Don’t make your purpose a headline without a story

Purpose is the new black. Every time I turn around I see a new headline or article on the topic. We are a “purpose driven company” is pasted across organisation’s websites.

I should be doing cartwheels.

Purpose has been central to my message to organisations about their core identity and resulting brand for nearly 20 years. So why, when it finally starts to hit the mainstream, am I so uneasy?

The answer is two-fold.

First is the idea being peddled — that having a purpose somehow makes me “good”. Like authentic before it, it is used as a kind of brinksmanship. “Well, of course, we’re a better organisation, look we have a purpose.”

Many organisations have always had a purpose. You just might not like what it was or is. In the currently hyped environment around purpose, it doesn’t take much for it to transform into a kind of “I’m better than you are” playground conceit.

But beware, as noted in the seminal 1994 book Built to Last, “the extent to which a company attains consistent alignment with the ideology counts more than the content of the ideology”.

To learn how purpose is a puzzle solved over time click here.

Which brings me to my second point. The idea that purpose is a kind of panacea; a magic statement that will cure what ails you. And sure, it’s important, but there’s a much bigger story about how it’s used and for what. And without the rest of the story, purpose is the equivalent of pulp fiction. Something to generate a short-term buzz but forgotten the moment you finish the book.

I’ll go so far as to say if your purpose is missing the bigger story, you’re better off not having one and focusing on being disciplined about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Want to know if you’re one of those organisations? Take a few minutes and ask team members and customers how your purpose is demonstrated to them. If they can’t immediately give your two or three examples, then you’ve got work to do.

It’s easy to feel like you’ve done the work once you get through the process of defining the purpose. Box ticked. Time to get back to work. But it’s in work, the everyday rumble of actions and decisions, that purpose earns its mantle.

Do you actively use purpose every day? Can anyone who works for you tell you what it is, and not just recite the words, but tell you the meaning of them? Is it the place you start when you have problems to solve? Is it the engine driving new ideas? Does it show up in what you do and how you do it?

Purpose is not a panacea. But when it’s something you care about and deeply embed across the organisation, your purpose has the power to help you succeed.

See you next week.

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