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The concept of a purpose-driven organisation has gathered a huge amount of momentum in recent years, and while there is evidence that organisations with a clarity of purpose achieve superior financial results, we must also consider the inherent importance of meaning for mental health and wellbeing.

Most of the material on purpose suggests that, in organisations, it something that transcends the profit motive that, for many decades, has been the dominant paradigm for doing business. Clarity of purpose is also the starting point for creating alignment between vision, mission, culture and employee experience.

Meaning and purpose also go hand in hand, and meaning is central to emotional wellbeing . As Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist captured in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

This means that clarity of purpose isn’t something that you should just do because it’s good for business – but because it’s the right thing to do for your people.

That’s not to suggest that profit isn’t important, but it raises the question of “profit for what?”. Alongside the profit motive, the concept of shareholder value has been the dominant measure of success, but in an era of strong growth yet stagnating wages even economists have turned against the idea, as “the world’s dumbest”.

Building a purpose-driven organisation

In a recent HBR article, Quinn and Thaker suggest 9 steps for building a purpose-driven organisation. Briefly:

  1. Envision an inspired workforce:
  2. Discover the purpose
  3. Recognise the need for authenticity
  4. Turn the authentic message into a constant message
  5. Clarity is critical
  6. Stimulate individual learning
  7. Turn midlevel managers into purpose-driven leaders
  8. Connect the people to the purpose
  9. Unleash the positive energisers

I’ve emphasised the words discover, clarity and connect.

Discovery, rather that invention, is important. “Look for (people who exemplify) excellence, examine the purpose that drives the excellence, and then imagine it imbuing your entire workforce. It takes questioning, listening and empathy to tap into what is already out there in your organisation.. ..somewhere. If your exec team creates some bullshit “purpose” statement, people will smell it!

Building the connection between people and purpose means not only communicating with clarity, but supporting people to explore, interpret and reflect on what it means to them. Empowering them to build it into their own learning and to take appropriate action.

How to create clarity of purpose – through 8 lenses

Creating clarity of purpose through 8 lenses means asking two basic, interrelated questions: Why do we exist, and who do we serve?

To help crate clarity, why not open up a debate and try this structure to guide you? It won’t define your purpose for you but will help you to structure your thoughts of where you’re coming from, and hopefully help you to put what’s important into your own words.

Although purpose-driven organisations tend to be characterised by their commitment to a cause that transcends their own goals, I’d argue that it doesn’t necessarily mean being supporting charitable or community-related caused.

So while Patagonia’s connection with the outdoors has led to them putting a focus on sustainability that extends well beyond the provision of outdoor clothing, IKEA’s “desire to create a better everyday life for the many people” is brought to life through their operational drive to make their product as affordable as possible.

Here are 8 questions that you can ask to help create clarity of purpose

To what extent are we driven to:

  • Strive for progress, such as technological or scientific or perhaps on a social issue..
  • Create experiences that bring joy to people’s live, such as aesthetic experiences, travel or adventure?
  • Create change, disruption or challenge convention or the status quo, in a market or community?
  • Maintain convention, tradition, standards and rules or norms, which could be technical, legal or social in nature?
  • Empower or enable people; politically, socially or economically; with status or competence?
  • Provide compassion or care to those that need it most, to bring relief or reduce suffering?
  • Consider ‘macro’ issues that affect wider society, or communities outside of our organisation?
  • Consider ‘micro’ issues that affect people within or affiliated to our organisation, such as members, customers or even employees.


Note: Normally I would consider customers as an ‘other’ to the organisation.  Given the implicitly ‘transcendent’ nature of purpose, most often described as something ‘beyond profit’, I’ve thought of customers as inside the broad constituency of the organisation for the purposes of this exercise. It’s up to you!



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