5 steps for crafting an inspiring purpose statement
More and more companies and organisations are waking up to the power of purposeful advantage — the commercial and competitive edge that you gain from having a clear “purpose beyond profit” at the heart of your business.
A crucial early step in this process is crafting your “purpose statement” — a single sentence that crystallises your company’s reason to exist, beyond simply making a profit.
For HP, it’s “to foster the human capacity to innovate and progress”. For Ella’s Kitchen, it’s “to create healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime”.
You’ll notice that these statements aren’t about being “the best” or “the fastest-growing”, or even the “most trusted” or “most innovative”. That is, they are not like traditional mission statements.
Instead, purpose statements are about the connection between the company’s core products and services and the benefits they deliver to people’s lives. If you get that right, “the best” and the “most loved”, etc., will naturally follow.
Crafting your purpose statement is a key early step in any company’s purpose journey. Here are our top five tips for creating an inspiring and authentic purpose statement.
#1 Draw the map before you plot the course
Writing your purpose statement is not the starting pistol of your purpose journey. First, you need to figure out what your purpose actually is.
Seems obvious? Perhaps, but too many firms skip the hard work of actually grounding their purpose in reality.
This means digging into your heritage, seeking customer and employee insight and researching the trends affecting the political, economic, social and technological context in which you operate.
By looking back into the past, getting a crystal clear view of the present and studying future trends, you can ensure that your purpose statement has purchase in the real world.
#2 Look for “perpetual stretch”
Unlike a “mission”, a purpose is not something that can be achieved once and for all.
Instead, a purpose statement should give rise to an inexhaustible series of new goals, and always push you and your team forward.
NASA is a great example. Its purpose is to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind”. In turn, this purpose generates and drives mission after mission, each one supporting the core purpose — but never completing it for good.
#3 Combine the emotional and the rational
Purpose statements should have both a rational and an emotional register.
We like to say that purpose statements should give you a “tingle”: an involuntary smile of inspiration and excitement, mixed with a little bit of healthy, top-of-the-ski-slope, can-we-really-do-this fear. Without that pinch of emotion, a purpose statement will struggle to inspire employees to embrace it as their own.
At the same time, there always has to be a rational case for how purpose will supercharge your business, culture and brand strategy, and this should be reflected in your purpose statement.
BT’s purpose statement, for example, is to “use the power of communications to make a better world” — the company’s core product, communications, is front and centre.
#4 Plain language
A good purpose statement should be plain-language and simple for employees, customers and stakeholders to grasp.
Take the purpose statement of digital agriculture company The Climate Corporation:
“The Climate Corporation aims to help all the world’s farmers sustainably increase productivity of their farming operations”
It’s simple and to the point, clearly oriented towards the real needs of customers and the environment, and clearly linked to the firm’s commercial offer.
#5 Tangible enough for employees to make it their own
Plain language is important, but take care not to tip back into just being vague.
Always, always remember that your purpose statement will be implemented and brought to life by your employees. If it truly sticks, it will inform how they make decisions, how they solve problems and how they innovate. That’s the real engine room of purposeful advantage.
But this will only work if the purpose statement is tangible, pragmatic and potent enough for employees to be able to take it and make it their own.
Before you release your purpose statement into the world, think: will employees be able to apply this to the assembly line? To the shop floor? To the R&D lab? To the marketing department?
This means that abstract sentiments like “we exist to make the world a better place” do not work well as purpose statements, because there is nothing concrete or potent enough to get hold of.
The key question is always, “What will we do differently tomorrow?”