I am amazed (amused?) about how often ‘Purpose’ (or other such words) is being put forward at the moment as THE thing, and from just about every management thinker/ business article I am coming across.
- John Seddon’s ‘Purpose, from the customer’s point of view’
- Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with why’ to inspire others
- Clayton Christensen’s ‘Job to be done’… the higher purpose – the human need you are trying to fulfil
- Aaron Dignan’s ‘Purpose as the no. 1 element’ of an organisation’s operating model, with everything else (process, product, people) nested within
…and on and on
I am absolutely sold that it should be all about purpose…and I would expect that you are as well…but why does this obvious point need to be said?
Note that the aim of the system (which, to be clear, “should always relate to a better life for everyone”) was THE starting point for W. Edwards Deming i.e. there is nothing really new in this…and the fact that it is being constantly re-stated and re-framed suggests that we don’t properly understand the underlying point!
Are we stating the obvious (again) and then just paying it lip service? What does it actually mean to be focused on purpose?
I went looking for the purpose statement of the company I work for when I was writing a course recently and was really pleased to come across a crisp, clear and (to me) totally relevant purpose statement on our intranet.
It set out the purpose of our two primary value streams. It’s worth reflecting that it doesn’t talk about the method or the results…just why we are here:
- it’s not about selling things or retaining business;
- it’s not about market share or size;
- it’s not about leakage, efficiency ratios or returns on investment
- it’s not about awards, bonuses and other carrot dangling;
- it’s not about the rating and ranking of our people;
- it’s not actually about customer advocacy scores…though some valid (and undistorted) capability measures of satisfaction levels would provide an indication as to how we are doing against our purpose in the eyes of the customer.
If an organisation has a purpose, but is struggling to move towards it, then we might question why this is so. Note that a command-and-control management system replaces the actual purpose of ‘serve customer’ (as generically written) with the de facto purpose of ‘make targets’…which end ups clashing with/ defeating the actual purpose.
I believe that I would struggle to find the well-written purpose statement being actively/ obviously used within the business: to manage our two primary value streams, to guide and challenge our decisions, to measure our capability against.
Instead, I see a lot that is used to command-and-control the method within. We shouldn’t have to re-state our purpose, we shouldn’t have to chase new ways of saying the same thing….our purpose should be within our DNA!
We need our management system to enable our people to be motivated by this purpose, not frustrate them.
Command-and control constrains. Being truly focused on purpose liberates method!
As a final thought, you might ask ‘so what if a business is clear on its purpose and has a management system that allows people to continuously work towards it…what about me?!’
To tie organisational purpose back to us as human beings, note that Victor Frankl wrote in his classic book ‘Man’s search for meaning’:
“The greatest need of the human being is for a sense of meaning and purpose in life”
If an organisation states its purpose clearly (a good start) but then pays it lip service, it is missing out on the phenomenal potential of providing its people with meaning in their work….imagine what could be achieved if all your people (and you) wanted to come to work, not for the money, but for themselves!