In uncertain times, purpose is what keeps you anchored but almost paradoxically it’s also what keeps you faster, nimbler and more agile.
The term “VUCA” has crept into business language. A shorthand for the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous state we’re living in. Organizations struggle to articulate strategies that look ahead 10, 5 or even 3 years but which, ultimately, can change overnight.
As we begin to talk about the Transformative Age, it is purpose that will help to provide a sense of certainty when much around us appears unpredictable and unsustainable.
What is purpose?
Purpose can be defined as “the act of doing things intentionally.” When you have a purpose, it gives you a force of intentionality that nothing else will give you.
Every organization has a purpose. They all started with a “why” — with an intention. But as companies shift and grow over time, they can begin to veer away from their founders’ original clarity of purpose and intent.
Mission, strategy, planning — these all change, but your purpose is enduring. It is your unique cause, your unique belief — it is what will differentiate you from your competitors.
Purpose can keep you intimately focused on the customer and, by doing so, can help give more sustainability to an organization in an uncertain environment. When you are in lockstep with your customers, you will remain close to their wants, needs and expectations.
For example, one pharmaceutical company brought patients (customers) into the innovation life cycle of new drugs at a very early stage. This enabled the company to step into its customers’ shoes and create something they wouldn’t otherwise have considered without that intimacy.
People need purpose
One of the ways in which purpose can help keep an organization nimble is how it influences and empowers employees. It is like a clarion call, helping to give them a laser-like focus on what matters to their customers.
When your employees have a clear understanding of your why (and hows and whats), this speeds up decision making. They each have a better idea individually on what they should pursue and not pursue versus always having to wait for their manager or leadership to provide direction.
Culture is simply the outcome of how you do what you do and what you think. It shows itself as a result of the way you make decisions, for example, the way you hire, fire, reward and communicate.
Culture is the muscle of the organization, but if it’s atrophied, executing anything will be a struggle. You can have strategy, product maps, execution plans — but if you don’t have a culture led by purpose, then the organization will never be properly anchored.
When you ask the fundamental questions, “Is this anchored to who we are? Is this true of our purpose and why?” it enables you to make better decisions.
Purpose and prosperity
Purpose doesn’t replace strategy, leadership or planning but it is the first lens that an organization should use when driving toward these. In a recent EY Beacon Institute survey of business leaders,1 73% said that having a well-integrated purpose will help their company navigate disruption.
Companies that embody purpose have produced some compelling results:
- Their employees are 1.4 times more engaged and 1.7 times more satisfied.2
- They are three times more likely to retain their employees.3
- They outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 times.4
Your organization’s purpose may have become lost over the years as successive leaders have wandered away from the founders’ original vision. It may take some digging to unearth and articulate it. But when you do, it will give intent to every decision you make, it will inform your entire strategy and it will differentiate your organization from competitors in completely unforeseen ways.
Most importantly it will help keep you much closer to your customers. And a customer-centric purpose is what keeps companies focused and alive through uncertain times.
Ask yourself the following: if your organization ceased to exist, what would be the loss to the world? Thinking about the answer can start you on the right journey toward identifying your purpose.