. If we can be more imaginative in widening our ideas of what the future might look like, we can increase the repertoire of options available to us.

An example of this is personal scenario planning when facing possible job changes. ‘Plan A’ is often “I hope they keep me on, doing what I do now”.

To move beyond this, it is useful to face our fears. “What is the worst case?” By articulating our anxieties, we can move from just feeling them to confronting them and then to mitigating them. Ask yourself “what am I really afraid of, how would I cope, how could I soften the impact of what might happen?”

Now try to come up with an interesting ‘Plan B’. “What’s an alternative future career or line of work that I could envisage given the goals and resources available to me?” Try to spot the trends you see around you that offer new opportunities. Review the things you’ve done successfully which you can build on. Write down the contacts you know who can help.

It may be a time to start achieving those personal ambitions which you’ve often thought about but never really acted on

Ask us for more on this or a summary of our favourite article on personal resilience.

Making an impression

See these pictures of Stephen Fry.

Same story.
Two papers.
Two photos.
Two impressions?

Quick, make your mind up

Waitrose offers tokens which you can allocate to a charity or local organisation as you leave the store. They share £1000 according to the proportion of total tokens each organisation receives.

Which of these three would you allocate your token to?

For what reasons?

  • I might need them or know someone who does
  • they look popular already and I should support the one that most people think is important
  • they seem under-supported and I want to help the underdog
  • they already have enough support and mine won’t make much difference
  • I won’t allocate at all as I can’t choose between them (or I’m late and need to rush!).

When people make quick decisions, it can be worth exploring the underlying reasoning.

PS – this accumulative and transparent way of expressing a preference (where you can see the relative support so far) is quite an efficient and possibly fairer way of allocating resources. It ensures that lower profile needs or those with weaker ‘brands’ or ‘voices’ don’t miss out completely. If you did this blind (ie the boxes were opaque), the most popular one could well get a much higher proportion of the votes as people are less informed and hence less inclined to make some of the alternative choices listed above.

PPS – the Hampshire search and rescue has consistently had the most support.

More recent ideas:

The independent organisation

Letting the hedges grow

National treasures

Not what you might expect

21 years of newspapers

The idenk team
December 2010

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