There’s a lot of current focus on organizational meaning. Most technology companies today – from two person startups to 100K employee behemoths – have a publicly stated purpose. And many are transparent about their values.
Further, there are numerous researchers and observers – including Shawn Achor and Patrick Lencioni – who pour through applied positive psychology and organizational health data, generally concluding that happily aligned companies do better. Folks like Bob Buford also encourage us to think about our “one thing” that clarifies our quest to live a life of significance.
While organizations are complex collective organisms (for more on this, read the classic The Living Company by Arie de Geus), I would argue that clarity and alignment of purpose is the most important single factor that contributes to growth.
First, a bit of a step back on purpose versus meaning. Purpose is generally embedded in a thing by definition. The purpose of a table is to hold the food, drink and other items we consume. Meaning, however, is placed on an object via human experience. The Eileen Gray 1927 adjustable table on display at the MOMA is beautiful because we connect with the essence of what the artist was conveying: modern, multi-purpose simplicity is profound.
Ideally, organizations would aspire to meaning. But given how challenging it can be to align purpose for a collection of humans serving a market (i.e. a company), I generally recommend that meaning is a second order exercise (and/or something that advanced individuals and work teams strive for).
Don't feel saddened by not striving for meaning out of the gate. Purpose works. From personal experience, I loved the journey that we took while building high-growth companies like Motive and Pluck.
With Motive in the early 2000s, I was energized while helping people attain and maintain broadband connections. Via our activation, provisioning and support solutions, delivered via telcos and cable companies around the world, I felt like we were transforming personal connections and productivity. Broadband was literally life-changing for those who were previously stuck in a dial-up existence.
Later in the 2000s and 2010s at Pluck, our purpose became one of helping content companies open up, enabling journalism to become conversational and participative. By equipping publishers like USA Today and NPR to accessorize their content with integrated community experiences, we both aided mainstream social media and provided new channels for listening, dialogue and growth.
Data backs up my examples. For instance, Deloitte Consulting has found that 82% of people who agree they work for an organization with a strong sense of purpose are confident that their organization will grow this year (compared to 48% who do not have a strong sense of purpose). Further, these employees believe their company will outperform competitors (79% vs. 47%).
Key people are needed to fuel long-term growth. Towers Watson has found that employees who align with their organization’s sense of meaning and significance are three-times as likely to stay with their company.
So, how do you find your company’s purpose? Or, if like many companies you feel that your purpose needs an upgrade, where do you begin?
John Baldoni would offer that you start with vision, mission, and values.
- Vision is your big dream, your aspiration, how you see yourself changing the world for the better in the future. It’s the “why” of the company.
- Mission captures the “what” of the firm. At your core, what are you here to do?
- Values are the behaviors that you care deeply about. They enforce the actions and measurements that drive your business.
To articulate a new vision, mission and values, consider creating a small task force. Encourage the team to use various collaboration techniques (such as Post-It Note word play) to openly develop concepts. Move fast and iterate rapidly. Realize that your values probably should be somewhat controversial in order to be memorable. Think about also using a mnemonic such as a phrase or acronym to foster repeatability.
From your vision, mission and values, you can set out on your quest to articulate a new purpose. Getting your purpose statement right is generally really, really hard. In my experience across multiple organizations, purpose statements (including many that I attempted to write!) were often cliché, full of jargon, unoriginal, not inspiring or several combinations of these. Like poetry and song lyrics, they require multiple revs and lots of crumpled and discarded attempts.
To create a purpose statement that is authentic and impactful, pursue a leadership-driven exercise, possibly with outside perspectives. A third party can help guide the process and serve as a neutral influence, especially as things can become heated with teams that care deeply.
Assuming you’ve gotten your purpose in place, what’s next? Integration and repetition. You’ll want to drive your purpose in to logical and unexpected places. And you’ll want to repeat, repeat and repeat some more what your purpose is and what it means.
In my work, I've repeatedly seen how quickly people forget purpose and how often they can become cynical if they sense that purpose is mere platitude rather than the core essence of an organization.
So, make sure that you and the team “walk-the-walk” on purpose, vision, mission and values. Remind yourself regularly what they are and think about novel and authentic ways to incorporate them in to your work, including alignment with objectives, strategies and tactics.
Becoming a purposeful company is hard work. But the potential rewards around engagement and growth make the effort well worth it. Plus it's fun to change the world with energized, purposeful colleagues!