Having purpose and a perspective

Photo by  Smart  on  Unsplash

Photo by Smart on Unsplash

Be daring, be different, be impractical. Be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary .
—  Cecil Beaton

In 1960 David Packard gave a speech to employees about the purpose of HP. What he said strikes at the deeper reasons for a company’s existence beyond making money.

I want to discuss why a company exists in the first place. In other words, why are we here? I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately — they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental. You can look around and see people who are interested in money and nothing else, but the underlying drives come largely from a desire to do something else: to make a product, to give a service, generally to do something which is of value.

A mission or purpose is a company’s reason for being and reflects people’s idealistic motivations for doing the company’s work. It doesn’t describe the business output or target customers, it captures the soul of the organisation . It’s role is to guide and inspire, not differentiate.

Work with purpose towards a vision

Knowing why you do something through your own choice is the reason to care. Knowing why is the driving force that motivates us to take action. Work is meaningful when there’s intrinsic good in it, where doing something well and behaving ethically contributes to happiness through greater contentedness at work, an increased sense of well-being, and less anxiety. Typically the most meaningful jobs are those that help others in some way. When work is part of some greater purpose that we care about, as opposed to achieving a goal like producing a million widgets, we are energetic and enthusiastic, we persevere through frustration and failures because we’re doing what we want to be doing. Having a purpose says, “what I'm doing really matters because [fill in the why]”. It provides focus and energy for learning.

A vision describes a specific destination, a picture of the desired future.

An example purpose is advancing mans capability to explore the heavens. The corresponding vision is to put men on Mars by the end of the 2020s

Purpose without vision has no sense of scale, and without scale there’s no way for us to know if we’re improving.

Sharing the vision

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge compares a shared vision to a hologram. He says that people’s personal visions overlap to create a shared vision.

When a photograph is divided into pieces, each piece shows only part of the whole picture. When a hologram is divided into its constituent layers, each layer shows a version of the whole picture in tact, just from a different point of view. So it is with a group of people who share a vision. Each person has their own way of seeing the whole picture. Each person shares responsibility for the whole. By superimposing personal perspectives the whole picture doesn’t change fundamentally but rather becomes more real, more detailed—people can imagine what the future will feel like.

A vision that's truly shared is a vision that people are committed to because it reflects in some aspect their personal vision. It’s therefore more likely to have intrinsic value. People are bound together by similar aspirations and their power to do good is rooted in common caring. When personal drivers are related and a shared vision exists, the relationships between people and their relationship with a company change. A common identity forms. In the safety of a common purpose, where people are genuinely committed to a shared vision, people are more likely to expose their thinking, give up deeply held views, and recognise personal and company shortcomings. With solidarity people will overcome obstacles, get past their hesitancy, and be more likely to experiment and take risks.

Committed or just going along for the ride?

When I’m committed to a shared vision, because it has within it my own vision, then I will do what I need to do to make it happen. If I don’t have my own vision and sign up for someone else’s the result is typically compliance, not commitment. Compliance generally means I don’t spend my waking hours looking for what to do next in pursuit of my purpose. Compliance ranges from good enough to bad. For example:

  • I get it. I see the benefits of your vision and I want it to happen. I’ll do everything expected of me, and more, as long as it’s within the rules.
  • I accept your vision and I’ll do what’s expected but no more. That way I get to keep my job and make my boss happy. Maybe I’ll even get a promotion.
  • I don’t see the benefits of your vision and I don’t mind telling people that I’m not really on board. But I also don’t want to lose my job so I’ll do just enough.

Then of course, there’s apathy:

  • I’ve no interest in your vision. I’m neither for nor against it. Is it 5 o’clock yet?

And non-compliance:

  • I don’t see the benefits in your vision. I won’t do what’s expected of me and you can’t make me.

Commitment brings energy, passion, and excitement. A committed person doesn’t play by the rules. If the rules get in the way that person finds a way to change them.

Caring implies you have a perspective 

When I have a perspective it’s in response to what matters and what's meaningful to me. A perspective implies that I’ve prioritised relevant things and therefore let some things go. The risk in letting profitable opportunities go for the sake of others is the essence of strategy decisions and all value propositions. We can’t solve all the problems for all the customers all the time. Nor can we design products that meet all the needs of all the people everywhere in the world. We can risk responding to what calls us inside. We can commit ourselves to a perspective. We can build a successful business that will sustain us. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus sums it up nicely:

What distinguishes the risks I’m interested in from mere bravado is that they are taken in the interest of what one is committed to, what they have defined themselves in terms of, and what makes meaningful differences in their lives. This is the kind of risk that is a necessary step in becoming a master at anything.


High performing people are driven principally by intrinsic rewards such as learning. Dan Pink tells us that “people working autonomously and towards mastery perform at very high levels and yet greater things are possible when their work is done in service of a cause they believe in.” He adds, “the most deeply motivated people hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.” As individuals, we are each responsible for our own learning. In pursuit of mastery we do something because we feel it matters, it’s part of something important, it’s interesting, or we enjoy it. We give our best when we believe in a cause and think it’s worthwhile.

Constancy of purpose

W. Edwards Deming talks about constancy of purpose being the dedication to continually improve product and service. Constancy of purpose demands clarity of purpose. Profit is typically the goal for most companies but what’s the purpose, cause, or belief? Why does a company exist? Why do we get out of bed in the morning and go to work there and not somewhere else?

People don’t buy what you do, they buy because of why you do what you do

Simon Sinek explains that our brain is wired to start with why. We make decisions emotionally, subconsciously, and instinctively based on the limbic system. We then justify our decisions and actions rationally, consciously and intellectually based on the cerebral cortex. Despite this we’re inclined to talk a lot about what and how, and often not really mention why. Sinek’s Golden Circle explains why we should first talk about the why, then the how, and lastly the what. Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” not “I have a plan”. The goal of a company is not to do business with everyone who needs whatever the company provides. Rather the goal is to do business with people who believe in the same things as the company.

Purpose before profit

Many company visions are extrinsic. They focus on achieving some financial goal or other measure relative to the competition like being the best whatever. Achieving an extrinsic vision might provide a temporary high, indeed it may be necessary for business in the short-term, but it doesn’t relate to a purpose that holds meaning for those doing the work. It rarely leads to something great and good longer term.

Making money funds the pursuit of purpose. It enables business  just like breathing enables life. And just as breathing is not life’s purpose, making money should not be a company’s purpose. Operating the business on a day-to-day basis to satisfy short-term needs and profitability must be balanced with running the company with a keen eye on the future, investing continuously in innovation and learning, so that it becomes more competitive, stays in business and provides people with jobs.

Many companies seem to put profits first by attempting to maximise shareholder value as directly as possible. Instead, a company’s focus ought to be to create delighted customers by being incredibly good at what it does and behaving ethically. When such purpose comes before profit employees feel good about the company and their work, they take great care with customers, who then want to buy more from the company. This gives investors an outstanding return on their investment and shareholder value keeps rising.

Meaningful work

Whether it’s customers purchasing a product, an investor funding a startup company, or employees buying into the company vision, the reason why is the reason to care. When people come together because they believe in what they are there to do, great things will happen.

The best and most dedicated people are ultimately volunteers, for they have the opportunity to do something else with their lives.
— Peter Drucker

Confronted by an increasingly mobile society, cynicism about corporate life, and an expanding entrepreneurial segment of the economy, companies with a clear understanding of their purpose offer opportunity for meaningful work to people who aren't afraid to have a perspective, socialise it, and behave congruently with their own sense of purpose in pursuit of their personal visions.