The Purpose of Purpose

Peter JonesHuman Values

Harvard Business School professor Jim Heskett asks: Is There Too Little “Know Why” in Business? In a commentary-inquiry piece on the HBS Working Knowledge site, a dialogue asks how purpose is recognized and leveraged as a motivator in business. Heskett questions whether executives really know understand the impact of leading by purpose, and notes the paucity of examples of large companies that truly lead by purpose, such as the perennial reference to Anita Roddick and The Body Shop.

Two recent books offer views of the roles of managers and leaders. The first, Know-How, by Ram Charan, sets forth eight behaviors exhibited by managers who get things done. The second, Purpose, by Nikos Mourkogiannis, could really have been titled “Know Why.” It describes four kinds of purpose, “starting points” that govern what great companies do and how they do it. Each of these purposes represents a kind of “holy grail” as opposed to goals (often merely financial), missions or visions, or even a set of values. As Mourkogiannis puts it, “Let others play with ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ and ‘management.’ Purpose is the game of champions.”

According to this theory, truly transformational purpose can be found in: (1) discovery, the challenge of adventure and innovation characterized by dot-com entrepreneurs willing to work 24/7 in search of the new or unknown, (2) excellence, in which high standards are not compromised for short-term performance (as with Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett), (3) altruism, where the primary purpose is to serve (customers, employees, etc.) first and assume that profit will follow (as at Nordstrom), and (4) heroism, typically involving grand plans to change entire industries or even the way we live (Bill Gates and Microsoft).

The argument is that only one of these purposes, if pursued rigorously and successfully, is required for greatness. Putting mere goals, such as primarily making money, before purpose gets us an Enron or a Worldcom. The pity, according to Mourkogiannis, is that true purpose could have enabled these organizations to make even greater “real” profits than those they reported.

How often do we re-envision purpose in our own organizations? If purpose is discussed, is it tossed off as “selling widgets” or “making money.” Do we have the courage of our vision to elevate ourselves and our organizations beyond the economic and the instrumental? Should organizations even have a noble purpose?

I would add to these books Noble Purpose: Igniting Extraordinary Passion for Life and Work by my friend Barry Heermann, whose program by the same name has spread widely, using a dialogic approach to self-discovery. Noble Purpose does for individuals what Barry’s original Team Spirit program does for teams – generating deep commitment to the higher purposes underlying our work and commitments.

When I advise on visioning sessions, the big idea I insist upon is that a vision extends beyond our ability to accomplish, that a true vision is something that encompasses a lifetime or more, its the horizon of our highest intention that pushes us beyond what we believe possible. Vision and purpose are very closely related – purpose is intention and direction, but is not accomplished (as is a mission, or a mission statement). My vision is to create humane futures by revealing and exchanging shared wisdom. While UX research projects and dialogic design may not accomplish this vision, I can intend that wisdom is exchanged and aims toward a more humane future possibility. This is the purpose of purpose – to energize intention and surface the passion that connects everything a person does and stands for.