“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
– Henry David Thoreau
(This is the extended version of my article from Start Your Business online magazine).
Purpose provides us context in the realm of Business. You may be an entrepreneur starting out. You may be a lower-level manager in an organisation, with targets to develop and meet. Or you may be a seasoned C-Suite leader developing corporate strategy. Regardless of your role, using purpose as your context brings advantages during planning, execution and review.
At the planning stage, we are identifying opportunities. We are also identifying and evaluating possible risks. And we are selecting or dropping possible options. We may be looking to improve finances (such as increase profits / drive out costs). Or seeking to improve existing processes. At times we will be developing new strategy and tactics. But we compromise our ability to plan without using purpose as context.
Without purpose, the options we must consider may appear endless. Even more dangerous, we may choose a direction that does not align with our core values. It may not support our long-term vision; it may not even draw out the best short-term actions to put in place.
And things do go wrong when we fail to consider purpose. One of the most startling examples in recent times is Apple’s introduction of the iPhone. Not reacting to Apple’s new product relegated Nokia from dominant industry leader to relative obscurity. It appeared that “Nokia was so immersed in executing its strategy that it lost sight of its purpose”[i].
Execution marks the beginning of the journey proper. But we can only prepare for some eventualities. We will encounter unexpected changes to the business landscape. We will receive unexpected indicators or results as we journey towards out goals. And new or competing priorities entering our domain may push us further off balance.
During these times, our purpose remains the compass in which we keep our course. It allows us to decipher new information and either dismiss or incorporate it into our tactics. And purpose provides the critical benefit of adding resilience to us and our team as we take action.
A very recent study examined the brains of people who felt connected to their purpose. All showed reduced activity in the areas of the brain responsible for “conflict-related processing”[ii]. This means less time and mental effort spent trying to identify or resolve inconsistencies. It helps avoid dwelling over conflicting data or negative outcomes. As a result, extra mental resources become available for use.
It is common business practice to review our efforts upon completion of any significant activity. Capturing learnings is key to ongoing improvement. Yet the only way to measure outcomes is against the purpose for which it was set. Only then we may record the wins. And we may also evaluate if any setbacks were simply the price paid and not a genuine failure.
How to Identify Purpose
A topic worthy of larger discussion in its own right. The above advantages do not explain exactly HOW we first define our purpose. Should we discover it[iii]? Or develop it? My advice is to consider doing both. A purpose that makes you burn from the bottom of your feet provides many advantages, including clarity, resilience, drive and even longevity[iv] . If you can discover a way to deliver the (commercial or personal) benefits you seek via your strongest passion, then you should pursue it. If not, be prepared to then consider developing your purpose from a lesser interest.
We live in a quickly-globalising economy. It is a competitive place. And this also brings increasing demands on our personal and professional life, often bringing them into conflict. Because of this, it is of greatest importance to always keep our core motivations in mind.
The chaos of our current business landscape is (relatively) recent. But the wisdom behind Purpose has been around for thousands of years[v] . Even today it gives us our context to make the right decisions. To take full advantage of our ever-changing business landscape. To stay the course. To take advantage of the new trends. And to continually improve ourselves and our business.
You must define that purpose.
Then engage that purpose to deliver your business outcomes.
Just ask Nokia.
[i] Chevreux, et al. “The Best Companies Know How to Balance Strategy and Purpose.”: 26.
[ii] Kang, et al “Purpose in Life and Conflict-Related Neural Responses During Health Decision-Making.”: 548.
[iii] Henderson “Follow Your Bliss”: A Process for Career Happiness.”.
[iv] Chan, et al “When God Is Your Only Friend: Religious Beliefs Compensate for Purpose in Life in the Socially Disconnected.”: 455-456.
[v] Zu “Purpose-Driven Leadership for Sustainable Business: From the Perspective of Taoism.”:3.
Chan, Todd, Nicholas M. Michalak, and Oscar Ybarra. “When God Is Your Only Friend: Religious Beliefs Compensate for Purpose in Life in the Socially Disconnected.” Journal of Personality 87, no. 3 (2019): 455-71.
Chevreux, Laurent, Jose Lopez, and Xavier Mesnard. “The Best Companies Know How to Balance Strategy and Purpose.” [In English]. Accountancy SA (Nov 2018 2018): 26-27.
Henderson, Sheila J. “Follow Your Bliss”: A Process for Career Happiness.” Journal of Counseling and Development 78, no. 3 (2000): 305.
Kang, Yoona, Victor J. Strecher, Eric Kim, and Emily B. Falk. “Purpose in Life and Conflict-Related Neural Responses During Health Decision-Making.” Health Psychology 38, no. 6 (2019): 545-52.
Zu, Liangrong. “Purpose-Driven Leadership for Sustainable Business: From the Perspective of Taoism.” International Journal of Corporate Social Responsibility 4, no. 1 (2019/02/07 2019): 3.