My first book called Between Making Money and World Peace is about finding your purpose and values. And while some of my thinking about how you do that and the role they play has evolved since I pulled it together. What remains true is most organisations sit somewhere between chasing profit above all else, and saving some part of the world.
To some degree companies of any size have (and need) a bit of both. Without profit (yes even charities and not-for-profits) you can’t keep the lights on. Without a dash of world peace it’s hard to keep people working alongside you. Because it turns out only making bags of money for their overlords isn’t super motivating for many workers if they have a choice to go elsewhere.
My thinking about purpose in particular continues to deepen. A friend recently sent me a web site to look at which reignited questions about the role it realistically plays. The nub of their message and point I stumbled over was purpose as an instrument of rapid transformation for organisations, teams and individuals.
Purpose is necessarily broad and takes the long view. Jim Collins famously set a 30 year’ horizon. But you can also think about it in more immediate terms. An enduring and encompassing ‘what’s most important’. For today, tomorrow and yes in 30 years.
Still, after rumbling with, and observing purpose at work for a few decades I’ve never seen it as a ‘rapid’ tool of anything. Potential to tranform, absolutely. But not as the agent of change.
Which gets me to the crux of my issue with how purpose gets presented in numerous other forums.
It is a motivator not a prime-mover of activity. And even if people know it, understand it, talk about it and genuinely try and bring it into how they do things, there’s little to guarantee the excess energy is available to make required shift and stick with it.
For example, x is a well-established process employees have to use. Everyone knows how it works, what it’s designed to achieve and how it’s measured.
Along comes some purpose motivation.
Now people want to change x. But for people to translate purpose into change, the process and outcome needs to become y, which is a new way of working.
Think ‘no problem, that’s easy’. Not so fast.
Here’s an experiment. Try and change something you usually do.
Maybe try a different supermarket. The result you want to achieve is the same. You want to leave with groceries for dinner. But now the veggie section is on your left. The freezers are down the right side, and who knows where they put the eggs. Even the self-checkout is different.
You wander and eventually find everything on your list. But it takes longer, it’s frustrating to walk up and down looking for things, and it uses too many brain cells for something that used to feel familiar.
At this point, you’ll likely do what our x people do. Return to the previous supermarket (or process) with a grumble about narrow aisles and a sigh of recognition. Sure you were motivated to try the new place, but the whole thing just took much energy (time, effort, resources, etc).
The energy cost of people motivated by purpose (or any other reason for change), switching to y runs into the same problem. Because turning the excitement of a motivating purpose into a change is never easy or rapid. Instead, just as often, it generates lots of jumping up and down in the same spot.
Change requires something to shift, which is where well-meaning advisors, websites and executives come unstuck. Because how quickly people can change what they do is a lot less than gets proposed. Which is a big reason if change happens at all, it’s usually slow and incremental.
By all means, use purpose to motivate people. Just don’t confuse it as the thing that makes change happen. Only people consistently choosing to shift how they do something will do that. So ask yourself, ‘Do they have enough ‘energy’ to make the shift?”
See you next time.
P.S. interested in energy as currency for change? Click here