Most organisations have a well-intentioned purpose or mission that is their foundation stone. The purpose defines their reason for being – this is why we established our business, this is what we set out to achieve, it is what we collectively strive for. The purpose is aspirational and multi-generational, not the passing fad of a new CEO.
This purpose will be proudly trumpeted in the About Us section of the corporate website – and (sadly) largely ignored and unlived by the organisation. Purpose is the metaphorical dusty document loitering in the filing cabinet – we believe it is there and that we could find it if we went looking for it, but we never actually do.
The issue is that purpose is disconnected from the everyday behaviours of staff. Purpose isn’t driving culture. Purpose isn’t defining the way we work. Purpose gets trumped by KPIs and targets – that are usually driven by short-term targets.
Purpose should galvanise us within the organisation. Purpose should help us strive together for a common goal. Purpose should help us avoid the heady temptations of short-term glory.
For most organisations the problem isn’t having a purpose, the problem is living it.
How might we actually live our organisational purpose?
At a series of workshops earlier this year we (Meld Studios) put this situation to attendees from public and private sector organisations in Australia. There was much nodding of heads, grumbling and general frustration that organisational purpose had been lost. Most knew they had a purpose, few if any knew what it was.
We then asked participants how they might help their organisations actually live their purpose. Here are some of their thoughts:
Visibility and regular communication of purpose – how can one live something that isn’t known?
- Translation of purpose into values, behaviours, principles and (if necessary) KPIs so people know how to live the purpose.
- Explanation of decisions in deference to purpose – encouraging all decisions to be explainable in relation to the organisational purpose.
- Empathy initiatives to humanise the organisation and enable staff (particularly decision-makers) to understand the impact of their decisions on people, rather than just traditional operational numbers and metrics.
- Translate purpose into targets, not retrospectively try to justify short-term targets.
In the workplace, few people make decisions that fall foul of their organisational purpose intentionally. They simply do what they believe is right to achieve some target, or KPI they have been set. In most cases the problem isn’t the individual – though the individual is often blamed as a “rogue” if their behaviour hits the headlines – the problem is that the organisational purpose isn’t understood and embedded in the way we work around here. Purpose is not connected to things that really drive the lived behaviours of staff.
At Meld, as part of our organisation design offering, we offer a range of services to help organisations energise their organisational purpose.