Why is ‘clear purpose’ two factors and not one?
It’s because ‘clear purpose,’ by itself, does not give organisations a very good overview of the various important tenets of this concept. Just having a purpose that is clear is not the endgame: it is simply one success factor. There is more work to do.
To understand what other work there is to do, we need to break ‘clear purpose’ down into its constituent parts. The first is purpose. There is one task to do, but it’s a big one. The second is clarity, where there are several distinct tasks.
Success in all these tasks is important for organisations looking to get maximum value from their work on purpose. This is for two reasons: firstly, all tasks combine to form a more powerful and compelling representation of purpose.
Secondly, individuals may be more or less motivated by each of the constituent tasks, meaning that if purpose is to have a unifying effect across the whole workforce, it’s important that it has as broad an appeal as possible.
Let’s now look at each task in turn.
Factor #1: Purpose
Purpose is a higher goal the organisation aims to fulfil, outside of its main economic goals. It’s about achieving a further aim that improves people’s lives; in this way most purposes are socially progressive.
Some people argue that purposes don’t have to be socially progressive, but many that don’t seem at first glance to be actually are. Let’s take an engineering company whose purpose is to ‘become known as an era-defining innovator for their work in a particular field.’
At first glance this looks like it’s about proficiency in engineering, but it’s actually about innovation. And innovation is about fast-tracking improvement in the world around us, rather than doing it linearly. It’s about being known as a force for change in human history.
Purpose requires deep thought. It must be inspiring, appeal broadly and act as a framework upon which all other parts of the organisation can hang. Greg Ellis, former CEO of REA Group, called purpose the organisation’s ‘philosophical heartbeat.’
Have you found your organisation’s purpose yet?
Factor #2: Clarity
As discussed above, while there is one task to achieve when it comes to purpose, clarity requires you to tackle several. You’ll find each task below, along with an explanation of why it’s critical.
Task 1: make sure the organisation’s purpose is communicated very well
This is a particularly important part of ‘clarity.’ If people aren’t aware what the purpose is, it’s obviously hard for them to connect with it in any way. A good litmus test is this: if you asked 20 employees all at different levels, they would all know what the purpose was, and wouldn’t get confused between purpose and associated concepts like vision and values.
This sounds easy to achieve, but is surprisingly hard, as related concepts do tend to muddy the waters with employees and what sounds clear when you’re in the boardroom is murkier when cascaded down through the organisation. You should keep the purpose simple, reinforce it and clearly delineate it from short-term, strategic aims.
Task 2: ensure the organisation’s contribution to the purpose is clear
The organisational purpose can be completely clear, but it can be unclear how the organisation contributes to fulfilling this purpose. But this is an important part of having a clear purpose. Why?
Without this connection, the purpose becomes disconnected from the organisation. It can be disheartening and demotivating to have an inspiring organisational purpose but think that the organisation you work for is not contributing to its fulfilment.
Task 3: make sure employee actions are linked to purpose fulfilment
Each employee should see how their daily tasks contribute to the fulfilment of the organisation’s higher purpose. When this doesn’t happen, it can lead to employees feeling like a ‘cog in the machine’ and feeling demotivated as they can’t see the impact of their work.
This is different from the connection between organisation and purpose. It must happen at the role-level, or employees can think the organisation is generally contributing to purpose but that their roles are not.
Generally, a very strong system of cascading down is key to success in this area: each employee’s focus should be directly descended from strategic goals decided in the boardroom, which are themselves guided by the organisation’s purpose.
Task 4: respect the purpose and report on progress
Purpose should be a living, breathing goal that doesn’t only drive organisational strategy and goals but is used to inspire and motivate. Just as organisations track progress against strategic KPIs, they should track progress against purpose and report back regularly on whether the organisation is moving in the right direction.
This can be challenging when the purpose is abstract, but all purposes are reducible to a greater or lesser degree to trackable goals which can be broken down to measurable milestones. This is never an easy task but there’s nothing more fulfilling than reporting back to your staff that you’ve made progress in achieving the purpose you set out to achieve.