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The Amazing Power of Purpose

Organizational Strategy

It doesn’t matter what’s wrong. Whether you’ve got a fever, a broken arm, or a missing limb, a visit to the doctor always seems to start the same way. After you check in and enjoy some time reading a People magazine from 1997, you’re ushered back to an empty room and take a seat on the world’s loudest tissue paper.

Now the exam begins. No matter who your nurse is or what your symptoms might be, he or she always checks the same basic things—temperature, blood pressure, and pulse. Those few little metrics, your “vitals,” provide your doctor with an instant snapshot of your overall health. Sure, there’s more to the story, but if something is off here, there is likely a problem that needs to be addressed.

The Four P’s
The traditional Four P’s are like the vitals the doctor takes every time you go in for a check-up. Product, People, Process, and Profit. Just as temperature, blood pressure, and pulse give your doctor a snapshot of your overall health, the Four P’s tell any good consultant or coach the overall health of your business. Whether it’s a fever or a heart attack, a sales dip or an impending bankruptcy, if something is off here, we know we need to dig further.

In the area of organizational health, the Four P’s have stood as constant points of discussion and discernment throughout my entire coaching career. Without fail, every time I work with a leader or an organization that is looking to grow, we spend time examining the strength and sustainability of each P.

The Fifth P: The Power of the Purpose
Over the years, though, I’ve made an important shift in how I approach these conversations. Sure, I still work through the traditional four, but those areas now make up the second part of our work. The way we approach things like product and process is guided and, in some sense, determined by a fifth P, Purpose. Purpose gets to the “why” of your organization. It pushes past the “what” and “how” and gets at something deeper…if, in fact, there is something deeper.

Purpose should be our starting point and anchor. Simon Sinek addresses this very issue in his book, Start With Why, “If we’re starting with the wrong questions, if we don’t understand the cause, then even the right answers will always steer us wrong…eventually.”

Reason for Being
Another way to think about purpose is to ask, “Why does your organization exist? What’s your reason for being?” If you are a person of faith, you could frame it as “our redemptive edge.”

Can you answer these questions? Have you ever considered them?

Whatever your answer may be, it should be about more than product or service or profit. It should capture the essence of what motivates and drives you to not only work, but to work well. It should capture the concept of faithfulness along with productivity. It should get to the heart of why. Out of all the things your organization could do, you have chosen for it to do what it does.

Purpose, when rightly conceived, is an unbelievably powerful shaping force for an organization. It informs how you develop products, build processes, and develop people. It even informs how you think about and use your profits. Perhaps most significantly, unlike the other P’s, purpose has the potential for permanence. Market conditions may force a change to your offering. Technology may alter your processes. Demographic shifts may dictate your approach to labor. Purpose has the potential to not only outlast these forces, but also to shape your response to them.

Here’s how some companies have answered the “Why” question over the years:

  • 3M: To solve unsolved problems innovatively
  • Cargill: To improve the standard of living around the world
  • Fannie Mae: To strengthen the social fabric by continually democratizing home ownership
  • Mary Kay Cosmetics: To give unlimited opportunity to women
  • McKinsey & Company: To help leading corporations and governments be more successful
  • Merck: To preserve and improve human life
  • Nike: To experience the emotion of competition, winning, and crushing competitors
  • Sony: To experience the joy of advancing and applying technology for the benefit of the public
  • Wal-Mart: To save people money so they can live better
  • Walt Disney: To make people happy
  • Warby Parker: To offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious business

So, how clear and grounded is your organization in the fifth P? And take note…the higher you are on the org chart, the more central is this question to your job description. Actually, it is one of the few assignments of every senior leader.

Your purpose could be any number of things: to advance a worthy cause, to meet a profound need or address a social ill, to lead an industry in a better direction, or to act as a catalyst for change. Rosabeth Kanter researched leading companies and outlined some of her findings in the article, “How Great Companies Think Differently,” Kanter puts it this way: “Great companies identify something larger than transactions or business portfolios to provide purpose and meaning. Meaning making is a central function of leaders, and purpose gives coherence to the organization.” This is not a new thought. Our friends at Patagonia have been orbiting around the fifth P for decades.

Here are two last thoughts: The Fifth P is not just another way to talk about the multiple bottom line or culture. It is bigger than that. Secondly, you’d better be clear on your reason for being if you are hoping to attract and retain millennials.


STEVE GRAVES

Steve is an organizational strategist, social innovator, pragmatic theologian, executive coach, and mentor. Over the past 25 years Steve has helped hundreds of organizations launch and scale, while authoring over 15 books aimed at showing business people how to flourish in their life and work.