One of the most powerful guiding forces any company has is the very purpose for which it exists, the mission it sets out to do.

But what happens when your purpose starts limiting business growth?

That's exactly the conundrum internet mammoth Facebook is staring down as it eyes expansion into China.

And it's starting to blink.

Facebook has built an empire on the unswerving mission of making the world more open and connected (and by elevating my feelings of inadequacy the more time I spend on it).

And yet The New York Times recently reported that "the social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people's news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former employees."

Software that could be put to use in China in a big, stifling way.

Facebook and many other American internet companies have succumbed to censorship rules for years in countries like Russia and Turkey.

But the potential China effort ratchets the issue of censorship up several notches because it goes beyond the blocking of content to the prevention of it ever being released in the first place.

A Facebook employee told me that the suppression effort has been hotly debated inside the company, and that some employees have quit over a perceived straying from the core mission.

According to the Times, Zuckerberg addressed the hot topic at a weekly Friday Q&A, saying, "It's better for Facebook to be a part of an enabling conversation, even if it's not yet the full conversation."

Is that the compromise of a purpose or commissioning of a new strategy? Or both?

Either way, shareholders want growth and China is the obvious play for the next kajillion users, so it's an interesting conundrum for Zuckerberg and his team.

I think this situation poses two important questions to consider:

What role does purpose play in your business?

The power of having purpose is undeniable. It has helped drive Facebook to superstar status, resonating with employees in a way the average corporate mission statement has no chance of doing.

The fact that some employees would quit over a potential breach of such a purpose indicates its motivational (or not) power.

Having purpose stirs the soul, and can be a important tool for any founder, especially one trying to give millennials another reason to stay.

Is your business wielding a deep-seated power of purpose?

Should your purpose be malleable?

But the sole purpose of purpose isn't just to give a company a soul.

Staying true to a company purpose maintains focus. It provides a code of conduct that can quickly inform decisions. At its best it can motivate employees in and of itself and help drive productivity.

Research indicates 63% of CEOs say having a clear purpose has directly contributed to increased revenue growth.

However, what if changing conditions require a different lens on a company's purpose?

At what point is it OK to bend and mold the purpose so that it still serves business objectives?

I do think where Facebook could be heading in China is a slippery slope, but I'd argue that it's about the end-of-the-day impact.

Will allowing and enabling censorship constitute a migration from Facebook's vaunted purpose and mission?

Yes.

However, the end result of enabling at least part of the conversation is better in my view than never having one.

Facebook's mission is still being advanced even with a constrained entry into China. The grey-zone comes in the definition of the word "open" in Facebook's "open and connected world".

Some will simply argue this is a case of the need for profit over purpose.

I believe having a purpose is a powerful tool, but it needs to be malleable enough to adapt to changing business conditions (while still maintaining the heart and soul of its original intent).

What do you think?

Published on: Nov 28, 2016
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