Inspiring a generation - and a workforce

In 2012 I had the great fortune to work for the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) for 10 months as part of the sustainability team.  As an example of a purpose driven organisation, you’d be hard pushed to find a better example than LOCOG.  From a standing start in 2005 it had 7 years to build up to an organisation with over 6,000 staff (and many thousands more volunteers and contractors), stage “the greatest show on earth” , clear much of it away, leave a great legacy, and then disband itself.

Clearly LOCOG wasn’t a “normal” organisation but it provided a fascinating lesson in organisational development and culture.

We had two very clear purposes:

  • Stage the greatest show on earth

  • Inspire a generation

The first was about making sure the Olympic and Paralympic Games took place in stunning venues, with seamless logistics, enthusiastic and well-trained staff and volunteers, great backdrops and inspiring ceremonies.  The second was about ensuring that all this work would not be just for 4 weeks in 2012, and that there would be enduring and positive legacy.

Working in an organisation with such clear purposes was unlike anything I have every experienced.  Everyone knew what we were working towards and people were inspired by this – the energy in the place was palpable.  We all worked long hours, the pressure was huge at times, but the enthusiasm and the energy didn’t wane.  We were proud to work for LOCOG, proud to be part of something so big (the Olympic Games seems to be the only thing that brings almost every country in the world together to do something positive) and proud to play our part.

Another notable feature of LOCOG was the relative lack of office politics.  Perhaps because we all knew what had to be done – and that the eyes of the world would be on our collective efforts – we all collaborated.  Staging the Olympics and Paralympics was the UK’s biggest peacetime logistical operation ever so the need for effective collaboration was paramount.  And it happened easily – there were no complicated organisational constructs to allow for collaboration to happen - we just worked together.  I believe firmly that having a strong purpose enabled this way of working.

It was also a lot of fun – yes, working for the Olympics is probably intrinsically more fun than developing a new IT system for a global bank (IMHO) but it could equally have been a whole lot of hard work, under a lot of pressure, with very high stakes.  Yet it wasn’t like that at all – I think we were all pretty happy and proud to be working for London 2012 and coming to work was an enjoyable prospect.   I believed in what we were doing, I was committed to the organisation and its purpose and I was working with great people. 

LOCOG was also a commercially successful organisation.  It committed to balance its books and to match the money it spent on staging the Games with revenues from tickets, merchandise and sponsorship.  This was achieved, with a surplus donated to legacy organisations.

It may be rather a unique example, but I think LOCOG provides a really great case study of what happens – on a large scale – when people are united about a really exciting and inspiring purpose.  Energy, enthusiasm, collaboration, innovation, support, teamwork, focus, determination, joy – who wouldn’t want these in their organisation? 

We can’t all stage an Olympics to get these, but having a really motivating purpose has to be a good start.


The importance of purpose…..

If you believe all you read in the press, “trust in business is at an all-time low.”  The media is full of stories about companies mistreating staff, suppliers, customers and shareholders – trashing the environment, avoiding paying tax, and making their owners very rich. 

Yet “business” isn’t inherently bad -  business provides goods and services, it provides employment, it helps fund many other things that need funding (education, health, infrastructure), it produces technical innovations that further human progress, it pushes boundaries – innovates, invents and creates, it allows people to achieve together what they would find difficult to achieve alone….

These are all great reasons for business to exist.  Yet all too often the purpose of business is reduced shareholder value, and its main criteria of success are profits generated and a healthy share price.

This is a short sighted view.  Yes, business needs to turn a profit to survive and develop but making money should not be an end it itself – the sole purpose.  Truly successful companies make a profit in order to enable them to do something more or better. What that ‘something’ is becomes the real justification for the existence of the business.

Business is arguably the dominant shaping influence on the planet today, and more and more organisations are looking at purpose beyond profit and how they can deliver market based solutions to social and environmental problems.  This goes deeper than CSR, sustainability or business ethics – it goes to the heart of an organisation and influences strategy, recruitment, development, communications, marketing, operations, production – in fact all areas of a business.   

Purpose driven organisations are nothing new.  John Cadbury established the famous chocolate company in the 1820s with the aim of providing an alternative to alcohol (which he believed kept the masses mired in poverty).  John Lewis has always had "happiness of our staff…and good service to the general community” as its core purpose.  Now organisations in all sectors are recognising the worth of having a clearly articulated purpose which acts as the reference point to guide how they operate.  Growing numbers of organisations start with a purpose at their core and build from there – creating sustainable, outward looking businesses that do well by doing good.