Putting purpose to work
Something odd has happened in business. Over time, business thinking has been so honed and so perfected that it’s now down to its raw elements — revenues and managing resources. Through this process, businesses may be missing out on some fundamentally powerful and useful mechanisms that drive behavior, performance and organizational success. One of these mechanisms is the notion of purpose.
Purpose seems to be have been appropriated — or misappropriated — as “cause ” in modern business dialect. If this semantic hat trick isn’t obvious on the face of it, allow me to break it down a bit: Purpose in the business context has been narrowed down to the context of doing social good or socially-minded work. In American English parlance, “cause” appears to have a social/societal tint to it, which too often actually seems at odds with traditional business practices. With a quick Google search, I found plenty of examples of this purpose/cause linkage in action (here and here, etc.).
Yet, what I have discovered is that what is strikingly missing from most conversations, debates and decisions in the business world is the notion of purpose. And this can only really take place if we give purpose back its original meaning:
Purpose, n; an anticipated outcome that is intended or that guides your planned actions. Synonyms: aim, design, intent, intention
We as people have proven throughout history that we can do greater things than merely survive when driven by purpose. This applies not just to religious adherents that Reverend Rick Warren has so effectively popularized, but just as readily applies to great political leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and technology titans like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. hese political and technology titans may not use the term purpose in their messaging, but purpose is what enables these leaders to maintain a singular vision that comes to fruition in a successful fashion.
Now, back to the real world where most people live and work: What I have found is that introducing purpose into conversations in a business context appears to help focus people’s minds on a different aspect of the initiative — the intended result. When every decision point is based on how an individual elements supports the intended result, we are actually doing deep and systemic design.
Introducing purpose into a business discussion also helps re-enforce to team members what the goals are, which can be important because goals can so easily be lost in deep, complex problem-solving exercises. And purpose need not be limited to strategic conversations. Just like in life, purpose can help guide in the planning or executing stages of any initiative. In your next team meeting, think about the purpose of the initiative you’re involved in, and try to use purpose-driven language in your remarks, and watch how that focuses people almost magically. This works no matter what role you’re playing — leader, contributor, challenger, facilitator or sponsor.
As people, we have many powerful tools at our disposal. Sometimes, our work environments strip us of these tools because they don’t feel appropriate. However, I’ve found that re-introducing purpose into a business dynamic pays high dividends, and in my work I will continue to use purpose as my primary frame when challenging, contributing to or leading business decisions. It just works.