Sunday Readings #2 // The quest for purpose // More than a 21st-century mission statement?

Purpose is hot. Everyone talks about it. But is it really about something new? Something that didn’t exist a year or two ago? Isn’t businesses looking for meaning – beyond making money – something we have seen before? A quest that resulted in coming up with a mission statement some 20 years ago? In other words, isn’t purpose about regurgitation – old wine in new skins – and consultants repackaging what offered a steady source of business in the past, and selling it again?

Although the economic advantages of riding the wave of any hype seems evident, there are probably two key differences between searching for your businesses purpose vs. a 20th-century mission statement:

Outside-in vs. inside-out

When working on mission statements in the 90s, most efforts had an inside-out focus. The key driver for a lot of ‘vision, mission & values’ initiatives has been staff engagement, motivation, and productivity. It was about giving meaning to employees and providing them with a reason for getting up in the morning and looking forward to getting into work. Obviously, it was already ‘en vogue’ at the time to apply a stakeholder perspective and including CSR aspects when defining that shared mission for your business in the 90s – a quadrinity, trying to balance stakeholder, employee, environmental and societal needs. Nevertheless, the starting point was mostly to provide meaning to employees.

Looking at the current hype about purpose there is a major difference: most initiatives start with the customer in mind. However, although this feels like great news and an overdue paradigm shift from an inside-out to an outside-in approach, it is neither about a pro-active approach, nor about an awakening of finally truly putting customers first. In contrast, it is just a very considered decision by businesses to give an answer to a crucial shift in customer expectations:

Millennials demand meaning

Different from Baby Boomers and Generation Y, Millennials are more and more questioning the growth and consumerism paradigms they grew up with – asking for more meaningful goods and services. They are the first generation that intends to not just ignore the collateral damage and opportunity costs that are a result of our neo-liberal growth paradigm. They understand that we can’t get on as we used to and ask for businesses to act responsibly and to explain to them how they intend to contribute to a global society’s welfare. Or in short: They ask for businesses to have a purpose and life up to it through its behaviors and actions. A purpose that goes beyond the business itself and defines its role in society – on a global scale.

Thus, any purpose (statement) needs to answer why you dare to exist as a business. Not just for your own sake as an organization, but for the world, you operate in as a business. In many ways, this is a question that a lot of businesses find very hard to answer.

An unprecedented paradigm shift for businesses

First, the society and the people in it (the customers!) have never been at the top of most businesses’ or their leader’s priority list. Most leaders (and also management consultants) think in industry architectures and value chains, structures, and processes, financials and ROI’s. Employees are predominantly a resource. And customers equal business opportunities and revenue streams. These are the building blocks that drive how most companies are built and operate. Thus, starting to think about your purpose in many cases demands for taking a radically new perspective.

Second, if you master that question and come up with an answer that could become your purpose, it most probably will demand a major transformation of your business and everything you believed in thus far. A transformation that probably feels too big to be really taken seriously. And here comes the danger to repeat history.

The danger of putting lipstick on a guerilla

As with many mission initiatives in the 90s, there is a big danger with a lot of purpose initiatives, that they are only put on the agenda because the topic is hot and businesses believe that, as everyone is working on similar initiatives, they need a purpose too.

This is the perfect recipe to fail. Although you might be able to create some early excitement with employees and customers alike, both will realize very fast, that the only thing you did, was putting lipstick on a guerilla. The result being, that the business and brand will lose a lot of credibility – and potentially business.

Thus, when you currently feel some peer pressure and get that next call from a consultancy or agency to put PURPOSE on your agenda, think twice if you are ready to open Pandora’s Box. The rewards of taking the quest for finding your purpose will be big – in terms of customer preferences, loyalty and growth potential – but the danger of getting it wrong and just producing some nice sounding words that will harm your business in the long run is equally high.

Personally, I believe there is no real Plan B to eventually putting your customers first and providing them with some meaning – call it purpose or not – if you aim to still be around and prosper as a business in 5, 10 or 20 years time. But, you better take the task seriously and put it on top of your executive agenda, rather than delegating it to some copywriters in your communication department.