Rebellious Practices: How To Create and Align Your Company's Purpose

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar June 28, 2017

In a previous cornerstone article we wrote that we are convinced that everyone, and every organization, can benefit from having an *inspiring purpose*. And if you don’t already have an *inspiring purpose* then we strongly encourage you to make serious work of defining it. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a company wide effort. You can start by pioneering within your own team, your department or your division.

Sadly, these days the term purpose has become too much of a business buzzword. So, let's first define what we mean with purpose. First of all, while we talk about purpose, we could also have called it a mission (statement), the why, or meaning. But regardless of how you prefer to call it, it should express why the company, department or team exists, and that is, why it would be missed by the world if it did not exist.

Why should you do it?

In many traditional organizations there is plenty of work that doesn't necessarily contribute to the purpose of the organization. Think about the countless reports and meetings that have no clear function besides providing superiors with a false feeling of control. Those activities demand significant amounts of time from the employees but most often don't add genuine value to the customer or client. Progressive organizations get rid of all those activities unless they clearly support the purpose.

The Oticon case

Lars Kolind describes, in his book 'The Second Cycle', the dramatic effect of changing the mission statement of the Danish hearing aid company Oticon from "Leaders in hearing technology" to "Helping people to live as they wish with the hearing they have".

Lars: "Redefining Oticon's mission made a major difference. Particularly because we used this new mission statement and the new focus on the customer as the guideline for a badly needed downsizing of the head office.

I personally went through every department in the head office to find out in what respect department members contributed to either making users happy or supporting the work of our customers. Obviously, there were some departments that did not fit that mold (for example, the bookkeepers), but many other department members were simply unable to establish a proper link between their work and happy users or customers. These departments were closed down.

This had two effects. First, as the word spread, the remaining departments very rapidly became highly relevant for customers and users. Second, those staff members that were not laid off could be moved into functions that added genuine value. In the end staff was reduced by about 10 percent, sales started to grow, and the company turned profitable again."

An inspiring purpose should function as the organizational North Star for behavior and decision making. It is the common cause anyone in the organization adheres to. No matter how lost, confused or frustrated someone may feel on a given day, the inspiring purpose should always be there to give them sense of direction. It needs to provide the focus to everything that the company needs to do, even if someone is lost in the particulars of the day-to-day details. It should help them to focus on the bigger picture and it should help them to clarify the true priorities in work.

The purpose allows employees to work in alternative and more flexible structures like networks of teams. An inspiring purpose is key to operate in such non-hierarchical structures because in those structures people have to think for themselves and need to know how they can best add value to the organization.

How to do it?

Get everyone involved

When you decide to redefine the purpose of your organization, be sure to get as many people involved as possible. As with everything you do, the more you involve employees in the process, the more they will support the outcome. Ask for feedback and adapt the purpose subsequently. This way, the purpose will really belong to everyone in the organization, from top to bottom. During our recent consultancy work we have witnessed the incredible power of providing people with the opportunity to participate fully in creating something unique and special for the organization.

Do it only if you are going to use it

Do not bother creating or redefining a purpose if you don't plan to use it. We are convinced that it’s worse to create or redefine a purpose without using it afterwards than it is to not have one at all. Creating a purpose is a serious exercise and, when done right, will require significant amounts of time and effort from the organization and its people. The moment people realize that their efforts are not taken seriously they will become disengaged, instead of the engaging effect you want to accomplish!

Use it on a daily basis

Once the organization has created or redefined its purpose, it's time to demonstrate it on a daily basis. From that moment on, the inspiring purpose should provide the overall guideline for everything the company does. It should be the common direction for leadership, employees and external stakeholders. Every new change, new direction, new innovation, new product or new service should somehow contribute to getting closer to the organizational purpose. The inspiring purpose should therefore be the central focus point of all communications, both internal and external. If a certain change does not move the organization closer to its purpose, it should be considered a worthless effort.

Ari Weinzweig, another one of our Bucket list heroes, teaches us, in 'Building a Great Business', that living your purpose isn’t rocket science. He is constantly bringing the purpose of his organization to life according to the following three simple principles;

1. Teach it "Over and over again. It’s incorporated in almost all documents and programs. Each of us sees and thinks about the idea of the mission every day.”

2. Talk about it "It must come up in casual business conversations at most every level of the organization. In planning meetings, in project management, in breakroom bitch sessions”

3. Do it. "Make it part of everyday life. You should think: Well; jeez, I do that every day. Be willing to make it a reality.”

A tool, not the ultimate solution

An inspiring purpose can be a powerful tool for any organization. No more than that. It will not be the ultimate solution for all of your organizational problems and issues. But when created or redefined properly, it can distinguish organizations from others. It does have the power to make a real difference!

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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