Purpose — too much Why, not enough How

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 on Purpose though, it feels like there’s a dangerous assumption emerging. The assumption 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 Sinek, 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 it’s true. A study by Boston Research Group with thousands of Americans from every rung of the corporate ladder found that:

  • Only 3% say their company’s values were a form of “self-governance.”
  • 43% said their company’s culture (which values underpin) was a form of command-and-control
  • 54% said their culture was top-down leadership with lots of carrots and sticks

These later two groups go a long way to explaining why many firms have such a problem with innovation because they are all based on the assumption that the people at the top know best. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, that just can’t be true. Over the last few years, leaders of many big businesses have stood up and talked about the need for big changes. Unfortunately, they find themselves fighting against deeply ingrained cultures, based on a set of beliefs and values that are all about doing hitting targets without rocking the boat. It’s no wonder so many established businesses are investing in incubators and other start-up collaborations. They just can’t shake their cultural baggage.

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

  • They tend to be articulated in the language of the business, they aren’t a standardised set of words that could belong to anyone.
  • They are framework that’s 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.
  • They are modelled by everyone in the business, especially the leaders. If they aren’t then these value statements are simply a sign of insincerity and a source of lost productivity.

Finding and articulating them means seeing the organisation’s full cultural landscape, then 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, forcing those with generic words on meeting room walls to have a serious rethink.

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