By Michel Hogan
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 the websites of organisations.
I should be doing cartwheels.
Purpose has been central to my message to organisations about their identity and brand result for nearly 20 years. So why am I uneasy when it finally starts to hit the mainstream?
The answer is two-fold.
First is the idea being peddled — that having a purpose somehow makes me ‘good’. Like authentic, it is a kind of brinkmanship. ‘Well, of course, we’re a better organisation, look we have a purpose.’
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 an ‘I’m better than you are’ playground conceit.
But beware, as noted by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in the seminal 1994 book Built to Last:
“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.)
Which brings me to my second concern. The idea that purpose is a kind of panacea; a magic statement to cure what ails you. And sure, it’s important. But there’s a much bigger story in 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 think if your purpose is missing the bigger story, you’re better off not having one and instead maintaining a disciplined focus on 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 employees, customers and other stakeholders how your purpose is demonstrated to them. If they can’t immediately give you 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 the work, the everyday unheroic actions and decisions, that purpose shows its mettle.
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 what the words mean? 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.
This article was first published on SmartCompany, and this updated version can be found in the upcoming book “The Unheroic Work.”
Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep.