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The problem with purpose

You have probably worked out by now that we think clarity of purpose is a big deal for any organisation. 

Of course, we’re not the only people saying it – since the value of clear organisational purpose was raised by Bartlett and Ghoshal in an HBR article back in 1994, it has become pretty close to conventional practice. You might find it helpful to check out some examples of what others are saying about it: BCG, McKinsey, Forbes and Deloitte, and how some companies are embedding clarity of purpose: ANZ Bank, Canva, BlackRock and Ford.

We have an admission to make. We have found it seriously hard to frame a clear purpose for ourselves. We have been experimenting for a while with different attempts that have been getting closer and closer to who we think we are. We try it on, go out to play, put it through the wash, hang it out to dry, put it back on and find it doesn’t quite fit. And so we try again.

Our experience is pretty common. There is a good reason for that. Marketing spin is relatively easy. But articulating a purpose that is authentic, clear and meaningful is a challenging exercise, precisely because it is so consequential. 

A statement of true purpose can be brutal. 

It has force. If it is not truthful, that reality will be revealed quick-smart by employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders. It forces perfectly valid business opportunities to be passed over. It has the power to change the composition of a Board, force a rewrite of all organisational policies, and require a fresh approach to empowering staff. A real corporate purpose is not for the faint of heart or the weak of character.

But we want to be clear – it is worth the effort. For all of the many benefits that have filled books, blogs, podcasts and articles, the characteristic of a clear purpose that we love the most is that it promotes real connection. It is an invitation to join a shared effort. It admits that this grand aim needs people who will commit to it, and are willing to bring their diverse skills, experience, perspectives and passions to the table. It engages both the head and the heart. It recognises that those who join become interdependent with one another – the choices made by each affect the whole. A clear purpose creates a community of practice and of interest.  And it offers the dignity of choice to those who can’t support the purpose to find an organisation where they can. 

An organisation can be so much more than a legal fiction created to limit the liability of its owners. It can harness the spirit and will of all of those who gather to pursue a common cause and create belonging and significance. It has the potential for life.

So, at least for now, and unless we find that this fades in the wash or that we can’t authentically live up to it, our purpose at Neometric is to activate the corporate soul.