Harnessing the power of purpose

Vision. Focus. Mission. Drive.

All words we often use to describe the qualities we associate with high performing companies or the people who lead them.

But if I had to pick the one quality that propels an organisation into genuinely high performance, it would be purpose. It encapsulates all the above terms and taps into a deeper motivation to “do the right thing”, whatever that might be.

But what is an organisation’s purpose? Recent conversations and news items – such as the statement by asset manager BlackRock’s Larry Fink that they would only invest in companies that contribute to society and deliver financial performance or risk losing their support, suggests that there is an awareness amongst the most numerically-obsessed that performance means much more than profit, ROCE, or other financial measures.

But it’s not easy.


Bar Italia in London’s Soho is more associated – in my mind at least – with the kind of louche nightlife portrayed in Pulp’s eponymous song – “…I’m fading fast/And it’s nearly dawn…” – than inspiring conversations about purpose, but I recently found myself having such a conversation at the more civilised hour of 11am with Gemma Cropper, MD of social impact consultancy Skating Panda.

I’ve observed and worked with organisations that have a clear purpose and those that have lost it somewhere along the way. In talking to Gemma, it was clear that social purpose is increasingly an area that organisations are interested in as they seek to improve the engagement of both their customers and employees. Often it can be driven by customers: for example, clothing manufacturer Nike had to completely change their supply chain after accusations of sweatshop conditions in some of their suppliers.

Employees will often drive the change and are after something more than a bit of “corporate social responsibility” which, however valid, can look like window dressing for an otherwise unattractive brand.

And with the developments in AI and robotics becoming a threat to jobs in all organisations in the coming years, employees will want to see a clear sense of social purpose in all major change programmes.

It can take years to bed an organisation’s purpose in – those looking for a quick fix will be likely to be disappointed – and if the CEO is only focused on the share price, the chances of success are minimal.

Tacked on

It’s a point echoed by organisational change consultant Belden Menkus in a recent paper where he points out the danger, when trying to re-discover an organisational purpose to differentiate itself from competitors, of it being reduced to a strapline or a shallow communications exercise.

In these cases, a wider social purpose can seem tacked on to an organisation or, even worse, a compliance box to be ticked.

Don’t confuse focus with purpose

What can organisations do to create or recreate a meaning that’s wider than a healthy balance sheet?

The first step is to make sure you’re not confusing purpose with focus. Having a focus on efficiency, sales growth, time-to-market or any other key performance indicator is essential in any high-performing company. Whatever is important to your performance needs to be a focus area for some or all of the people, some or all of the time.

But it’s not the same as purpose. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and makes you feel good about what you did at the end of the day. And although you may feel awesome about a day in which you shaved 3% off production costs or landed a million-pound sales deal, a life in which that’s all you can see may end up being less rich than it could be.

Understand outcomes

Often an organisation’s social purpose is a direct consequence of its operating model. As a pioneer of low-cost flights, SouthWest Airlines enabled people to connect more easily across a wide geography – the social benefit is easy to see as well as being attractive for customers.

So, an organisation’s purpose primarily needs to grow from an understanding of the outcomes it creates for its customers. And this involves thinking outside the immediate products and services it offers.

I’m privileged to work with a local music education charity – more on that another time – that offers great music lessons in the locality. In that regard, it’s no different from other purveyors of music education but what sets it apart is its purpose to offer a high-quality, rounded and multi-faceted music education to children and young people who otherwise would not have that opportunity. That purpose has propelled it from tiny beginnings to exciting developments that will increase its reach and impact.

The challenge for the charity will be to keep that constancy of purpose as it grows in the coming years.

Just start

Although there is the strong possibility that you may discover that your organisation does exist solely to make a shed-load of money for its directors and shareholders you shouldn’t – as Belden Menkus points out – wait for a directive from above. Start in your team to find out what it is that people feel passionate about in relation to the outcomes of the work you do.

And when you’ve found it, tell others. They might just share the same passion.

Ooh, Uber – look behind you!

At this time of year, at least in the UK, we love a pantomime villain that we can hiss and boo at every time they step on stage. With impeccable timing the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has delivered everybody’s favourite panto baddie, Uber, a slap in the face.  They declared what everyone already knew: that it is in fact a transport provider not an information exchange.

We have an example of what we might call ‘outcome-based justice’. In this case, if a business delivers customers’ desired outcome of ‘getting me conveniently from A to B’ it’s probably got something to do with vehicles that go from A to B rather than the provision of information. Except Uber never wanted to be positioned like that – and the reasons have become very clear!

The big benefit is that it nibbles away at those smug statements that consultants make to the effect that Uber is a taxi company that doesn’t own any cars – still true, but somewhat less paradigm-busting that it might appear.

Uber may have to face the inevitable. Its reaction to this, and other rulings, suggests it may be starting to do so, despite fighting it tooth and nail over the last year. It’s gained its growth precisely through focusing on what customers needed, then having the ability to think creatively about how that might be delivered.

The downside is that its pricing model (also a customer outcome – we like convenience, but we also like cheaper) which is a direct result of its low operating cost means that it has limited competition from other, differently-regulated providers. This lack of competition is bad for consumers in the long run.

Until there’s a reliable teleportation technology available, we humans are stuck with vehicles to get us around at a faster-than-walking pace. It will be interesting to see if a more level playing field will allow other transport providers to innovate. We are already seeing route planning app CityMapper experimenting with on-demand bus services in London – this time an information service operating in partnership with a transport provider (Transport for London).

Perhaps the famous pantomime audience shout of ‘look behind you’ should be directed at Uber to see who’s competing innovatively for the never-ending customer requirement of being moved around.

The ECJ’s ruling may not be good for Uber but it will be better for customers in the long run.

Putting compassion into customer experience

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Money Box’ isn’t often where you go for a scoop with political ramifications but today’s announcement by the programme that families on Universal Credit will miss out on payments over the festive period adds some excitement to what’s often a ‘worthy but dull’ feature in the Saturday schedule.

Leaving aside the politics, this is a story about service design that’s anything but customer-centric.

And if you’re on a low income, it sucks.

Because December happens to be a month with 5 weeks in it, anyone with an income paid weekly may go temporarily go over the threshold for paying the benefit. The Department of Work and Pensions helpfully informs you that this might happen and gives you instructions on what to do.

So, what’s the problem? Anyone with a grip on budgeting should be able to cope, yes?

Well it all depends on what your perspective is.

If you’re designing a service from a provider perspective, you tend to have an idealised view of how customers or service users might behave. In this case the ‘ideal customer’ will be a sensible, cool-headed type who can ‘do the math’ in order to make sure that a four or five weekly pay packets spread out nicely over a month. That sounds like a service designed by someone comfortably on a monthly salary, not by someone in a ‘hard-working family’ who’s ‘just about managing’ – take your pick from the pack of vacuous political clichés.

In fact, Universal Credit is a service that appears to be designed around a monthly income model. The problem is that, if you’re in a job that’s low paid, you’re likely to be weekly. And possibly with a highly variable pay packet if you’re enjoying the exciting world of zero hours contracts. The outcome you want is some degree of financial stability.

Genuinely customer-centric design would match benefit payment to weekly income, meaning that the claimant could have a reliable view of their income every week. (In a world where online payments are er, universal, this seems entirely appropriate.)

Genuinely customer-centric design would also not make people wait six weeks before getting paid or require them to wait up to 5 minutes to talk to a human being.

Genuinely customer-centric design wouldn’t have the Children’s Commissioner saying that the impact of universal credit had not been tested on families with children.

The intention of Universal Credit – a simplified benefit system that avoids people being better off not working than working – is fine. The implementation, however, seems to ignore the needs of those who it’s intended to benefit.

When you design a service, you need a profound understanding of how real customers behave and what their desired outcomes might be.

There’s another word for this quality: compassion.

Bad boys? Dove and the problem with reputation

The recent furore over Dove’s Facebook ad – where a black woman ‘changes’ to a white, then Asian one as she removes her t-shirt – appears to be a result of a thoroughly misinformed piece of decision-making.

Dove’s subsequent ‘apology’, claiming that they had ‘missed the mark’ struck many as less then wholehearted, apparently compounding the initial error.

However, as commentator Richard J Hillgrove suggests in Drum, this could just be part of a cynical strategy

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