The Power of Purpose

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I came across this video recently (courtesy of a post on Linkedin) from Smith & Nephew, the global medical devices company, about their purpose. It’s powerful and motivational (as was demonstrated by comments on the LinkedIn post):

I had the privilege of working for Smith & Nephew (it was the last company I worked for before setting up my own independent strategy consultancy in 2000). Shortly after I joined (nearly 30 years ago) I led a working group tasked with developing a mission statement, involving lots of consultation and discussions and several iterations of crafting words to synergise and articulate what was being said. But then we had a big debate with the CEO to convince him that the company’s mission shouldn’t just be about increasing shareholder value, and that people needed deeper meaning to be truly motivated in their work.

As the video shows, Smith & Nephew has come a long way since we won that argument. The quest for meaning, for purpose, for making sense of our situation and understanding how we are contributing: these are powerful drivers of individual and collective human endeavour. We need to know that our work has value, that our energy, effort and time are directed towards a purpose.

As I wrote in Strategy Journeys:
A strategy journey considers the organisation’s culture, its values and its purpose. At the deepest most elemental level an organisation’s strategy is about how it sees itself (or more accurately, how the people in the organisation perceive it and how they relate to it) and how it defines its future. Inherent in this is what is the purpose of the organisation, what it sees as its role and mission to achieve, why it exists, what are the values that will guide its actions, and the principles by which it will operate. We have seen how powerful is the need for people to make sense of their situation: their relationship with their organisation, how they see their role within the organisation and their social interaction with others in the organisation all contribute to this, and to how they see themselves and define their identity. Culture is the ‘magnetic field’ that shapes the patterns of relationships and paths within the organisation; strategy is the evolving story the organisation tells itself to explain what it is and where it is heading, and how people in the organisation make sense of this.

Linda Gratton in her book Living Strategy states “Successful businesses are created by excitement and inspiration, innovation and ideas, the emotion which every member of the organization feels towards their team members and colleagues and to the goals of the group and the purpose of the company. Strip out the emotion, the ideas and the inspiration and a cold, empty shell remains.
(It’s a quote I could have used in my debate with the Smith & Nephew CEO, if only it had been written a few years earlier!)

Of course, the stated purpose of an organisation has to be genuine, believed and lived – it’s the ultimate reason for why the organisation exists and the driver for what it does. Integrity is all – it needs more than just a plaque on the wall behind the office Reception desk (which is as useful as a strategic plan on a bookshelf).  Defining and articulating an organisation’s purpose requires a deep process of listening, learning, understanding and engaging – it’s more than just words.

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