Examining ‘Purpose’: Too much. Not enough. How? Why?

David Willans, legendary marketeer and friend of 6heads, works with purposeful brands and organisations to drive growth. This makes him extremely well-placed to examine what is meant by ‘purpose’.

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Purpose is all the rage, with a new book out on it every month it seems. I’m a big fan of Purpose, because it’s all about direction and motivation to make things better. It’s the Why that keeps you motivated, attracting people who believe in your cause.

Reading between the many lines that have been written about it, there’s a dangerous assumption emerging. The assumption seems to be that just having a Purpose will make a business relevant and successful. There’s very little discussion of how to live your purpose once you have it.

If purpose is the Why, what we’re missing is the How.

Simon Sineck, the guy who coined the Why says the How are an organisations values – the beliefs and principles held collectively that guide behaviour. I agree and so does Ron Disney, nephew of Walt and one time Disney CEO. He said ‘It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.’

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, who wrote the brilliant Built to Last and Good to Great define values as being ‘inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain’.

Unfortunately, when you mention values in a business context most minds jump straight to a set of generic and meaningless words on a meeting room wall. It’s a sad comment on today’s state of affairs but one that’s reflective of the truth. A study by Boston Research Groupwith thousands of Americans from every rung of the corporate ladder, found only 3% described their company’s values as a form of “self-governance.” 43% said their company’s culture was a form of command-and-control and 54% said it was top-down leadership with lots of carrots and sticks. These later two groups explain why big firms have such a problem with innovation, because they are all based on the assumption that the people at the top know best. With change coming from all angles no leadership team can ever be that good. If they were there’s no way they can effectively translate their visions into actions fast enough if the people executing by and large don’t care.

Proper, fit for purpose values have a few things in common, they are:

  • Articulated in the language of the business, they aren’t a standardised set of words that could belong to anyone.
  • Used to make decisions on a daily basis, they are grounded in the truth of today’s behaviour but also drive the standard of work and behaviour for tomorrow.
  • Modelled by everyone in the business, especially the leaders because if not they are simply a sign of insincerity and a source of lost productivity.

Finding and articulating them lies in seeing the full cultural landscape of the organisation to identify the golden threads that run through it. These threads show up again and again in the stories told, the behaviours prized and the successes earned. When they aren’t there you’ll find stories of failure, ill-feeling and poor performance.

Let’s hope the focus on purpose will put values in proper perspective and force those with words like ‘integrity, trust, responsibility’ on meeting room walls to have a rethink.


purposeIf you like what David had to say and want to see if he is as good looking as he is smart – you can check him out here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidwillans

If you want to enter the discussion, you can send your blog/thoughts/praise/disdain to info@6-heads.com


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