Today, business gurus focus on terms like mission, culture, and innovation as the keys to organizational effectiveness. And they’ve done a good job of getting these terms out into the zeitgeist. But there’s a problem: these words are easy to repeat but hard to put into practice. When it comes to mission statements, we struggle to come up with the perfect words to inspire the people within our organization. When it comes to company culture, we struggle to define what our culture even is and to identify what could make it better (other than more dogs in the office, of course). And when it comes to innovation, we struggle to find the right formula to produce the next great thing.
Currently, the vast majority of organizations’ mission statements are essentially “to become the market leader and maximize shareholder value.” This kind of thinking leaves organizations susceptible to new competition and discourages innovators from coming up with novel ideas because it’s so focused on the organizations’ current lines of business.
With so many profit-focused mission statements in the world, we prefer to avoid the term mission altogether. While this might seem a little too focused on semantics here, we feel there is a difference between a true purpose and a mission statement. Your purpose is the guiding force behind every decision your organization makes. It is the ideal that you are striving for in order to make the world a better place. It’s the reason the organization was founded in the first place. Mission, on the other hand, is more goal-focused. If you were to strip away all of the other positive factors associated with being in a group (safety, camaraderie, money, etc.), you would be left with the only reason your members still connect with your organization: your purpose.
With Great Purpose Comes Great Creativity
If we think back to our recess days, it was always pretty clear which team was going to win when Johnny, the 6’ sixth grade basketball prodigy, was picked first every time. There is just no denying the fact that pure talent will always give you a better chance at being successful. It’s this reason why recruiting is so crucial. Luckily for you, if you have a purpose, you’re naturally going to recruit better talent. When you have a purpose based around making people’s lives better, more people will want to work for you. When more people want to work for you, you get more opportunities to land those truly innovative people. This might sound like a lot fluff, but Dan Keeler and Andrea D. McCombs found that:
1: “People prefer to do business with and work for socially conscious companies.”
2: “The most talented and qualified applicants are increasingly considering a company’s ethics and community support when selecting their employer.”
3: “Employee morale is three times higher in firms that are actively involved in their community than their less-involved counterparts.”
And 4: “When employees’ work environments match their personal values, they are more productive.”
Not only will your members more naturally talented, but they will actually work harder when they buy into the purpose. Jackie Barretta, in her book, Primal Teams, beautifully illustrates this point, stating, “Everyone possesses a life scheme that gives them a sense of order and meaning in their life, much like a story...Individuals feel most inspired by a...purpose that fits snugly into their life scheme.” The more you connect with an organization’s purpose, the more inspired you will be to continually think about “work.” We put “work” in quotes, because at this point, it really isn’t work anymore. It’s just part of your life. It’s what you are passionate about. And the more you are thinking about a problem, the more you engage in lensing, the more chances you have to discover that all-important insight to lead you to an innovative solution.
Ok, so a great purpose will get us more naturally talented people and will help those people think more often about the problems at hand, but it doesn’t stop there. It will literally make them think more creatively (and yes, science backs this up). In Primal Teams, Barretta also found that, “When a stimulus arouses our seeking system, it activates our frontal neocortex, prompting us to work out innovative strategies and solutions. Logic doesn't make us do that. Emotions do. A team that embarks on an exciting new journey not only feels strongly motivated to succeed but also works smarter.” Psychologist Teresa Amabile also found a connection between creation and motivation. In her study, she took two sets of people and told them to make collages. One group was told that they would be judged and the other group was told they would not be judged. At the end, both groups were judged by a panel of creative experts. The first group that was expecting evaluation was judged to have produced significantly less creative collages. She then continued to demonstrate this by looking at professional work where artists were commissioned versus other pieces where they were just doing it out of internal motivations. Again, the people who were externally motivated were less creative.
At this point, this whole “purpose” thing is starting to feel like a triple whammy. You’ve got a ton of awesome and talented people that are not only thinking longer and harder about the problem but are actually thinking more creatively as well.
How to Identify That Purpose
Hopefully by now you’ve jumped on the purpose bandwagon, realizing how beneficial it is to create a place for innovation. If that’s the case, you’re probably either feeling really good about your team’s purpose or your head’s spinning as to how to apply this to your situation. So how do you define your organization’s purpose?
If you’re just starting up an organization, you’ve got a world of possibilities ahead of you, but you also have less experience to draw upon for defining your purpose. If your organization has been around the block, you have a lot to work with to define your purpose (but maybe too much). Established organizations face the challenge that some members may be resistant to a newly defined purpose. This is alright; they need to move on if their passion doesn’t align with the organization’s.
Ok, let’s get to the process, adapted from Gaston Legorburu and Darren McColl’s Storyscaping
Step 1: Uncover Your Origins
Start at the very beginning (it’s a very good place to start). Trace a path from your humble origins to today, focusing on everyone’s favorite moments in between. This will keep your purpose authentic and give you clues as to how you have been striving, implicitly, towards a purpose the entire time.
Step 2: Determine Your Impact
What industry are you in? What types of people benefit from what you’re trying to do? How are they benefiting? What would happen to those people if your organization suddenly ceased to exist?
Step 3: Write It Down
Once you’ve figured out your origins and the impact you want to have, it’s time to distill your purpose into a clear sentence or two. It’s essential that this part of the process is a group effort. When you’re ready to extrapolate a purpose out of your origins and impact, you need to continue to ask why. Getting to the root reasons behind what your team wants to strive toward will allow you to get as specific as possible about your purpose while still allowing it to be an ideal that will guide your organization for years to come.
Step 4: Tell the World
The final step is all about making sure everyone is on the same page. This might seem pretty easy, especially for a startup, but it’s probably the most difficult step. As we mentioned earlier, there is a chance that even if you include everyone there will be some members of your organization that disagree with your purpose. Realistically, it might be impossible for everyone to agree, but the more people that disagree the less power your purpose has. As you continue to push the importance of your purpose, some members might become disconnected and leave. While this is difficult to swallow, it’s best for your organization. The other reason this step is so difficult is the need to continually communicate your purpose. You need to build in mechanisms that continue to push this purpose (and no, writing it on the wall doesn’t count). You need ways to continue to tell everyone stories from your organization’s history that demonstrate your purpose.
Finding your organization’s purpose is the first step on your innovation journey. Without it, your organization, your people, your work, and your process will have no direction. With a purpose though, you can start down the path towards making the world a better place.