WhartonBC have co-authored this paper in collaboration with Mark Griffin MBE
In our previous article, the first of our three part series, we explained that in order for purpose to drive performance, a company needed a purpose that was authentic, aligned and advanced. These are the components that enable a company to engage its people in realising their potential, collectively attaining peak performance and delivering meaningful social impact. Understanding this is critical to putting purpose into action, as our next article will explore. But, if your company doesn’t yet have a clearly defined purpose, how do you discover it and then articulate it in a way that resonates and is clearly understood? To clearly articulate your company’s purpose we recommend using our Purpose Discovery Model which provides a simple methodology for leaders to implement, along with our 5 characteristics of an effective purpose statement.
Discovering your purpose
Firstly, it is important to state that every company has a purpose, just as every individual has a purpose. Also, that unless a company is in the process of forming, the purpose can’t be designed, imposed and effectively implemented, thereafter. To be clear, a purpose can be effectively implemented at any stage in a company’s existence but first it has to be unearthed, i.e. discovered.
Secondly, purpose needs to be people driven. In other words, is has to be real, alive, something employees exhibit & embrace. While it may not be realistic that every employee will be actively demonstrating the company’s purpose, it is fair to suggest that the most effective purposes would be those that demonstrate common good through collective input. As a result, discovering a company’s purpose, starts with engaging its people in that process. While it may be logical to start with leadership, it needs to embrace every level within the organisation to reflect the reality of the organisational system and, in our work, would also include key organisational stakeholders external to the company itself. Further, given the critical contribution people play in discovering, defining and delivering the company purpose – in our work – we spend time not only discovering company purpose but also individual purpose. We firmly believe that in order to attain and sustain peak performance, a company needs to be operating at the intersection of both.
Lastly, before we dig into the process, it is important to consider purpose within the broader context of the company’s brand promise. While there are various frameworks and methodologies to this, there clearly needs to be alignment between the company’s purpose, mission, vision, values, principles, ambitions and operating priorities. So, the purpose discovery model outlined below should be conducted alongside a review of, or at least, with reference to this brand promise.
So how do you discover purpose?
Essentially, discovering purpose is like discovering most things below the surface – you ask a series of what and why open questions, to dig deep. We have a range of questions we typically use (although we also encourage you to come up with your own), but to help ensure you’re asking the right questions, you need a game plan. Our model has been adapted from the Japanese concept of Ikigai which stands for ‘reason for being’, which was recently popularised in a book entitled Ikigai The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. For reference, the individual model is widely available online (type Ikigai, search by image) and forms the basic structure for our Company Purpose Discovery Model, below:
So, where do you begin? Start by asking the 4 headline questions, which frame the process of ‘dig-deeper’ questioning you would undertake:
- 1) What do we love?
- 2) What impact do we want to leave in the world?
- 3) What drives our profit?
- 4) What are we best at?
As the model demonstrates, there are three levels of intersecting circles but only in the last are all four components overlapping (let’s call this Level 3 – the bullseye at the centre of the model). Level 3 of the model therefore represents the company’s purpose. It is here, at the centre where that is the epicentre of experiences through which employees individually realise their potential, and collectively, the company attains peak performance and delivers meaningful social impact.
As it is helpful for designing your discovery questions, the other two levels of intersection, as described in the model are worth understanding further, too:
Level One (two intersecting circles): These four intersections reflect employees’ passion, the meaning they derive from the work, the company mission (what and how you do what you do) and the value you deliver to your clients or customers. So, thinking of questions, workshop activities, practical examples, experiences and memories that represent these areas is a good second level of questioning to undertake.
Level Two (three intersecting circles): This is where things get tricky because at this level, the company is so close, certainly demonstrating some valuable benefits whether it be to employees, owners, customers or society but not being in a position to sustain that benefit or satisfy all its key stakeholders, because one thing is missing. This is where questioning can become more specific and also where there is material value from engaging multiple levels of employees and a selection of key organisational stakeholders. We are firm believers in the value of collaboration in discovering purpose.
Now, once you have discovered the magic and essence of your purpose, you want to do it justice by clearly articulating it. It should go without saying that it needs to meet the AAA Purpose test from our last article. Moreover, by focusing on each of these 5 characteristics, it should do your discovery work, full justice.
So how do you articulate your purpose? The 5 characteristics of an effective purpose statement
Because purpose has gained popularity primarily as a marketing tool, there are a lot of resources available on how to effectively articulate purpose. So rather than belabour the point, our succinct approach favours a purpose statement that is:
- Inspirational – it acts as a connector and catalyst to building a community and /or movement;
- Relevant – it should reflect how you operate your business and interact with your stakeholders;
- Actionable – it should guide the future direction;
- Enduring – while the statement itself may be updated / refined over time, the underlying spirit and philosophy should remain consistent;
- Memorable – it should be short and impactful enough for people to be able to recollect and recite.
When purpose is being applied to a specific product or brand, some marketers and agencies would make an argument for it being unique. That’s a point that can be debated. However, we would argue that for the company’s core purpose – a unique purpose is not a priority. How the company differentiates itself can be articulated further through the mission, vision, values and strategic marketing. How the purpose is delivered and brought to life such as way the company treats its people, how it drives profit through a value proposition and many other elements may (and should) also, be unique. What’s most important however, is that the purpose meets the AAA Test, has been discovered through a thoughtful and inclusive process and it meets the 5 characteristics outlined above.
What are some great examples of organisational purpose that have been deeply embedded?
While we have not led these companies through our Company Purpose Discovery Model directly, we are confident they each went through their own comprehensive and inclusive deep dive, to discover and articulate their purpose:
- AirBnB: ‘Creating a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’
- Tesla: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”
- Allbirds: “Making better things in a better way”
- Patagonia: “We’re in business to save our home planet,”
- CocaCola: “Refresh the world. Make a difference.”
- LinkedIn: “Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.”
Much has been written about how these companies have embedded their purpose in everything they do, using it to drive performance. This is exactly where our third and final article focuses, as we look forward to sharing with you how to integrate purpose to drive towards peak performance. In the meantime, please share this article with anyone who you think it would benefit and please send your comments or questions to Liz Hirst or Mark Griffin.
 Authors Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles (2017).
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