Hanover

6 Dec 2022

Let’s stop speaking at cross purposes about purpose.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Whether it’s a new technology, a novel business model or another vision for the future. From hyperlinks to the hyperloop, email to e-commerce, social media to the metaverse; brave founders taking bold chances move the world forward. But as is often the case, the devil is in the details. And as anyone who has done it will tell you. It’s hard.

But the difficulty extends beyond effort. It nearly goes without saying that turning an idea into a reality requires Herculean hustle, heart and hard work in equal measure, whether that’s to build a business, to start a movement or to change the world. It’s not easy. Many have tried. Plenty have failed. And that’s rarely because they didn’t try hard enough. Effort ≠ progress.

So what makes the difference?

Alignment on core foundations = clear way forward.

If ideas are the impetus for potential game changers and market makers, then the organisations they build are the vehicles through which these ideas can be executed. And the vehicle needs to be fit for purpose. No one would expect to cross the ocean on a bicycle (ad absurdum).

To build an organisation that’s fit for purpose requires first and foremost, a clear articulation of what the purpose actually is. And secondly, a departure from thinking about culture as an add-on. Numerous studies by the likes of PWC and McKinsey demonstrate the role purpose can play in the success of an organisation; as a way to create shared value, improve employee happiness and commitment, give back to the community, and help the environment. But the purpose of purpose extends beyond this. Research by HBR looking into fast growth companies highlights that businesses that put purpose at the core of everything benefit in several distinct ways. Done well it has the potential to enable not only the organisational agility and alignment needed to respond to a changing commercial landscape, but also to cultivate a culture that supports profit and people to simultaneously thrive.

When harnessed correctly, purpose acts as the North Star for the entire organisation, guiding strategic direction across every aspect of what you do (and don’t do).

In a world where the word “purpose” is being bandied about with reckless abandon, it’s probably worth establishing a quick working definition. Purpose, put simply is the reason something exists. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a grandiose goal for planetary transformation, but it does need to be authentic. You should be cool to shout it from the rooftop or stick it on a t-shirt. Fundamentally, it’s the answer to that all important question. Why are we here? Hint: as a business, making money is table stakes so you’ll have to dig a little deeper.

When harnessed correctly, purpose acts as the North Star for the entire organisation, guiding strategic direction across every aspect of what you do (and don’t do). You should have only one and it’s should drive you forever, which is to say, you should never quite be able to fulfil it (because if you fulfil your purpose, there’s literally no reason to continue existing). Doing this requires a degree of soul searching, striking the balance between being specific enough to be useful, but broad enough to allow you the scope to develop.

Simple. But never easy.

To answer big questions, you need to ask big questions. But particularly in the early days, when teams are small, time is tight and runways are short, finding the space to discuss, define and deploy purpose might not seem like a priority. This work often gets indefinitely pushed to some imaginary point in the future that never comes — spoiler alert: there will never be a better time and it doesn’t get easier. This is in large part down to a lack of bandwidth — completely understandable if not a little short sighted. But because it’s not uncommon for deep reflection to uncover cracks in the foundation of the business -differences in opinions, deficiencies in strategy, disagreements over direction, it can make the difference between growing big or going home. Building on top of shaky foundations is not only a recipe for disaster in the long term, but the higher you build and the further you grow, the harder it is to fix. The same is true for your business as it is for your tech stack, a solid back end is essential.