Strive to create the possibility for humans and all other life to flourish on this planet for generations to come, enhancing the integrity, beauty, and regenerative capacity of living communities.
(with thanks to John Ehrenfeld, MIT and Michelle Holiday)
This goal can be summarized as "sustainable flourishing". This is a radically different idea of sustainability from the more common "sustainable development" that prioritizes the sustaining of (economic) development not of flourishing (see this blog post for an exploration of the differences). Sustainable flourishing is also radically different from the financial profit-centric definitions currently popular: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environment Society Governance (ESG). These both continue to prioritize sustaining financial profit and not flourishing.
Enterprises that aim-to-flourish, that aim to create the possibility for flourishing, do not just prioritize financial profit, though they, of course, must be financially viable. Instead, enterprises aiming-to-flourish attempt to maximize multiple streams of benefits: for society and all the enterprises stakeholders, the environment upon which society is utterly dependent, and the economy created to help members of society better meet their needs. Enterprises aiming-to-flourish generate social benefits, they regenerate the environment for all their stakeholders and they are sufficiently financially viable to continue to exist. These enterprises excel because people are thriving and the environment is flourishing.
There is another important aspect of the aiming-to-flourish goal: this goal is an example of what Dr. Russ Ackoff described as an "ideal goal" back in the 1970s. By ideal, Russ did not mean impossible or utopian. An ideal goal is highly practical. It is a goal that can be approached without limit, and, in making this attempt, generates a considerable ongoing stream of benefits. For example, one might say humanity has an ideal goal of exploring our world and the universe beyond. Clearly, we will never explore everything everywhere, so there is no limit to our exploration. But by striving to explore everywhere much of humanity has received, and hopefully, all of humanity will also receive tremendous benefits: increased life expectancy and improving levels of happiness.
So, returning to the opening question: why would entrepreneurs and leaders of established enterprises want to adopt the ideal goal of aiming-to-flourish as the core of their business's purpose / vision / why? . Why would a business want to adopt sustainable flourishing as their practical definition of sustainability?
There are six reasons leaders are adopting aiming-to-flourish as the core purpose for their enterprise. I will briefly introduce them here and expand on each in future blog posts.
One: Everyone Gets to Define Flourishing for Themselves. You can't tell someone what their own experience of flourishing is, could, or should be – it is up to each person to determine. This means that each person's definition of flourishing is based on their worldview. You can't impose a definition of flourishing based on an external worldview. This means enterprises with the purpose of sustainable flourishing will listen closely to all those the organization touches positively or negatively – whether or not they are recognized as stakeholders. How many opportunities could be identified, and how many risks could be avoided, through such a close listening process?
Two: Aiming-to-Flourish is Exciting. Aiming-to-flourish passes a key marketing test: does it inspire and excite the desired audience to action? There is no point in adopting an organizational purpose or a definition of sustainability, individually or organizationally, that is boring, uninspiring, and blah! This is a major problem with current definitions of sustainability. Instead flourishing offers people an inspiring and hopeful vision for their personal future and their renewed relationships with organizations. How powerful would your brand be if it authentically aimed to help stakeholders flourish? How much sales and marketing cost could be avoided if your stakeholders were attracted to you rather than you having to seek them out?
Three: It is Practical. Science is now clear in physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and even in the social sciences on two points: (1) There is an understanding that the only constant on this planet is change. This means it is a practical impossibility to keep things the same, to sustain any thing. So what can we aim to sustain? We can strive to sustain a possibility for all – flourishing. Flourishing, unlike sustainability, is not an event at a point in time. (2) There is an understanding that the processes of life will result in ecosystems that flourish – they exist at their highest level of potential. So flourishing is an unfolding process that occurs naturally in living systems as the world changes. These two realities make sustaining flourishing as a possibility highly practical. How much benefit could be realized for stakeholders by working with the flourishing forces and processes of nature, including human nature?
Four: It is the Right Thing To Do. Philosophers from Aristotle to, most recently, positive psychologists have described flourishing as the process of attaining and retaining the highest possible level of our inherent potential. Whether as an individual or an enterprise aiming to flourish is striving to be the best that we can be. From personal goals of self-knowledge to attaining spiritual enlightenment to honor a deity, aiming to flourish creates the best possible chance to realize these in practice. How attractive would your enterprise be to all its stakeholders if it declared an authentic intention to help all of them to flourish?
Five: It is the Best Way to Gain and Retain Financial Viability. Unlike financial profitability, flourishing applies to every facet of human lived experience. Aiming-to-flourish implies exploring not only traditional sources of financial profit but also exploring opportunities to create benefits socially and environmentally. And Aiming-to-flourish also implies going beyond traditional sources of risk to become aware of new sources of risk emerging from the social and environmental perspectives. In today's world, where increasingly opportunities and (financial) risks emerge from the social and environmental perspectives, adopting flourishing brings in the social and environmental with the financial to organizations strategy development and execution processes. How many new opportunities could your enterprise find, and how much risk could be mitigated, by strategically working with all your stakeholders to flourish socially, environmentally, and financially?
Six: It Maximizes the Possibility for Innovation to Better Face an Uncertain Future. It is well known that the most innovative innovations come by bringing together highly diverse people, ideas, and situations. New inspiring ideas are much less likely to emerge from the same people, with the same ideas in the same situations. Further, the potential for significant innovation comes from appreciating current situations and asking how good could we make them, rather than looking for problems to fix. Since aiming-to-flourish means always striving for the ideal, innovation processes in enterprises that adopt this purpose automatically become more effective. How many new ideas to enable sustainability-as-flourishing could your enterprise find and bring to market, by innovating with all your stakeholders socially, environmentally, and financially?
To close let's return to the observation of Simon Sinek: "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it". People buy based on the alignment of their purpose in the world with yours. What could be a better why, a better more exciting, and inspiring purpose, for all your stakeholders than aiming to help all of them flourish? To help create, for them, the possibility for flourishing.