My organisation doesn't have a purpose - help!

Many purpose driven organisations started out that way – the likes of Patagonia, TOMS Shoes, Innocent drinks and Google evolved and grew around their purpose, and increasingly, new organisations and brands appear on the scene with a clearly articulated purpose.

But what if you are leading, or working for an organisation, large or small, old or new, that doesn’t have a stated purpose?  How do you go about defining and embedding a purpose into a business that doesn’t outwardly have one?

James Collins and Jerry Porras, in their classic management text “Built to Last” (1994) suggest that an effective way to get at your organisation’s purpose is to ask the question “Why not just shut this organisation down, cash out and sell off the assets” and push for an answer that would be equally valid both now and one hundred years into the future.

Turning this around, another effective starting point is to go back to why the organisation was set up in the first place.  What was it that prompted the founders to bring this organisation into being?  What product or service did they want to provide and why?  What need were they fulfilling?

To really get to the heart of what your organisation is about, spend some time thinking about the people your organisation serves – real people.  What do they want and need from your organisation?  Is there an unmet or poorly met need?  Set down why you think you can meet that need better.  And in doing so, are you respecting people (your staff, your customers, your suppliers) and are there benefits that spill out beyond the immediate relationship between your organisation and customers and that improve wider society?

Ask your people for their input – why did they choose to come and work for your organisation?  What is it that keeps them there?  What kind of organisation would they feel proud to be part of? For the purpose to be meaningful, it needs to be the result of a process of consultation and dialogue with stakeholders. If the Board lock themselves in a room for a day to come up with a carefully worded purpose statement, it is less likely to resonate with staff and other stakeholders.

Encouragingly, there are now example of organisations of all sizes who are “retro-fitting” a true purpose.  Perhaps one of the best examples is Interface Carpets, whose late CEO, Ray Andersen inspired the then 21 year old company (in 1994) with this purpose: "Be the first company that, by its deeds, shows the entire world what sustainability is in all its dimensions: people, process, product, place and profits - and in doing so, become restorative through the power of influence"  

Unilever too, has embraced a purpose based on sustainability– “to make sustainable living commonplace.” Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever recently said (of its purpose driven brands such as Ben and Jerry's and Dove); “purpose driven brands are growing ahead of the market” and “these brands accounted for half the company’s growth in 2014 and grew at twice the rate of the rest of the business.”   Arguably, Unilever’s founding purpose was always about serving society “to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health” and not about serving shareholders but is still shows that it is entirely possible to define – and live - a new purpose even in a huge multinational. 


Inspiring a generation - and a workforce

In 2012 I had the great fortune to work for the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) for 10 months as part of the sustainability team.  As an example of a purpose driven organisation, you’d be hard pushed to find a better example than LOCOG.  From a standing start in 2005 it had 7 years to build up to an organisation with over 6,000 staff (and many thousands more volunteers and contractors), stage “the greatest show on earth” , clear much of it away, leave a great legacy, and then disband itself.

Clearly LOCOG wasn’t a “normal” organisation but it provided a fascinating lesson in organisational development and culture.

We had two very clear purposes:

  • Stage the greatest show on earth

  • Inspire a generation

The first was about making sure the Olympic and Paralympic Games took place in stunning venues, with seamless logistics, enthusiastic and well-trained staff and volunteers, great backdrops and inspiring ceremonies.  The second was about ensuring that all this work would not be just for 4 weeks in 2012, and that there would be enduring and positive legacy.

Working in an organisation with such clear purposes was unlike anything I have every experienced.  Everyone knew what we were working towards and people were inspired by this – the energy in the place was palpable.  We all worked long hours, the pressure was huge at times, but the enthusiasm and the energy didn’t wane.  We were proud to work for LOCOG, proud to be part of something so big (the Olympic Games seems to be the only thing that brings almost every country in the world together to do something positive) and proud to play our part.

Another notable feature of LOCOG was the relative lack of office politics.  Perhaps because we all knew what had to be done – and that the eyes of the world would be on our collective efforts – we all collaborated.  Staging the Olympics and Paralympics was the UK’s biggest peacetime logistical operation ever so the need for effective collaboration was paramount.  And it happened easily – there were no complicated organisational constructs to allow for collaboration to happen - we just worked together.  I believe firmly that having a strong purpose enabled this way of working.

It was also a lot of fun – yes, working for the Olympics is probably intrinsically more fun than developing a new IT system for a global bank (IMHO) but it could equally have been a whole lot of hard work, under a lot of pressure, with very high stakes.  Yet it wasn’t like that at all – I think we were all pretty happy and proud to be working for London 2012 and coming to work was an enjoyable prospect.   I believed in what we were doing, I was committed to the organisation and its purpose and I was working with great people. 

LOCOG was also a commercially successful organisation.  It committed to balance its books and to match the money it spent on staging the Games with revenues from tickets, merchandise and sponsorship.  This was achieved, with a surplus donated to legacy organisations.

It may be rather a unique example, but I think LOCOG provides a really great case study of what happens – on a large scale – when people are united about a really exciting and inspiring purpose.  Energy, enthusiasm, collaboration, innovation, support, teamwork, focus, determination, joy – who wouldn’t want these in their organisation? 

We can’t all stage an Olympics to get these, but having a really motivating purpose has to be a good start.


The importance of purpose…..

If you believe all you read in the press, “trust in business is at an all-time low.”  The media is full of stories about companies mistreating staff, suppliers, customers and shareholders – trashing the environment, avoiding paying tax, and making their owners very rich. 

Yet “business” isn’t inherently bad -  business provides goods and services, it provides employment, it helps fund many other things that need funding (education, health, infrastructure), it produces technical innovations that further human progress, it pushes boundaries – innovates, invents and creates, it allows people to achieve together what they would find difficult to achieve alone….

These are all great reasons for business to exist.  Yet all too often the purpose of business is reduced shareholder value, and its main criteria of success are profits generated and a healthy share price.

This is a short sighted view.  Yes, business needs to turn a profit to survive and develop but making money should not be an end it itself – the sole purpose.  Truly successful companies make a profit in order to enable them to do something more or better. What that ‘something’ is becomes the real justification for the existence of the business.

Business is arguably the dominant shaping influence on the planet today, and more and more organisations are looking at purpose beyond profit and how they can deliver market based solutions to social and environmental problems.  This goes deeper than CSR, sustainability or business ethics – it goes to the heart of an organisation and influences strategy, recruitment, development, communications, marketing, operations, production – in fact all areas of a business.   

Purpose driven organisations are nothing new.  John Cadbury established the famous chocolate company in the 1820s with the aim of providing an alternative to alcohol (which he believed kept the masses mired in poverty).  John Lewis has always had "happiness of our staff…and good service to the general community” as its core purpose.  Now organisations in all sectors are recognising the worth of having a clearly articulated purpose which acts as the reference point to guide how they operate.  Growing numbers of organisations start with a purpose at their core and build from there – creating sustainable, outward looking businesses that do well by doing good.