PURPOSE – Strategy is about Purpose

Why is the beginning of all great things, and WHY is the ultimate strategic question that organisations need to answer.

Since his September 2009 TED Talk ‘Start with Why’ Simon Sinek inspired more than 28 million people to date, (making it the third most popular TED video of all time). In the beginning, I had some issues with Simon’s logic and the order in which he addressed things, but I must confess, I’m converted.

Positive Affirmations — Start with WHY. Simon Sinek/TED Talk TED ...

It turns out that asking WHY we exist is not an existential question. It is instead a question that helps us direct our lives and that of our companies because deep down in our hearts each of us know why we must just go and find our own why: uncover it and bring it forward. It should form that basis of all strategic decisions made within the organisation.

We believe that every organisation as part of defining their strategy need to define a PURPOSE, a CAUSE or CAUSES and AIMS. OK, let’s look at each of these statements or artefacts one by one.

Just as any strategic choice misaligned with our own values leads to disaster, a strategic decision that doesn’t align with the values of the organisation is likely to fail!

So one can say that the VALUES of the collective that is the organisation (call it corporate culture if you will), provides the context in which the organisation – through its leadership discover and define the WHY of the organisation.

We call the superordinate WHY of the organisation its PURPOSE!

A well-defined PURPOSE that is understood by all in the organisation is the first step to not failing!

Too often in the past, have value, vision and mission statements been used as a marketing and sales gimmick.  It reminds me of a line years ago in Forbes or Fortune magazine about value statements:- “There is a technical term for a value statement that does not add any value to the organisation, it’s called ‘bullshit’ and even an MBA can smell it!”

The alternative we propose (so does other) is a strategic cascade leading from VALUES, PRINCIPLES, PURPOSE, to CAUSE (CAUSES), and AIMS, rather than the traditional vision, mission, goals approach. Note that these are not just new words for old concepts – they are at their core materially different!

PURPOSE, CAUSES and AIMS need to be understood by everyone in the organisation so that every single individual understands why they are there (and how they make a difference). We also propose that the organisation codifies its VALUES as a set of fundamental organisational PRINCIPLES, which acts as the check or reference for every organisational decision and action.

Organisations are often tempted to use these statements (purpose, causes, aims, values and principles) in any of your marketing and sales bumf. We advise that you fervently resist the urge and stop that from happing.

The sales and marketing gurus will say ‘, but these so succinctly describe who we are and customers should know that’. Our response is this: if your customers don’t know it without you telling it to then, telling them will not make any difference!

Get over it – using these artefacts in this way is sacrilege (you will see why we believe this is a wrong choice in the next few sentences)!

When you talk about anything that is ‘values-based’ – the basic premise is, don’t tell me – show me. Don’t tell me you care, show me you care – the reason we wrote it down is to make sure that everyone that needs to show customers we care, understand that we do, and by extension when they deal with customers they should care!

These statements (and the actions flowing from them) are about the heart of the organisation and intended as inspirational and aspirational statements giving direction to people, and shaping behaviour in the organisation. If you use them wrong, it will be like selling the soul of the organisation, and the moment you do that these statements lose all effectiveness as glue internal to the organisation and something that drives behaviour.

When defining the PURPOSE of the organisation, it needs to be meaningful; some even says it needs to be noble or even massively transformative. Whichever viewpoint you hold, it needs to be meaningful in two ways:

  1. It needs to reflect at least some aspect of the aspirations of the collective we call an organisation, something that everyone believes in and that will unite the organisation behind a supporting cause or causes.
  2. Secondly, it needs to be ambitious but unambiguous and simple!

Here are some examples of great purpose statements (they may not call them that by the way):

  • Organise the world’s information – Google
  • To inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future – Lego
  • Music for everyone – Spotify
  • Ideas worth spreading – TEDx
  • Accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy – Tesla

Also bear in mind that we will in future test every organisational initiative against how it stacks up against and support our PURPOSE and PRINCIPLES!

Your PURPOSE & PRINCIPLES are your organisations EVERYTHING!

Your strategy aims to spot what is keeping your organisation from completely and utterly fulfilling our PURPOSE, and identifying how to plug the gaps or change what you do, to get the job done.

Defining your strategy should be done with conviction, passion, commitment and belief in the PURPOSE of the organisation!

Have you ever wondered by so many large organisation within inordinate amounts of resources often gets their strategy so wrong? Then the next company, which seems to fly by the seat of their pants gets it right, more often than not.

The answer is this one thing detailed analysis does not equate to understanding, hard work and diligence, can and will never replace a passion for what you do because you believe in it!

We also think that there is maybe a second thing rooted in lean and agile philosophy. No one person or even a small group of people will ever understand enough to plan and create the future – we can only do that as a collective that is the organisation, where everyone has a part to play.

Strategy is about seeing where you are while understanding who you (the organisation) are, and what you are here to do, and for whom. Strategy is about dreaming the future – call it envisioning if you like – however you see it, it is aspirational. Your strategy needs to inspire people in the organisation to make it a reality.

If you do this well, you cannot but win. If you just spend your time analysing markets, competitors, products, customers, profit margins, engineering ratios, etc. – no amount of data will help you BE the company that makes the difference!

Remember we are not saying that you should not analyse markets, competitors, products, customers, profit margins, engineering ratios, etc. you have to – all we are saying that it’s not enough.

The reason organisation and organisms have the same root is not incidental; they both have a life of their own. Clinical management may work in good times, but in tough times we need inspirational and principled leaders to get us there!

“Principled leaders are those who articulate their values, make decisions guided by their values, and consistently live their values in a transparent manner, all while clearly adhering to the ethical codes and standards of their environment….. the business world is changing at a pace never seen before, and change demands action based on ethics, insight, and understanding—that’s what principled leadership is all about”

Sarah Mangia – Ohio State University

Now if PURPOSE drives strategy, what do you need to do?

Your strategy should identify gaps between your current reality and what you should be doing to fulfil your purpose; remember this is high-level what not detailed.

You should also evaluate everything that you are currently doing and question how and if it contributes to your purpose. It’s an easy way to identify things that you may stop doing or even businesses from which you should divest.

You must be able to tell the rest of the organisation – here are the gaps, go and make or find something that will fill the gap, or improve what we have to fill the gaps, but just as importantly – here are things that are just so clearly out of place that they just don’t fit. What are we going to do with that?

The easy answer is just to stop doing it, but it’s most probably not the smartest choice.

Maybe there are some of the current employees that are super passionate about that aspect of the business; they can perhaps define a purpose where that product or service or technology or activity fits perfectly. If you see they are passionate about it, see how you can help them to make a difference with that, maybe it’s the beginning of something exciting and new, fund them, help them, spin it off!

If you can find people like that, start looking for a buyer.

Here’s the difficult part – even if it substantially contributes to your bottom-line – if it detracts from your purpose – you should not be doing it! It will sap the lifeblood out of your organisation and stop you from doing what is meaningful and right!

If it is a substantial part of the business, it means that you can most probably find a suitable buyer who is willing to pay top-dollar for it. Win-win!