Any living thing has a purpose. It’s to live. Any organ in your body is continuously working towards one aim and that is to keep you alive. Being alive is a purpose in itself for any amoeba, worm, tree or human.
Through the role that we play in our environment, we also have a second purpose towards that environment. In relation to breathing creatures, a tree’s purpose is to transform carbon into oxygen. In relation to my children, I am a caregiver; in relation to my clients my purpose is to make it easier to learn things that are important for their business success; a bee's purpose towards a field of almond trees is to pollinate them.
Things that are created by humans to do something for them - machines, mechanisms, etc. only have that second purpose. Their purpose is not to be AND to play a productive role in it’s environment. Machines are only useful as long as they achieve the goals that they were built to achieve. A computer with a broken hard-drive does not compute. A car with a broken engine might still provide shelter, but it won’t drive you anywhere.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, wrote that “The purpose of business-purpose is to both run better companies, and to run companies better”.
I think what he is referring to here is the distinction between purpose to the outside and purpose to the inside. It comes to no surprise that a company's focus on the purpose it has in the lives of their community is going to facilitate their success greatly. Any endeavour that is purely focussed on making it’s shareholders a great chunk of money is short-lived. (Although it is depressingly frustrating to see how many companies are out there that do exactly this at great success). This is what, I think, Branson meant when he spoke of ‘run better companies’. Being embedded into your context and aware how you can play a role in serving others is going to make your company a better company.
“Running companies better” then refers to the purpose towards the inside. If you think of your company as a living organism, keeping it alive and making sure that it IS alive becomes as important to daily operations than anything else. Just like a dead bee isn’t going to pollinate any trees, a company that is ‘dead inside’ isn’t going to become a truly great contributor to it’s environment.
Companies that are working in the ‘Machine Paradigm’, or Mechanistic Organisations, are built to serve an outside purpose only - may that be the provision of services or the manufacturing of products.
Companies that are working in the ‘Organism Paradigm’ see themselves as alive, as an ecosystem of human beings that deserve to be seen and treated as humans. In fact, often their explicit purpose is to be alive; to be a great environment for their members to flourish and have an enriching and sustainable space for doing meaningful work. And by ‘being alive’ they can’t help themselves of quite automatically achieve their ‘outside purpose’ as well. Humans have an intrinsic need for their work to have meaning, and what is more meaningful than to know that what you do benefits your community, solves real problems of real people and ultimately is ‘purposeful’.
I’m pretty confident that this is quite close to what Richard Branson meant when he said “running companies better”.