In his book Good to Great Jim Collins talks about the critical need for organisations to have faith that they will prevail. He says that in order to prevail and survive you must look at the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
I want to talk about the “faith” part of that equation – the brutal facts side of things is a story for another article. If you aren’t familiar with the equation he calls the Stockdale Paradox you can find out more here.
Unlike Jim Collins, Bon Jovi isn’t known for sage business advice, but with the title of the group’s hit song Keep the Faith I think they are onto something.
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So what’s the faith I’m talking about?
In a nutshell it’s your purpose, the reason you started whatever it was in the first place. It really doesn’t matter what your organisation is or does.
Profit, non-profit, social business, sole trader, private, public – behind them all is some kind of purpose, that all elusive why.
There’s no argument that the why matters because helps to get others to come along with you. It guides getting bigger and getting smaller, and it shapes products and services.
It drives distribution and delivery, and it is often the last man standing to help to get you through tough times.
Every great organisation has run into times when the why was about the only thing it had going for it but in the end it was keeping faith in that purpose that got them through.
The corporate landscape is littered with crazy believers, many of whom were told by others who knew better to forget their why – to give it up.
Their names are as well known as our own – Apple, Starbucks, Intel, Zappos. It’s a list that could go on and on.
When you are trying to get going or even when you’ve been going a while it can seem like there’s a line of people out the door ready and willing to tell you you’re wrong, that there is a better way to do things and that they know what will work.
In that process your faith often gets stripped away and your purpose gets forgotten.
Don’t do it. Trust in what you started, trust that you know why you are doing things, even if others can’t see it and everything hasn’t quite fallen into place yet.
I’m not saying to ignore all advice. I’m not even saying that by knowing your purpose you will automatically know what you need to do or how to do it. Sometimes things just don’t seem to be working and an outside perspective can be helpful.
You might have a great product, one that solves a problem people don’t care about or want solved. You might have a great idea that’s ahead of its time.
The whats and hows will always evolve and change, and advice can be helpful as you work through that. What you shouldn’t trade in is your why. Stick with that.
And then things start to align. The purpose gets a toehold.
A few people start to support it and they start to tell a few others and suddenly you don’t just have a purpose, you don’t just have a business, you can have the next big thing, a movement – or maybe you have a business that people care enough about to come back to again and again.
Eight years ago I met a small group of young, driven people who seemed slightly nuts about this thing they were working on – something they called “organisational democracy”.
At the time there were few companies working in innovative ways and there was a book called Maverick by a guy from Brazil called Ricardo Semler that described his pretty radical way of approaching business and people management. But it was a long way from being anything most companies would seriously look at, let alone build an organisation around.
Fast forward to today. World Blu CEO and founder Traci Fenton and her team have built not just a business that advises organisations on how to build “organisational democracy” into the way they think and work, but a global movement that attracts the support of companies like Zappos.
I haven’t spoken to Traci in a while, she’s a busy woman these days, but if I were to interview her today I suspect she would say she never lost faith in the purpose – a purpose she frames in their guiding question “What does democracy mean to you and how can it be applied in the workplace in a way that benefits the people, the bottom-line and the world?”
Back in 2004 there were probably more questions than answers about how to get people to buy into this new way of thinking about business. What they would do and how they would do it were a work in progress (and I’m sure continues to change today) but on their why – on what they were and are rock solid.
In a recent article Aesop founder Dennis Paphitis talks about his company and its fanatical attention to detail. A look at the company website quickly reveals the guiding purpose behind that detail is Aesop’s unwavering intention to “create a range of superlative products for skin, hair and body”.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think the use of the word “superlative” was accidental. They could have easily used “great” or any number of other generic terms.
But they chose superlative, a word that means of the highest kind, quality, or order; surpassing all else or others; supreme! That is no shrinking violet of a purpose.
And it is a purpose that appears to be a recipe for success. Despite the struggles of many retailers Aesop’s like-for-like growth in Australia was up 30 per cent.
As Dennis says: ”If you deliver something that is considered and original, and you do so with integrity, there’s always going to be a market.” I couldn’t agree more.
It wouldn’t be an article about keeping the faith if it didn’t contain Patagonia. Of all the business stories I’ve ever read, of all the organisations I’ve studied, Patagonia consistently impresses with its ability to hold onto its purpose and embed it across everything the organisation does and how it does it.
They state their purpose – they call it their mission – as being to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”.
While the clarity of language has evolved over the years the intent of purpose was clear even in the earliest days, when the company was called Chouinard Equipment and made the best quality pitons and other tools for rock climbing.
In his book about the story of Patagonia called Let My People Go Surfing founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard talks about the day he realised the company had grown to a point where he had to get serious about it and become what he has always distanced himself from – he had to become a businessman.
“Since I never wanted to be a businessman I needed a few good reasons to be one,” he said.
“One thing I did not want to change, even if we got serious – work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis. We all had to come to work on the balls of our feet and go up the stairs two steps at a time.
“We needed to be surrounded by friends who could dress whatever way they wanted, even be barefoot. We all needed to have flextime to surf the waves when they were good or ski the powder after a big snowstorm or stay home and take care of a sick child.
“We needed to blur that distinction between work and play and family.”
Again you can see the vivid language used to describe what is important – “come to work on the balls of our feet” is not a dry statement about employee engagement and satisfaction. But does anyone doubt that working there would make you do just that?
Today by all accounts Patagonia is still that place. They want to build the best products and they care about the environment around them and arrive at work on the “balls of their feet” every day to make those two things work together (when they’re not catching waves).
We’re sure Yvon Choinard and Patagonia receive plenty of advice about how they could get bigger and do it better – it is something Choinard mentions in his book.
But secure in their purpose they continue to chart their own paths. On the website is a statement that sums up their formula:
“Staying true to our core values during 30-plus years in business has helped us create a company we’re proud to run and work for, and our focus on making the best products possible has brought us success in the marketplace.”
Not bad, and something any company would be proud to be able to say.
In the beginning and at the end it all comes down to this – every organisation needs a purpose and the more vivid it is the more likely you will use it every day.
The more you use it every day the more you will be willing to defend it and the more you defend it the more likely you will prevail.
But first you’ve got to keep the faith. Not unreasonably. Not to the exclusion of those pesky brutal facts. But in that place in your head and heart you’ve got to keep the faith – and don’t let anyone tell you different.
If you haven’t thought about what faith to keep, if you haven’t thought about your purpose or just haven’t ever written it down it’s never too late or too soon.
If you don’t have any idea where to start or know how to find what it is stay tuned. In coming weeks I’ll follow up this article with some practical ideas to help you find yours.