Purpose Part III: Purpose in Practice

In the last two articles about purpose, “Key elements of a good company purpose” and “Why every company must establish a clear purpose”, I outlined the most important elements of any well-defined purpose, as well as the core benefits of having a clearly articulated purpose. In this last installment of the 3 part series, I’ll go into depth about specific steps you can take to effectively implement and manage purpose in your company.

Get your most influential people involved in the process

One of the best techniques for creating alignment between your people and your purpose is to engage them in the process of defining your purpose from day one. While smaller companies can get everybody in the room and make them part of the process, this isn’t a practical suggestion for larger companies.

Larger companies should instead focus on finding people that are well-respected throughout the organization and get them involved as part of the process. These individuals should not only be managers in the company; they should ideally represent a diverse cross section of inspirational and admired people in your company. These individuals are often your “tribe leaders.” Not only will they act as champions of the newly defined purpose within their tribes, but they’ll be able to inform the process with relevant information about people’s beliefs and challenges that may not be obvious to senior leadership.

It is important to not select people based simply on reporting line. Just because someone is a level above someone in the organizational chart does not automatically mean they’re well-respected, nor does it mean that they’re actually a driving force in the behavior of people in their part of the organization. Be sure to pay close attention to who people talk about most and look for signals of bona fide leadership.

Pro-tip: you can use software like Minsilo to facilitate the purpose definition process.

Develop your purpose in an iterative manner

Crafting your company’s purpose is not a one-time activity. As your company and the environment around your company changes, you’ll need to review and adjust your purpose.

Do not change your purpose during a crisis

While it’s good to continuously adjust and re-evaluate your company purpose, it’s often not a good time to adjust your values during a crisis. Your people will look back to your values to determine how to make decisions regarding the situation.

Changing your purpose during a crisis may have the unintended consequence of misguiding your people, or worse, getting them to believe that your company’s values don’t matter at all and are subject to change when times get tough. The only thing worse than not having a purpose in the first place is having one that people actively disbelieve.

One illustrative example comes from the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis, where some Tylenol packages were deliberately contaminated with cyanide, a deadly poison. As Scott Weighart writes:

However, Johnson & Johnson lived—and still lives—by a credo which begins with the following: “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be high quality.” 

Because the company already lived by a clear vision of how to act, there was absolutely no ambiguity as to the right and proper course of action to take in response to this “Black Swan” event.

Not only did their clear cut credo (similar to a value statement) provide clarity on how to address the situation, it also created one of the strongest opportunities for Tylenol to grow over the next several years.

Focus on clarity and brevity

Accessibility of your company’s purpose is critical to its impact on day-to-day activity. If people in your company don’t understand and agree upon what your mission, vision and values actually mean, they’re going to have little positive impact on how they behave on a daily basis.

One useful mental exercise when defining purpose is to ask yourself: “how would I explain this to a 10 year old?” Think about what language you could use to make it more clear and less ambiguous. Since your customers will likely engage with your company’s purpose, you should pay special attention to clear use of language (because some of them may actually be 10 years old).

Make it social

The more the people around you do something, the more likely you’re to do it. Creating a culture that is driven by purpose starts by taking small steps towards creating positive peer pressure. Since humans are social creatures, any behavior that is practiced by the group is likely to be repeated by the individual (even if they’re new to the group).

You can start creating this social feedback loop by getting your leaders and champions that you identified in the first step involved with the process. Simple questions and nudges in meetings like: “how does this help us to be a customer-centric company” or “does this put the needs of doctors first” can be powerful reminders of purpose, especially if they come from highly respected team members.

To make it even more actionable, work with these leaders to identify 2-3 key parts of your company’s purpose that drive the greatest impact and are the most applicable to their people.

Consistently connect purpose back to execution

Lastly, a purpose that people do not believe in or utilize to make decisions is almost as good as not having one.

It’s easy enough for your goals, strategic initiatives and daily execution to become misaligned with your company’s purpose. When your people are regularly engaged with your company’s purpose, it becomes possible to realign their action with the purpose and continuously engage them in the work they’re doing.

When people are aligned around purpose and can see their impact on that purpose, it becomes a powerful motivator for them to come to work ready to put their best foot forward.

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Ryan Leaf

Ryan is the founder of Minsilo. He is passionate about autonomous teams, the future of work, and organizational alignment. Previously, Ryan was a software architect at Cobu. You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @RyanLeafPM.