If you listen to the seemingly unending talk about it, purpose isn't just important, it's near magical. Trouble is, most organizations aren't feeling the magic. And yet, so powerful is the belief in purpose's power that a few years back a broad community of executives, entrepreneurs, and business luminaries established an institute to research and advocate for, you guessed it, purpose. To their surprise however, their very first study revealed a more nuanced truth, one it's time we faced.
Their survey of nearly 500 executives did offer some validation. It found that organizations that truly prioritize purpose saw an average of 10 percent growth over three years. Better still, when a clear sense of purpose existed and was actively used as a decision-making filter, that shared compass allowed organizations to more efficiently and effectively transform and adapt, even in the most challenging of circumstances. From there, however, the news went south, spotlighting a critical shortcoming in our understanding about the power of purpose and how to unleash it.
While nearly every executive surveyed declared purpose to be important, fewer than half reported that it actually played a role in their strategic and operational decision-making. In other words, while hailed, purpose was not the driver in the strategy, operations, and cultural of these organizations. Think about that. How can a presumed asset disconnected or unused actually be an asset? It can't. And that's what this study and others since then make clear: Purpose has value only when you use it, as a guide and a litmus test for daily decision-making at every level across the span of the organization. How does that happen? The patterns across the most successful purpose-driven organizations show three things to be key.
Make it doable.
It's a sad truth, but for most organizations prioritizing purpose ends with a finely crafted, adjective-heavy, aspirational sentence that amounts to "We stand for this. Now get back to work." Equally limiting, such lofty declarations describe purpose as something far away from this moment. The power in purpose lies in its actual use. For that to occur, purpose has to be something everyone can touch, understand, and put to use, not in a single moment, but in every moment. If it's not, it's soon to wither, if not dead on arrival.
The most powerful way to make purpose useable, understandable, and accessible is to co-create it. You can't mandate purpose, though that's exactly what most organizations try to do. By contrast, those who use purpose to effect understand that the power of purpose is multidimensional. It motivates, clarifies, and guides. Yes, purpose can inspire. But really, that's the lesser of its powers.
Co-creation isn't just a one-time, upfront thing either. In truth, it's the first step to purpose being co-owned. To be impactful, purpose must be owned by everyone. That is in fact what employees want (something the Great Reshuffle is teaching us in real time). It's hard to own something you didn't have a hand in creating, and harder still to stand behind something you aren't encouraged and empowered to keep actively using.
Make it hit home.
In the end, to truly have impact, purpose must be ever-present and central to daily decision making at every level of the organization. There simply is no substitute. But how? An example helps, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has for over four decades offered a great one.
As a person, as a leader, Chouinard is undeniably purpose-driven. But it's how he's acted on that that stands apart. Since Patagonia's start, he's talked about the planet as his priority and protecting it as Patagonia's true purpose. He even founded the company to create products that did less damage to the earth than he did to make money. But what Chouinard knows is that what's purposeful to him personally means squat if it doesn't extend to all of the Patagonia team, its partners, its customers, and anyone else who has a hand in its success or failure.
Chouinard and his team seem keenly aware that purpose exists on a continuum between the aspirational and the operational. To actually have power and impact, they know, purpose must be evermore operationalized. So, beyond declaration, even beyond the products pursued, early in the company's history Chouinard created what he called an earth tax, a purpose-linked decision to dedicate a percentage of company profits (and now gross revenue) to protecting the natural world. The real value in the earth tax, however, is mental. Every time an idea is generated, a decision made, or an action taken, purpose is quite literally part of the calculation. There's nothing anyone in the company does day-to-day that isn't impacted by this operationalization of purpose -- if there is, count on Chouinard and his team to adjust again.
Simply copying Patagonia isn't the take-away. The earth tax example simply makes clear that purpose will never be powerful in theory. It can be powerful only when it's owned and used by everyone every day. By making purpose doable, co-created, and operationally central, any organization can raise the odds of realizing purpose's promise.