The Purpose of Purpose (20.10-2)

Posted by on Oct 9, 2020 in Strategy

The aftermath of recent pandemic lockdowns has given a number of organisations the opportunity of taking time to consider their strategic intent. With a lull in the daily grind and a growing uncertainty as to what is “normal”, the chance to think about the future and how they better prepare for that has appeared on the radar; for some, it’s not before time. For all, it’s what should be on their minds constantly anyway.

My role in this is generally to facilitate the discussion and to corral them into unanimous agreement of what their future will look like, so that operational plans, actions, goals, objectives can be established to achieve that future-state. More often than not I can’t help myself to stay objective and launch in to the discussion too.

The US-management thinking of the 1980s and 1990s required great, excellent, aspiring, entrepreneurial, leading-edge organisations to craft and articulate their reason for existence in a cascade of aspirational and thoughtful visions, mission statements, strategic goals, supported by business plans that provided step-by-step actions and metrics against which the “doers” would be measured. In many cases this approach has enabled a lucrative income stream for authors providing guidance on the appropriateness of the hierarchical structure of these components, and how best to develop the thinking. Often the results were so vague and aspirational (“be the leaders in…”, “the fastest growing…”. “….of choice”…) that, while they sounded incredibly new-age and foundationally propelling, there was little understanding of what they actually meant, or how they could be assessed.

These days I am more intent on paring this back to basics with strategic workshops focused, initially, on one question: “What are you here for?”  Of course we need to step through the personal agendas and interests to get to the collective purpose of the entity. Once that is settled we can articulate that in a clean, uncluttered, and mutually understood expression through a statement of Purpose. The ideal is that it is single-sentenced and, where needed, accompanied with an explanation that moves forward through the organisation with governance, executive and staff changes.  The test for its effectiveness and efficiency is always to get to the point where a dusty plan doesn’t have to be dug out to remember the words and intent of this reason for being. It should be so clearly embedded in the minds that its articulation requires no further explanation or, if it does, it’s the same explanation provided across and through the organisation.

Strategic actions (“how, exactly, do we fulfil our purpose?”) cascade from this statement, and every opportunity or decision is then made with reference to the alignment of that purpose. Well, that sounds quite basic, you say, and it is, or at least it should be, but appears to be seldom practised. It goes with the rider that we should routinely check in our Purpose to agree its currency, applicability and relevance. It also goes with the rider that there can be some pain in getting to a corporate consensus on purpose – that’s the skill of facilitation.