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.