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

It’s 9am on a Tuesday and gathered around the table is a smattering of people from executive and management ranks with one task: come up with the purpose statement. The scene plays out thousands of times a day across all kinds of organisations with varying degrees of success. And for many, the words are the stumbling block.

Purpose language is a high stakes game. Get the words ‘right’, and you can inspire the troops to great feats. Get them ‘wrong’, and you risk ridicule or worse indifference. So why are a few words such a struggle to find? And are the words really the problem?

The short answer is no.

Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Side note – I couldn’t find a verified source for the quote, but the sentiment holds true.  

And there is only one way to understand something, especially something like purpose. Make the time and space to think and talk about it until you reveal all the bright lights and dark corners. It is deep work, the kind our hustle-driven work-scape makes little room for.

In a post from a few years ago about deep work I noted:

It’s exploring and understanding what the foundations of purpose and values are for your organisation, not stopping until you’re clear on what they are. No matter how long it takes.

If you haven’t done the work, the words will stay hidden. And that work doesn’t happen in a session, a week or even a year. It took Patagonia over a decade to land their mission statement.

To learn more about deep work and brand click here.

The famous route for finding purpose is to ask ‘why?’. Why are we here? Why do we get out of bed in the morning? Five ‘whys’. Over the past few years, I’ve realised that while you are trying to understand ‘why’, it isn’t a helpful question to get you there.

Yes, asking questions is the right path. However, as Chris Voss notes in his terrific book Never Split the Difference, ‘‘why’ questions feel like an accusation, not an enquiry. And that’s before you even get to the existential angst bought on by asking ‘why?’.

Instead, try two alternatives I use to get the purpose ball rolling: what do you care about, or what is most important to you? With the emphasis on most.

They tackle the purpose thing from different points, and one will likely resonate more depending on your wiring. Whether you do it alone or as a group, spending some time asking and answering either question will help get you to a place where simple is possible. Where those pesky purpose words flow.

So if you’re struggling with your purpose take a step back and ask yourself: are the words the problem or are we murky on what we’re trying to say? If it’s the latter, then you know what to do.

See you next week.

NOW READ: So you’ve found your purpose. Now the actual work begins


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