The ability to work to purpose is altogether critical if organisations are to be sufficiently adaptable and responsive in the face of changing market conditions. The traditional 3-5 year plan is no longer a viable way of leading. Instead a rooted sense of overarching purpose has become the key differentiator in guiding success. This provides the centripetal force which enables the people, resources and activities to coalesce. It gives form and shape to the boundary of the organisation system itself. So that, in the day to day operations as well as when the going gets tough or unpredictable, purpose serves as the guiding compass to help determine the best actions to be taken.
How does an organisation discover its purpose?
How does it become a purpose-driven organisation and use this to orient and direct successful performance?
It is important to discover the question of purpose from three different perspectives: that of the organisational system, that of the business context in which the organisation operates, and that of the people who deliver the services that the organisation provides. Starting with an analysis from the organisation’s inside out, integrating this with an analysis from the business context’s outside in and finally creating a framework that can guide, align and orient employees.
1. The Organisation: looking from the inside out
By inside out I mean the board and those leading the organisation determining why they think their organisation exists? Answering questions such as, what does this organisation potentially offer to the world? What are its core skills and strengths? What do we want to offer to the world? What are our values? What is our hearts’ longing? What activities is the organisation engaged in right now? How are these related to overall purpose? What are our unique selling points? What brand promise or value does the organisation provide? And, what patterns of behaviour might stand in the way of our success?
2. The Context: looking from the outside in
Then looking to the strategic relevance of the local and global business context, the board/leaders need to answer questions from the outside in. What trends can we see emerging? Political, social, technological, economic, legal or otherwise? What does this tell us about the demands of the context on the organisation? What markets and opportunities are opening up? What potential challenges do we see? What disruptors are appearing or likely to emerge that would impact our organisational offer? What have we learnt? What can we inquire about further? How might all of this inform the organisation’s core purpose?
3. The Individual: alignment
The experience of inside out, outside in or individual alignment can feel like dichotomies of either/or that may not in fact exist. System, context and the individual are themselves so inextricably interconnected and interdependent that maybe we should not be thinking of either/or but both/and. It is the synergistic alignment of the forces and energy of all three that actually defines purpose.
Purpose in that sense can never be static. Instead it needs to be calibrated and recalibrated, as required, so that it can be discovered and rediscovered as the context changes and changes, again and again. This relatedness, the one to the other, is then a living dynamic relatedness that is complex, changing and vital at all times.
Becoming a purpose-driven Organisation
The biological metaphor suggests that organisations, being shaped by their context and their people, are an integral part of all of co-creation. The enlightened organisation comes to see that:
Its purpose is unique and potentially limitless, and often paradoxically more easily answered by listening to the context and what might be required of it in the world
It is not simply the sum of its outputs but has a broader purpose which is to enable its context and the people operating within it to fulfil their potential in the world
Barriers between competing elements within the business can be destroyed and replaced with a sense of common work to be done
Diversity and inclusion bring challenges, conflict and debate, all of which are critical resources within the organisation
Being intricately connected to the world outside, it would be best to follow the simple rule whereby you treat all stakeholders (for example, customers, suppliers, competitors, governments, and distributors) with whom you interact as part of yourselves, and seek the best for all involved parties; and
That the real purpose of the organisation is only achieved over time and that a longer-term perspective will create success both in the longer- as well as the shorter-term.
Implications for Leadership
Organisations need to translate their purpose and values into frameworks for success that can be used to recruit, develop, reward and retain the best talent. After that, perhaps the only significant role of leadership, independent of task and relationship skills, is to define, embody and defend organisational purpose. Kegan and Lahey speak of leadership that can hold the and/or contradictions of systemic living, that can problem-find, take a meta position and lead to learn.
Anyone who is willing to take up their role on the basis of their perceptions of contributing to the purpose of the organisation, and who is willing to be held accountable for what they do, is offering true leadership, notwithstanding where they sit in the organisational chart.
The art is in learning how to take up one’s role; how to integrate one’s own experience from each of the three domains of person, organisation and context; and thus to find the sweet spot that enables one to take action to serve the purpose of all three. That is real leadership.