“The push and pull of purpose”: Why an organisation’s good intentions will always be bad for someone

Australian economy

I’m a huge fan of purpose to help ground and guide organisations. And it is not a recent thing.

Purpose has been around for generations, even if it wasn’t explicitly called that. Nor is the purpose anything anyone outside the organisation should get to judge. (The problems created when purpose gets used as a kind of meta-marketing tool is a whole other article.)

But judge it they do, leading to a kind of tyranny. More and more organisations appear forced to choose a specific type of purpose, irrespective of what they truly care about. An organisation is deemed legitimate only if it is ‘good’, usually asserting some kind of social good.

An attendee at a recent talk I gave about the brand formula commented he thought purpose needed to be “good”. And he’s far from alone. Good for who and by whose assessment is less clear. Layered onto the judgement is the uncomfortable distinction of organisations as purposeful, purpose-led, purpose-driven. I often wonder what an ‘unpurposeful’ one might be.

Before you answer, consider that just because the reward doesn’t reward you, or people you deem worthy, doesn’t make the organisation unpurposeful or mean their purpose is ‘bad’. Likewise just because you approve of what the organisation does with their profits, doesn’t make it ‘good’.

A purpose is defined merely as ‘the reason for which something exists’. Note the absence of the word ‘good’.

Purpose as an entity is blind. And any purpose can turn toxic unless the organisation is wired to deliver on what it says. It is the dark side of a purpose pursued wearing good coloured glasses.

In the seminal 1994 book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras talk about purpose as part of an organisations core ideology.

They observe: The critical issue is not whether the company has the ‘right’ core ideology or a ‘likeable’ core ideology but rather whether it has a core ideology — likeable or not — that gives guidance and inspiration to people inside that company.” (Author’s emphasis in bold.)

In today’s overheated purpose economy, the very idea a purpose is not ‘likeable’ is tantamount to heresy. Jim Collins adds to the research findings in How the Mighty Fall“Whenever people begin to confuse the nobility of their cause with the goodness and wisdom of their actions — ‘We’re good people in pursuit of a noble cause, and therefore our decisions are good and wise’ — they can perhaps more easily lead themselves astray. Bad decisions made with good intentions are still bad decisions.”

That last line is worth repeating. “Bad decisions made with good intentions are still bad decisions.” Or to put it another way, a purpose is neither good nor bad but doing makes it so.

Everywhere I look, organisations struggle with the push and pull of purpose. Actions and decisions benefit one group only to harm another. The ripples can be hard to predict.

Lowest prices are lovely for consumers with limited means, much less so for the suppliers and workers behind the scenes. Access to anything anytime delivered to your door seems super, but much less so for the people running through vast warehouses assembling your order. Giving a pair of shoes to a child in need when you buy a pair feels virtuous, less so for the local manufacturing economies left struggling by the influx.

Purpose of any intending is not a panacea. What organisations do with their purpose is where scrutiny belongs.

To break the tyranny of a ‘good’ purpose, care more about the “guidance and inspiration to people inside that company” and far less what anyone else thinks. And if anyone from outside judges the content of your purpose, ignore them.

Make it a purpose to withstand the test of time. Take a minute and don’t rush into what it is. Be messy for a while. Do stuff and get a feel for what you really care about so when you get there it sticks.

Make it a purpose people can and know how to use. This is where the purpose rubber meets the road. Spend the time to get clarity and then rigorously apply what you care about in the everyday unheroic actions and decisions.

A purpose is neither good nor bad, doing makes it so. So how’s yours doing?

See you next week.

NOW READ: Can startups achieve world domination with purpose?

NOW READ: Struggling with your purpose statement? The words are not the problem


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