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The Challenges of Creating Organizational Purpose

Change – one of the most difficult things for any organization to do. Most companies are built with a structure and culture that remains static through its lifetime.

This may have served a specific purpose in the past, but the evolving market and technological conditions mean that it can become outdated. There may be a need for change, but the bulkier an organization becomes, the slower and resistant it gets.


Defining, creating and implementing purpose in your organization constitutes a significant change. In essence, what you are trying to do is change not the body or mind of your business, but its spirit. Restructuring teams or creating a culture of feedback are straight forward processes that can be implemented. But how do you connect deeply with your employees and invigorate them with a sense of meaning?


In the last segment, we have learned how organizational purpose can be your unfair advantage.


Mundane work


Not all work is made equal. There is a lot of less stimulating work that comprises the majority of jobs in our economy. It is true that something being ‘boring’ is a matter of perspective. But generally, we can agree that work that is highly repetitive, offers no growth and doesn’t engage the mind, body or senses isn’t that motivating. The same could also be said for certain industries, product lines or services.


When you are implementing purpose in your organization, you will have to reach people who are doing low-level jobs or grunt work. No doubt these jobs are essential to the function of any business, but it is the perception that matters. The challenge here is to find a way for these individuals to find purpose in the mundane. If someone is a receptionist or data entry clerk, they may not see their job as playing an important part of a connected whole.


It is much easier for instance, for an engineer or designer to find a sense of purpose. They are directly connected to building the product, so they can draw from the satisfaction of creation. But other job roles such as administration or labor will require a stronger, more connected narrative – one which you as a leader has to articulate.


On a grander scale, not all industries are as romantic as each other either. You may have a company that manufactures a very specific product – let’s say the roller on a mouse. You may have a profitable business and happy customers, but how do you translate what you do to create a greater sense of being for your team? What is it that’s so special about your operations? SpaceX wants to go to Mars and make humans a multiplanetary species. But that’s because they are operating in space flight. It’s not as easy to have a purpose like that for every industry.


Disillusioned team


Similar to mundane work, you could run into the issue of having an unengaged team. It is a chicken and egg problem of sort – purpose creates engagement, but lack of it creates the opposite effect.


Likely the biggest culprit could be the innocent fact that employees simply aren’t used to having a purpose. Most companies don’t have a strong sense of purpose. And even if they do, that doesn’t always get translated to the managers and employees. As a result, many people don’t consider purpose as part of the work they do. They have been conditioned to the opposite – to come into work, do their job and clock out.


This, of course, has created a widespread culture where people just come to work for the pay. This isn’t a negative judgement on those that do – it’s simply logical. The way businesses operate and the system we have creates an adversarial relationship between employees and employers – both want to maximise the money they make. As such, money becomes the main motivator for work and purpose is seen as ‘corporate jargon’.


This skepticism can compound if you as a leader are inauthentic in how you deliver purpose. If your company has had a culture that is solely about monetary reward, and suddenly you start preaching about meaning, they could interpret this as fake. In result, they won’t take purpose seriously and you will fail to instill it in your employees. Purpose isn’t something that can be faked – it must be a voluntary opt-in by your people.  


Department and managerial alignment


When you want to bring purpose to your organization, you will find that there are different stakeholders that you have to convince. Individual employees, managers, tribes, different departments, the executive board and even yourself. Each of these different stakeholders will be coming from distinct backgrounds, perspectives and have different motivations. This means that they will interpret your change in different ways that you need to be aware of.


The issue arises in the fact that business functions exist to serve their own motives as best as possible. This is a problem that Fred Koffman outlines in his book ‘The Meaning Revolution’. The idea here is that when individual subsystems optimize for their best outcome, it can negatively affect the ‘greater good’ of the system as a whole.


In real life terms, your law department may be ruthless in their thoroughness of contracts – spending a little too long on the details. This, of course, keeps you out of legal trouble. But imagine the case where you need to generate $1m extra in revenue to secure the next round of funding – something which will help you execute your purpose. The sales teams are being more aggressive to meet this target, but now the departments are misaligned. There is a conflict here that can only be solved through a collective of your purpose. Everyone needs to see the bigger picture.


The leadership styles of each individual manager will also play a part. Purpose calls for a change in how we think about the work we do. If your managers are used to carrot and stick methods of motivating their teams, they will need training in how to lead from purpose. In this new paradigm, it is no longer as much about KPI’s and giving out orders. Your managers need a style that solicits autonomy and engagement from their team. Your managers, of course, will have to have that same mentality instilled in them first.


Between your team, managers and different departments, what you are effectively doing is revamping your culture. Your culture represents the ideas, beliefs, values, and attitudes which are unspoken and assumed – hopefully existing between each person in your company. Culture change, alongside innovation and market competition, are leading challenges in business. There aren’t quick fixes and there are no easy answers to effective culture change. It is a long process that requires charismatic leadership, planning and an aligned commitment to change.


Short term vs long term thinking


One of the biggest problems we have in our culture is the propensity to short term thinking. This is true especially for companies that are backed by investors – either publicly or privately. There is a constant need to focus on quarterly results or face the fury of your backers. Purpose, however, may edge you more into the realm of long term thinking.


Say for instance there is a company who you could profit from by engaging in a partnership. But for whatever reasons, you know this company doesn’t share the same values as you. Perhaps they have a track record of damaging the environment or treating their employees badly. If you your purpose was in conflict with them, would you look the other way in exchange for short term profits? Not an easy question to answer. You would be sacrificing the tangible for the intangible.


Although you may choose to stay true to your purpose, the shareholders who you are accountable to may not feel the same way. Their goal is to simply maximize profits – ideally as soon as possible. As their purpose may be different or extend beyond your company, there is no way that you can guarantee that your shareholders will be comfortable with your new focus on purpose. Aligning your shareholders then becomes one of your key challenges. How do you find the right balance between purpose and profit?


And when it comes to strategy, a new sense of purpose can change the entire direction of your organization. When you come up with a purpose and try to implement it, you may realise that your current operation is in contradiction to your new purpose. There may be a need to completely steer the ship. This, of course, brings its own set of risks and challenges. But if this new purpose can energize your workforce to a grander vision, it may just be worth it.


Implementing purpose


The challenge of purpose starts with defining what your purpose should be. It takes an honest look at both your business and yourself and an exploration of the big why. There is a lot of soul searching involved to create something that truly resonates with your people. That’s half the battle. The other is navigating the challenges of implementation including the risks of failing to execute properly.


In the next segment, we will take a look at solutions to each of these challenges, best practices and creating a starting point for your implementation.

About the author

Stefan Beiten

Stefan Beiten is a lawyer, international entrepreneur and investor from Berlin. With more than 20 years of experience, Stefan is an expert in building, scaling and managing successful businesses.

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