The purpose of having a purpose

All companies and businesses will know what they do. A cardboard box company makes and sells boxes; a university teaches students and undertakes research. If asked, most will know how they do it. But do all organisations know why they do what they do? In this post, we explore the importance of clarifying your reason for being.

I've recently been working with a client who wanted a new business plan to help them take advantage of new opportunities. However, as we worked through the consultation - gathering views from internal and external perspectives - it emerged that the core purpose of the organisation had become lost. They had started with a clear position, but over time this had become diluted. This meant it was difficult to pinpoint their exact role, and this was having an impact on every aspect of their business.

If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. We tend to focus on delivering the activities that will have the most immediate effect, like generating income. This is obviously crucial, but there are risks with this short-term approach. Long-term success requires a different focus. And this is where purpose comes to the fore.

Your purpose should be at the centre of all your decisions. It's your organisation's reason for being. It's why you do what you do. Having a clear purpose can differentiate your offer from the competition, make your staff more enthusiastic and dedicated, build customer loyalty and create social capital. It is the 'inside-out' view of your company, rather than the usual 'outside-in'.

The importance of the 'why' is perhaps best described by Simon Sinek, both on his website Start with Why and in his TED talk, How great leaders inspire action. Codified in the 'Golden Circle', Sinek explains how companies and people who have started with their purpose are much more successful than those who start with what they do or how they do it. This works because, as Sinek says, ‘people buy why you do it, not what you do’. This earlier post gives more description.

And while some organisations have the best of intentions, their purpose often gets lost amongst their vision, mission, strategy, objectives, or values. Each of these has an important role to play. But without that core purpose, your whole approach is at risk of being much less effective than you'd expect. It's definitely worth investing in defining this purpose, and adding the value that starting with why really brings.

If you need help with your 'why', then get in touch. We've helped social enterprises, university departments, and member organisations define their purpose and create new value.

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