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The Purpose Experiment: From Dream to Crushing Reality

Tine Bieber
Written by Tine Bieber April 28, 2024

In late 2016, while searching for a thesis topic for my master's degree at Business School, I aimed to challenge the status quo and bring fresh perspectives into business practices. As a critical thinker and activist at heart, I believed in the potential for individuals to drive positive change. 

My quest led me to a small organization in the Netherlands. In a five-hour conversation with its founder, we bonded over shared values and visions for a better world through business. This marked the start of my journey into Holacracy and purpose-driven endeavors, against the backdrop of the oil and gas industry's upstream market.

Pursuing the dream

Following that conversation, I was hired and began commuting from the North to the South of Holland on a daily basis. The timing was perfect. The company had just begun implementing Holacracy, which, at the time, seemed like one of the most promising solutions for building a self-managed and purpose-driven organization. We drew inspiration from Frederic Laloux’s Teal approach and Zappos’ journey.

What made it even more exciting for us was that we operated as a supplier in the upstream market of the oil and gas industry, which was not the typical industry for experimenting with "new ways of working".

Doing the work: A holacratic journey

The implementation of Holacracy and our approach to business made us stand out like a colorful, funny-looking parrot fish in a gray shark tank. We sensed that we were onto something significant and felt butterflies of excitement. We began envisioning a grand purpose of transforming the oil and gas industry from the inside out, embracing co-creation, collaboration, and an all-stakeholder approach.

Over the years, we attracted professionals from around the globe who were intrigued by our unconventional methods and wanted to join us.

We swiftly gained international recognition as a self-management case study, and I shared our stories at conferences, in interviews and podcasts. I found inspiration in our story every single day. It was a harmonious blend of living self-expression, experimentation, and, above all, purpose in one of the most regulated and challenging industries of our time: oil and gas.

Within our organization, I had the freedom to explore different roles, create new ones and nurture new skills without compromising salary, while working for this purpose beyond making a profit. I earned a substantial income and even managed to work only a three-day workweek, which provided me with the flexibility to pursue other projects with friends across the globe.

I chose where I wanted to work from, whether it was Tulum, Istanbul, São Paulo, San Francisco, or our self-remodeled campervan by the Atlantic Ocean in between surf sessions. Every single day, I felt a profound sense of purpose and meaning, something I had always sought in my previous experiences. It felt like paradise—I was living the millennial dream, experiencing maximal freedom, autonomy, and doing meaningful work. As we continued to attract more people, our vision expanded accordingly.

Ninety-five percent of our organization's members attended the Holacracy training in Amsterdam or London, bringing our practices to perfection. We rapidly stepped up our game living and breathing the concept.

Purpose Experiment

Personal growth and mindset shifts

The tension-based Holacracy approach not only helped us organize smoothly around work but also influenced how we communicated, both inside and outside the office. Our mindsets began to change, altering the way we viewed work, relationships, life, and each other.

I held various roles, including communication & marketing, company culture, and team building. In my role as a team builder, I had an allocated budget and needed to plan activities for the year. After visiting Zappos in Las Vegas, I was inspired to organize a Workation with Zappos for the entire team.

It was the first time Zappos had welcomed another organization to work from their facilities, adding extra excitement for all of us. That trip marked a turning point in our story. Spending 24/7 together with colleagues in a different country, dealing with jet lag and disrupted routines, tensions inevitably arose. When we went for after-work drinks at the Hard Rock Café on the strip in the middle of the week, tensions reached a breaking point.

The founder and I had a significant argument, which affected the entire group. One by one, everyone began to speak up, and we realized the need to shift our focus to create a space where we could address and resolve interpersonal tensions better. We believed in the Teal approach and that by working on our personal development, increasing our self-awareness and self-love, we could naturally foster self-accountability.

The rise of purpose

First, we made it invitation-based. People who wanted to speak to a coach could book sessions on the company's dime. Over time, more and more people joined, all having regular sessions, sharing the outcomes and insights with their colleagues, leading to broader discussions about personal and organizational purpose.

“What gets me out of bed in the morning?”

We decided to hire the True Purpose Institute from Berkeley, California, to help us uncover our personal purposes. Recognizing its fundamental importance to our business approach, we made it a priority for everyone to participate in these sessions. Once we were able to define our purpose, new questions emerged:

“Is my purpose aligned with the organization’s purpose?”

So, we had another session with the True Purpose Institute to discover our organization's purpose and align it with our individual purposes. We believed in the synergy of purpose and self-management and aimed to step up our game.

While we had long followed the tension-based Holacracy approach, we began to realize that it might not represent the end of our journey. This led us to seek the next step, one that could truly organize us around our shared purpose. The founders felt a growing tension between emotional and legal ownership, prompting them to make a final "top-down" decision to implement the For-Purpose Enterprise (FPE). This introduced co-ownership and established purpose as the sole driver of organizational decisions. Consequently, we revamped our compensation system, as well as our hiring and firing processes.

By this point, we had already established a transparent salary system and had experimented with various methods, such as peer-appointing salary systems and self-allocation. Similarly, our hiring and firing structure allowed anyone in the organization to initiate the process, but final decisions required the input of at least four selected individuals. These individuals, two chosen by the initiator and two selected from those involved in the process, had to reach a consensus.

Additionally, we integrated purpose contribution levels into our compensation system and emphasized purpose alignment in our hiring and firing processes. Purpose became central to our decision-making framework.

Our journey highlighted the power of aligning beliefs with actions to drive meaningful change.
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Crushing our dream

In our minds, it seemed the logical next step, evolving organically. However, it also marked the beginning of darker clouds gathering over our little paradise. Our minds grew louder than our hearts, dismissing tensions silently brewing.

One significant tension was that most members in the organization did not want legal ownership of the company. Then questions began to arise regarding the actual power of the organizational purpose. Since it was just words, open to interpretation, we started seeking common ground in our understanding of it, which created uncertainty and frustration.

In no time, we found ourselves reverting to a power relationship based on knowledge, assuming that only a few people had clarity about the meaning of the purpose. Silos began to form, relationships weakened, and collaboration, creativity, and productivity started to decline. We attempted to align our language to operate on common ground.

Building on this, we swiftly moved to align perspectives and eventually belief systems, unintentionally overlooking individuality and diversity. I felt the disconnection growing, but I tried to suppress that feeling for a while, as my mind still convinced me we were onto something amazing. Undoubtedly, we had the best intentions all along.

However, our belief in our great purpose started to overshadow our individual needs and intuition more and more. As my feelings intensified, I began to question, but eventually realized, after weeks of repeatedly doing so, that I was fighting against something that shouldn't be fought. The bubble we had created was so strong, holding onto the belief that we knew more than others, that I eventually gave in.

I didn't realize how far I had disconnected from myself until the day of the role handover. Upon entering the office, I couldn't even bring myself to open my laptop. Feeling like I couldn't breathe properly, I asked my team to join me outside for the meeting in the garden. However, even that didn't provide relief. I broke down, feeling as though everything around me was blurry and distant, and I knew I had burnt out. It was time to let go and walk away. I couldn't make sense of what had happened.

Didn't I have it all?

Looking back and forward

It’s been two and a half years now, and I am filled with gratitude for our journey. We pushed the envelope, experimented, succeeded, stumbled, and learned so much. At the end of the day, it was a conscious choice to push ourselves so far. But one thing I know for sure: everything happened with the best intentions, even though it did not turn out the way we imagined.

Reflecting on our journey today, several crucial lessons have emerged, shaping not only our organizational evolution but also my personal growth:

  1. Purpose as a catalyst: Our commitment to reshaping the oil and gas industry stemmed from a deep-seated purpose, demonstrating the transformative power of a shared vision. However, we learned that purpose alone cannot sustain a complex organizational structure without fostering open dialogue and embracing diverse perspectives.
  2. Navigating organizational models: Embracing frameworks like Holacracy and transitioning to a For-Purpose Enterprise (FPE) expanded our horizons but also highlighted the need to understand the nuances of each model. While noble in their approach to governance and ownership, these models require ongoing adaptation and reflection to remain effective, as each organization is a unique social system with different needs.
  3. Clarity in purpose alignment: As we pursued deeper purpose alignment, interpreting and operationalizing our organizational purpose posed challenges. This underscored the importance of transparent communication and collective understanding to prevent ambiguity. Ultimately, an organizational purpose should align with solving a market problem and sustaining profitability, while personal purposes remain individual and unique and should not be intervened.
  4. Balancing individual needs and organizational goals: Amidst our pursuit of a grand vision, we realized the significance of prioritizing personal well-being alongside organizational objectives. Maintaining harmony between individual aspirations and collective goals requires regular self-reflection and a commitment to cultivating balance. It’s sometimes easier to believe in something that may feel bigger than ourselves.
  5. Consciousness and belief systems: At the end of the day, it is not about aspiring to a certain level of consciousness; it is simply about our belief system to do good. Our journey highlighted the power of aligning beliefs with actions to drive meaningful change.

In closing, our experiment with purpose-driven organizational design was not without its trials and tribulations. Yet, it served as a catalyst for profound introspection and growth, both individually and collectively, underscoring the importance of continuous learning and adaptation in our ever-evolving organizational landscape.

I am excited to see what the next story to share will be because, at the end of the day, I would always choose the adventure of experimentation and pushing the boundaries, not knowing where it will lead us.

Written by Tine Bieber
Tine Bieber
A self-employed professional, offering services for communication, projects, interim roles, or consultancy in self-management, New Work, and organizational design.
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