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So you have a purpose, but it isn’t working. Defining a purpose is hard enough, but ensuring it lands in the right way with your people is harder still. Then there’s activating it across your entire business ecosystem – which many purported purpose-driven businesses just don’t seem to get right.

Living up to the commitment of being purpose-driven is critical and more challenging than many businesses recognize. We see many clients who have a purpose but are struggling to make it work within their business. Often this can be the most challenging part. It’s where the rubber hits the road and the pressure to see results slowly starts to grow. So what do you do in this situation?

At Brandpie we use five fundamental tests to diagnose the problems surrounding a purpose statement:

  1. Is it active?
  2. Is it participative?
  3. Is it far-sighted?
  4. Is it limitless?
  5. Is it true to your business?

Is it active?

An active purpose is dynamic – it has a sense of direction and momentum that brings into focus what you need to aim for.

It inspires and engages the business, bringing energy and empowerment to employees and customers – while driving decisions that help create positive outcomes. When a purpose is inactive, we usually hear clients say, “We’ve launched our purpose, but nothing has changed.” It’s like the wheels of the business are turning, but the engine isn’t running. To address this, we need to consider: the challenge you set your business to improve its contribution in the world, the language used to articulate the purpose, the implications of the purpose and the levels of engagement within the business.

Tesla is a great example of an active purpose – accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy. ‘Accelerating’ directs the company to operate at speed and with urgency to tackle a necessary challenge – instigating change across every ecosystem that consumes energy.

Is it participative?

A participative purpose is inclusive. It takes your stakeholders with you on the journey.

A purpose should speak to your stakeholders and their different needs. First, every employee in your business should be able to recognize how they can contribute to delivering your purpose. In addition, from customers to suppliers, every stakeholder in your ecosystem should be able to relate to your purpose. This was recently brought to the forefront by the Business Roundtable in 2019, when CEOs elevated stakeholder interests beyond those of shareholder interests. All too often we see an emphasis on the latter.

A common barrier to participation is the way a purpose is communicated. Businesses need to find better ways for stakeholders to build genuine connections with the purpose. Take Lego’s purpose as an example: ‘inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.’ It brings into focus the endless human possibility that everybody possesses. By enabling the ‘builders of tomorrow,’ Lego inspire the next generation of creatives, and also the next generation of Lego employees and leaders.

Is it far-sighted?

A far-sighted purpose is visionary and sets a meaningful and relevant challenge for the business to solve.

A purpose should set your business on a journey – one that looks to achieve something beyond business as usual and offers a greater benefit to society. The bravest and boldest will set themselves a challenge they may not yet know how to fulfill but believe to be worthwhile. Think of Unilever, ‘To make sustainable living commonplace’ is meaningful, relevant and also bold. Imagine the questions Paul Polman was asked, but he stood up for what he believed in and challenged his business to find solutions. The boldest leaders set a target for their organization and don’t waver.

In 2021, our CEO Purpose Report found that 89% of CEOs agree that purpose has helped guide their business through uncertain times. Make your purpose a guiding beacon, not an action to tick off the to-do list. For a purpose to be used in that way, it must be far-sighted.

AstraZeneca is another great example of a far-sighted purpose, ‘pushing the boundaries of science to deliver life changing medicine.’ It provides the organization with a North Star and a more meaningful reason to come to work. It puts scientific endeavour and discovery central to everything they do, which became more important than ever as the businesses sought to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

Is it limitless?

A limitless purpose can stretch, adapting to current context, capabilities, or business frontiers.

Companies continue to face unprecedented market forces, and as the market context changes, so will the needs of businesses. Equally, the sphere of influence and potential of a purpose shouldn’t be overlooked. The extent to which purpose has the ability to reach beyond the boardroom is building momentum, as demonstrated in our 2021 CEO Purpose Report.

Together this suggests that businesses must take a wide and limitless view. From IT to sales, from business strategies to world needs, it needs to reach across and beyond the business itself, giving the business space to grow and evolve.

EY is a great example of a limitless purpose, ‘building a better working world.’ A statement that goes beyond the boardroom. It’s a never-ending, and a constantly moving target that will always present new opportunities to be better.

Is it true to business?

If your purpose is already active, participative, far-sighted, limitless, and still isn’t working, then the problem usually lies with the purpose itself. This calls into question whether your purpose is true to your business, or if it needs revisiting.

We often find that businesses have defined a purpose in too narrow a context of what they do. When in reality you need to look deep inside the organization, retrospectively looking back to your founder’s vision, and prospectively imagining how those ideals could be reframed for the challenges you face in the future.

To do this we use Ikigai – a Japanese concept which embodies the idea of happiness in living. The model combines four key questions to help identify purpose: value, skill, passion and world need. By answering these challenging questions, we get to the core of what drives a business which ultimately helps define a purpose that can act as the galvanizing force.

The purpose imperative has never been stronger, and with that the art of getting a purpose to work effectively within a business has never been as important as it is today.

Since 2008, Brandpie has helped companies discover, activate, and illuminate their purpose – unlocking growth and building a sustainable future for their businesses. Hopefully these five tests should help to identify why your purpose isn’t working. And if it’s still proving to be difficult, then don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Having spent the last 10 years defining and activating corporate purpose for Fortune 1000 organizations, we can help you get the most out of yours.

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