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Octopus: optimism on warp drive

23 Jun 2023

One of the questions I’m very lucky to be asked quite frequently is ‘Why has Octopus been so successful?’. My answer is always the same. It’s our people. 

But one lady went one step further last week and asked me what it was about Octopus people that made them so special. It’s not talent, IQ or creativity (in my view these are all traits that are overrated by companies – there are millions of smart, talented and creative people to choose from). There is, however, one ingredient that is consistently overlooked and that’s optimism.

Octopus people are inherently optimistic. And this optimism acts like a happiness magnet. It draws people in and becomes the fuel that allows us to believe that something is possible.

Some of our people are clearly more optimistic than others. But I think we all have an obligation to be optimistic. For one simple reason. Good things don’t happen by accident. The computer didn’t just appear, and nor did women’s suffrage. We have to picture good things, we have to imagine them and then we have to make them happen. That, to me, is optimism.

I’ve thought quite a bit about the ingredients that underpin optimism. I think there are five of them.

The first is kindness.

It’s far easier to be optimistic and to believe in a better future when you’re surrounded by people who are kind. 

The second ingredient is patience.

We live in a world which is very short termist. Today’s news cycle, for example, is measured in minutes and that generally makes it quite depressing. Largely because it’s bad things that tend to happen very quickly. Good things, on the other hand, take a long time – just imagine how different the papers would be if they only came out once every ten years. Being optimistic requires long-term thinking. 

The third ingredient is resilience

Optimism doesn’t mean that everything will be plain sailing. In fact, far from it. Countless things will go wrong but it’s how you respond to the setbacks that’s important. 

The next ingredient is belief

There are very few things I agree with Trump on but here’s one ‘If you’re going to be thinking anyway you may as well think big’. I don’t want Octopus to make a little dent. Amazon, for example, didn’t wake up dreaming of building a business a quarter of the size of Walmart. And neither should Octopus. We need to think big but we also need to believe in better. 

We can’t ever rest thinking that we’ve reached the high water mark of progress. There is so much more that needs to be sorted out. We don’t want historians of the future looking back and saying that we just seemed to give up in 2023. 

My final point is that optimism requires a sense of belonging

And that’s extremely difficult in today’s society. The rise of individualism, and social media, and the decline in the commitment to the common good is a fundamental flaw in the world in which we live. While we’re theoretically more connected than we’ve ever been, we’ve practically never been lonelier. The problem is that the traditional organisations we used to belong to are struggling. Our sense of patriotism and our trust in our leaders has all but disappeared. Religion doesn’t offer the same sanctuary for as many people. And the increased divorce rate and general mobility means that families are now split up all over the world. And we become pessimistic when we don’t have the armchair of community and belief to support us. 

But I think there’s a solution and it’s been staring us all in the face. Just take a step back for a minute and think about a question you’ll be asked hundreds of times over your life – ‘what do you do?’.

It’s one of the first questions we ask strangers. Largely because it helps us place people and to understand them – and that’s because what we choose to do is a big part of who we are. 

Increasingly we don’t actually want to know someone’s job title or what they actually do in their day. We want to know which company they’ve chosen to work for. Because it’s a statement about what they believe in and how they’d like to see the world in the future. 

In good company

The word ‘company’ actually comes from the French word ‘compagnie’ meaning “society, friendship, intimacy, body of soldiers”. It’s about like-minded people doing something together. 

This, in my view, is the answer. This is what people should belong to. There are 333 million companies in the world and everyone should find their company – a company that shares their values and allows them to be part of a purpose that they’re proud of. 

To retain this sense of belonging every company needs to be very clear about the kind of company it is and what it stands for. For Octopus, this is inherently linked to our mission – ‘to invest in the people, the ideas and the industries that will change the world.’ 

In our case, this requires a huge dollop of optimism. We need to believe that we can come together and fix some of the things that are broken in society. We need to believe that we can create a culture in which people work hard because they believe in what they’re doing and they won’t fear failure. 

Agents of change documentary series

Over the last few months, a small team of us have been working on a series of documentaries showcasing some of the things Octopus gets up to. These episodes explore some of the world’s biggest problems and shine a light on the entrepreneurs and who are society’s true agents of change, on a mission to solve these problems.

There are six documentaries in total and I hope they’ll demonstrate that Octopus and its people are a profoundly optimistic and hopeful company. We see what’s going on in the world around us, we roll up our sleeves and we try and make the world better. And we know that if we get this right, our optimism will act like a magnet. For employees and for customers. 

Personally, I’d love Octopus to be the kind of company that wakes up wanting to change things for the better. To help build a more humane world. A world that treats us all the same whatever the label that society sticks to our forehead. We just need to believe, and to belong.

The first episode of the Agents of Change series is now live!

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