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Exploring purpose

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More and more companies are going public with a purpose statement that is supposed to explain the meaning of the company. But a recently published study shows: Having a good statement is not enough. The problem is credibility. For example, a sustainability statement does not seem to convince respondents much if the company then invests in fossil fuels anyway.

The reason for the tension that arises around the purpose statement is that many managers continue to find it difficult to let go of the need for control: After all, in the complicated world of permanent change, control was the means of choice to ensure implementation and results.

Listening to purpose as a permanent task

Now, Covid-19 at the latest has made clear: even without the pandemic, things would not have continued as before. In a drastic way, the ‘great excess’ was shown to us, because we have been stuck for some time in a growth crisis, as the publicist and trend researcher Matthias Horx states in the Future Report 2021: The Pandemic as a Wake-up Call. And at the same time, the question arises as to how we could have been be sure for so long that we were on the right track.

To answer this question, we need to be aware of what has guided us so far. Because, as Frédéric Laloux wrote in his book ReinventingOrganizations back in 2014: Companies that see themselves as living organisms not only have a clear sense of purpose – that is, the contribution they themselves make to the economy and society and the impact they leave behind for humanity. For these organizations, listening to purpose is an ongoing task.

Purpose: Hype or Fake?

In contrast, in the prevailing machine image of an organization, managers view their company as a technical entity that must be set in motion by energy and programmed for success. In many management books, therefore, leadership begins by laying out a vision and a strategy and ensuring that the entire organization implements them. The focus is on setting goals and monitoring their fulfillment.

Machine organizations see purpose as a hype, a buzzword: everyone needs it to be successful – just like a few years ago everyone wanted a mission statement. A positive message to the outside world that is also intended to motivate employees. Laloux calls this kind of stated purpose a ‘fake purpose’: a statement that describes everything the organization does anyway. Because this is how such a purpose statement is usually created: you look at the organization’s activities and try to package them as nobly as possible.

Why invest in marketing?

In times, when appearances count, decisions are not necessary – and businesses that destroy the environment and society continue unchecked. We continue to see this today in many areas of health care, education and, for example, the energy industry. Marketing, PR or lobbyists fuel the sales pipeline. Million-dollar investments in these areas are the prerequisite for sales success, as we have seen from consumer brands from Nestlé to Coca-Cola for years.

However, if you look at an organization as a living organism, it develops its own dynamics and has its own purpose that it wants to manifest in the world. It is therefore no longer necessary to set a vision – the task is to be present and to sense where the evolutionary purpose of the organization is leading. ‘Go with the flow’ is the motto – one moves together in harmony with the organization, embedded in its environment.

Purpose always requires decisions

This type of Purpose is evolutionary – it arises organically from the environment and adapts to it simultaneously and continuously. Purpose thus becomes a key success factor in transformation, which requires continuous adaptability and agility. An evolutionary purpose also presents the organization with a choice: one consciously decides to do some things and leave other things aside. Living organisms radically reject activities that destroy nature.

Organizations that follow the paradigm of the living organism therefore hardly spend money on creating needs that do not actually exist. They thus work efficiently and effectively at the same time – effortlessly and in flow with themselves. They have no problem being transparent and showing their customers how their products are really made and what they do. And they can show the full costs, including the impact on the environment and society, without having to exclude parts.

How do I, as a manager, find the Purpose to which my organization is drawn? Try it, for example, with the “PurposeConstellation” also presented in our toolbox. Have fun trying it out!