#SUFutures – What exactly is the point?

It’s been over a decade now since Simon Sinek launched his best-selling book “Start with why”.

In the book (and supporting TED talk) Sinek describes how leaders and organisations become more successful at engaging people with “what” they do, if they have a clear sense of “why” they do it.

The lessons from this work seem to be growing in influence as more organisations – both commercial and not-for-profit – begin to focus around their sense of inner purpose as the key driver for all that they do.

In personal development terms too, understanding our personal “why” appears to be key to providing the kind of deep-rooted focus that we are all craving; making meaning of the work we do and fastening our resolution to make a difference in the world.

When the two collide – purposeful leaders in purpose-led organisations – magic starts to happen. Better still, it finds a way to sweep aside the management jargon of goals, and missions, and visions and all the rest, into a single, simple starting proposition: just why are we doing this thing we do?

Who knows what will happen

The only thing that is certain about the HE sector over the coming years is that the coming years will be uncertain. We may be about to experience a period of turbulence that could have a profound impact on how we all need to work in the future.

We’re not quite sure what the Government’s vision for the sector will be over the next 12 months, let alone the role that they might hope that HE will play in overcoming the challenges we face as a nation. Brexit has happened/is happening/will happen, and could have profound benefits/dire consequences (or something in between) depending on your perspective.

We don’t yet know how much money there will be in the sector 12 months from now, whether some institutions might be allowed to fail, or what choices GenZs will make in the years to come. Locally, like others, our university is developing a new strategy that will need to manage all of these challenges, and as a students’ union we will need to understand how we play our part in this too.

So, heading into this era knowing your organisational why – your inner purpose that inspires and drives you to do this thing we call students’ unions – could be the most profound and strategically-useful thing that you do. And if you consider yourself to be in a purpose-led or campaigning organisation in this space already, there’s all the more reason to do this to make sure that you really are on the right track for your members’ needs.

What we’re doing

At The SU University of Bath we’ve been doing some work with the talented folk of the New Citizenship Project, working through workshops with students and staff to help us articulate our “why”. We found it to be a powerful exercise in its own rite, building from the things students are most proud of whilst part of a community at the University of Bath, and giving us the tools and language that help us focus what we plan to do over the coming years.

But more profoundly still, the clarity we’ve achieved around our purpose is helping us challenge the accepted rules and wisdoms for how we do things. We’re re-considering the stories we tell ourselves about how things have to be done, unpicking the mythologies that have come to govern and dominate our culture in a way that’s become restrictive, inflexible and bureaucratic.

Our “why” has given us the ability and permission to consider how we might go about re-inventing the students’ union for the 21st century. This doesn’t mean ditching the good stuff – but it does mean having a laser-like focus on why we do things, and making sure we’re clear on the kind of impact we hope to achieve.

For example, we’re questioning why we have fixed roles on committees (some of which take 7 by-elections to fill), considering novel approaches to collective intelligence that help students come together to design solutions to problems, dusting off citizens assemblies and might even take up the challenge of re-purposing academic societies to fulfill a wider brief.

Lessons learned

For us there have been some important learnings on the way to developing a new strategy for the SU which is focused on our purpose:

  • Your ‘why’ is not your ‘what’, and if you’ve been through a purpose-articulation process and have just ended up re-articulating ‘what’ you do (e.g. supporting students), then you’ve not understood the idea of purpose at all. It’s also really easy to fall into the trap of thinking ‘we’re naturally purpose-driven campaigning types’ and skip the difficult bit of describing why you get up every morning and skip into work. It’s hard getting to the why, but when you see it articulated you recognise it instantly. It certainly helps having someone who can take a step back and ask challenging questions.
  • Every organisation will have a different ‘why’, even those working in the same sector or the same type of organisation. Each articulation should be based on the unique character of the organisation and its members; there’s really no one-size fits all. Our purpose at The SU University of Bath is rooted in the belief that students want to and can come together to change the communities they are part of for the better. We see this as a positive re-framing of why we’re here. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s ours and we love it.
  • Language itself is vitally important. We use the word ‘cause’ instead of ‘purpose’, and already we’ve started describing things as ‘cause-y’ or not ‘cause-y’ when we’re talking about stuff we do. Similarly, we’re ditching the idea of ‘partnerships’ (which struggle through power imbalances) instead favouring ‘collaborators’ or even ‘allies’ or ‘co-conspirators’, where it’s the ‘idea’ that we can collectively get behind.

As you’d expect, it’s what you do with it really matters. We’re currently strategising about how we re-invent the students’ union for the 21st century, building a mindset around students as citizens rather than consumers, and concentrating on how we shift towards doing things “with” students, rather than “for” them. Our culture needs to shift to do that, none of which is easy or straightforward – but the ride is going to be exciting, and we’re all glad to be part of it. That’s kind of the point.

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