Purpose Runs Deep


Purpose really has become the ‘mot du jour’ in today’s business world. Everyone is using the term, but most don’t understand its true potential to elevate a business to another level and make it soar.

Most Purpose statements tend to be rational, transactional terms to explain where a business or brand aims to go. They are left-brained inventions, often cooked up in a workshop-style planning session that is devoid of deeper creative thinking. The result is a tick in the box, and a celebratory ‘right, let’s move on to the next task.’

They inevitably end up being drab, predictable, trite, and uninspiring. And that’s where the problem starts, because everything that is built from this statement is likely to follow in the same vein.

Purpose drives everything – it inspires, empowers, and liberates people to do great things. It informs management on how to make decisions, because they can ask themselves and each other ‘is this fit for Purpose?’ If the answer is no, then they don’t do it. Without Purpose the question is always ‘will this be profitable?’ And that’s the road to ruin, because money itself has no moral compass. But Purpose does – a very good one!

Why do people struggle with the concept of Purpose in business? The problem stems from the fact that Vision and Mission statements were being used for many years before the recent ‘authenticity revolution’ that has changed the way people buy. They harp back to the 70’s and 80’s, when it was all big launches, big ad campaigns, big sales figures, and big hair. They needed to be rational because business was by and large a rational, get things done, no-nonsense environment.

Of course there was innovation (when in history has there not been?) all over the place, with new technologies launching all the time, but in business planning it was pretty damn dull. I remember the first laminated ‘Visions and Values’ card I was handed as a young marketing exec in the late 80’s. It was so trite, we used to use it as a Frisbee in the office late in the evening after the grown ups had gone home.

The English word purpose comes from the Old French word ‘purposer,’ which comes from the Latin prō (meaning for, or on behalf of) and pono (meaning the truth). So Purpose actually means ‘on behalf of the truth.’ What is the truth about a business or a brand? It isn’t a monetary target or a rational objective. It’s something much deeper, much more profound. I would argue that it is the truth about what you stand for, what you represent, and who you are.

And yet so many businesses have uninspiring, dull and predictable Purpose statements that are based on the ‘rational’ mission and vision statements of old. They miss the opportunity to make a bold and emotive edict about who they are, and what they stand for. As a result the Mission statement that follows (explaining how you will change the world with your product or service) is equally dull and uninspiring. And everything else that follows – the culture of the business, product / service delivery, brand communications, customer relations and so on – is tainted by this dull statement.

Let’s take Elon Musk of Tesla as an example. Although he doesn’t have an official Purpose statement on record, he did say this:

“I came to the conclusion that we should aspire to increase the scope and scale of human consciousness in order to better understand what questions to ask. Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment.”

That’s pretty deep, and moving. And it explains why he developed such an ambitious Mission statement:
“To accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.”

Could he have developed that statement if he didn’t have a clear sense of the deeper Purpose of the work he does?

What would his Mission statement look like if he wasn’t clear on his Purpose?

To work this out, we have to go back to a time when he was working to develop an affordable electric car. There was no mission to mars, solar panel technology, or sustainability on the horizon. It was all about cars.

So here’s my version of Tesla’s Purpose-free Mission Statement:
‘To develop an affordable, efficient electric car for the future.’

There you go – tick – Mission Statement written, now let’s move on to the next task. And all that exciting, visionary stuff just disappears in a puff of logic.

We wouldn’t have the world’s first sustainable rocket to Mars, or a magnetic hyper loop, or the world’s largest solar energy farm. Or indeed all the other things that Elon and his team will need to invent in the coming years to remain ‘On Purpose.’

Is that what’s happening right now to countless of thousands of businesses around the world? Are they selling themselves short with Purpose-free, rational, and short-sighted Mission statements?

Purpose isn't skin-deep – it can’t be cooked up in an afternoon workshop by a group of professionals thinking about what they do. It runs much, much deeper – and requires us to delve into the truth behind why we exist, and how we could change the world if we really dreamed big.

Justin Cooper