Noble Purpose Category

The four essential preconditions for system transformation

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Around this time last year I was reflecting in a concert. I discovered FRE. Focus. Responsibility. Example. Three attributes for organisation success. That framework has guided my work this year. And carries on into 2017. I have had much positive feedback about it.

Last month, away from home, on a morning run along the Thames, I was thinking…

I work helping systems improve. This support can be in my main sectors, be it fashion or conservation; education or health. Or it might be in the events I run, from team time outs to larger conferences; individual coaching to speaking. I am concerned with helping the smaller temporary systems, such as in a workshop. I am also focused on improving the larger, well-funded and enduring systems, such as a fashion supply chain or a programme on bio-diversity.

After over 30 years helping in complex environments I have identified four pre-requisites for system success. You might even imagine these as four bases to get a ‘home’ run. Four capabilities that are needed to be widespread in a system for progress. Or you can consider them as a personal manifesto – highlighting the four personal disciplines leaders in all roles need for achievement. They are shared here to help us all make different and better choices.

I summarise them as CHHH. That is curiosity, holistic (whole-sighted) attention, honesty and hope.

Let’s unpack these four themes a little. Each helps progress. I have had positive comments on this from some of the many people I know who are working hard for improvement from deep within the systems they are committed to.


Deepening curiosity helps us get beyond certainty and avoid hubris. There can be a pretence of motivation. There may be an interest in innovation in one’s own work, that is undermined by the failure to search out and copy what others are doing. In my decades of practice, I think low curiosity is the most striking and common observation – it limits progress, it leads to ‘reinvention of the wheel’ and the consequent waste.

Addressing a low ‘pull’, where colleagues are not bothered and not interested in what others are doing is hard. Ways to fan the flames of interest maybe through protected study time and positive reinforcement, including awards for copying! Crucially, leaders need to model curiosity themselves – asking questions, showing they prize imitation as much as invention, avoiding routine pet answers, working in a spirit of humility and avoiding arrogance.

Curiosity gets us on the journey. But it is only the first base.


Once there is some curiosity, then finding ways to see the whole is important. However, looking beyond one’s own tribal allegiances can be a challenge. Building empathy with ‘the other’ is difficult. However, this is critical if the system is to operate for the end user or end purpose, and not the ‘core group’ who have much to benefit from things as they are. Connection is personal, and takes time to develop and deepen. Spending time exploring WITOS (what is the other side) is key.


The ‘third base’ is concerned with enabling important discussions beyond positioning and spin – having critical conversations

This is important for authentic attempts to make things better rather than cosy speaking in the groove, repeating nice sounding platitudes. This might involve a risk – especially when systems have a habit of spewing out whistle-blowers as ‘troublemakers’. Prophets and Radicals (tempered or otherwise) need to be sought and valued. Curiosity and Holism helps to nurture the empathy necessary for honesty.


Finally, and maybe paradoxically given the tone of this piece so far, being positive is important. Burnout is a risk in system work. It is easy to end up with no hope for the system or even for oneself. Accepting critique, but looking beyond criticism and cynicism is the better route. Being personally buoyant in the face of all that needs to be done. Looking to encourage each other.

I increasingly use these ideas (CHHH) as a frame and even as ‘ground rules’ in my workshops.

I find them a useful diagnostic tool too.

If systems are perfectly designed to deliver what they achieve, then the basic design rules need to be shifted. Might CHHH help?

Inertia and entropy are design flaws to be addressed. If something seems impossible, start small. Where does CHHH point you?

So, I offer CHHH a way to start or sustain the journey of improvement.

Travel well.

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NPO: What (and where) next?

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Time for a short pause in this daily series on Noble Purpose Organisations.

I will be back soon – with a case study, to be run as a mini-series over a number of instalments.

This is partly written. However, I would like your questions and challenges to complete it.

The story explores the tale of Bart, Elizabeth, Jenni and Jean-Paul. Four people with very different roles and lengths of service in (the fictitious and factious) anti-malaria campaigning charity Malfly.

What would you like to learn through their tale?


Noble word association

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Noble purpose organisations.


NPO, a research agenda?

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1. How far it is true that “organisations with a compelling mission tend to risk bad behaviours internally”? How far are the ‘shadows’ of co-workers a feature of noble workplaces?
2. Does it matter about being nice to each other if you have noble intentions? How far does a ‘toxic’ culture actually hamper the achievement of core goals?
3. What are the best ways to establish a family foundation to ensure the risks of the Noble Purpose Organisation Paradox are not institutionalised from the start?
4. Are the challenges of boosting productivity in public services largely due to the NPO paradox – or simply due to the context of the sector or ineffective leadership?
5. How far are NPOs more at risk of group think and team dynamics degenerating to chaos and entropy?



NPO, from the archives

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The Spectrum?

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There is a spectrum of business models.

From the noble purpose – to those with a purely commercial mission.

And there are some – maybe plenty – in the middle
– The CSR team in an investment bank
– Those looking to source ‘fairtrade’ raw materials for a fashion brand
– The bar staff in a live music pub
– The projectionists in an arts cinema
– The research team in a pharmaceutical company
– The human rights experts in a city legal firm
– The procurement specialists in a government department
– The team managing the endowment of a charity.

So maybe the spectrum it actually more of a Venn diagram. As a starter for 10, which Cambridge College has a stained glass Venn Diagram – and why? See here.

[Btw, a colleague extends this spectrum from noble through commercial to ‘vile purpose’. Depending on your politics that new end to the spectrum could include all capitalist enterprise or ‘merely’ tobacco or arms companies…or drug cartels, human traffickers, terrorist cells)


NPO Thinking: Getting and staying on the Front Foot, served Four Ways

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There are four things that are needed for a successful organisation, see the cycle and the balance – and do note the colours.

When one of these is missing, stuff happens (or actually, it doesn’t), see here

When the 4 aspects are in place, the fullest wheel is ‘invented’ – see the 4 colours again

And see this application of these 4 elements for a team you might know.


NPO, the evidence and effort – and elephant

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I am struck by how little literature there seems to be on the particular and tricky internal dynamics of leading charities. What there is often focuses on the skills to work in partnership with others, for example.

There are plenty of courses targeted at Charity leaders. I am struck that many development programmes seem to present generic modules that would suit aspiring and new leaders from a wide range of sectors, including fully commercial (non-Noble Purpose Organisation) ones.

What is the unique core curriculum a CEO or Director of a charity or public sector body needs to really help them prepare for their particular challenges?

I propose the ideas around the NPO paradox might be the ‘elephant in the corner’ of the education and research room.



The Reinforcing of some front foot assumptions for NPOs

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I like this blog by my former colleague Stuart on the ideas and inspiration he has received from Michael Bungay Stainer

A great example of curiosity and creativity.

I like the 3 dimensions for Great Work – maybe as they reinforce some of my beliefs of what is needed for successful, front foot, Noble Purpose Organisations:
– Focus (direction)
– Courage (momentum and coordination)
– Resilience (balance)


eFFOrt in the NPO

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In seeking to improve the ways of working in Noble Purpose Organisations, where is it best to start to get (or move further) onto the front foot?

To mix my metaphors, many are interested in ‘culture’ and ‘tools’ to fix the organisational ‘DNA’.

I have just read another ‘top 50’ list – the top innovators.

So here is my ‘top 6’. A few things I find helpful.

For Alignment: preferred scenarios and journey planners

For Attitude: working to ‘practice what is preached’ with the 5 level values model and perusing and encouraging strengths based leadership in groups

For Awareness: WITOS and the perspective assessment to try and see at least 2 sides of any issue – especially in meetings

And for Accountable Autonomy: the work of Gerard Fairtlough and ‘the three ways of getting things done’

Fundamentally, I think the cultural dynamic of Noble Purpose Organisations can be a pretty huge barrier to fundamental improvement. Blind ‘ego’ is part of the core dynamic. These 6 methods help increase the sense of
– agreed direction
– reinforced momentum
– co-ordination and collaboration
– and balanced working.

Or in other words, they help leaders get themselves and their teams on the front foot.

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