7 Problems With Purpose

Can we talk? Candidly?

I think we can agree, at least in theory, that purpose is a powerful force, especially for transforming the world of business. Yet, at the same time, you might be as perplexed as I am, that many business leaders who purport to be believers in purpose and pursuers of purpose struggle to tap into the power of purpose for their business.

In other words, many businesses claiming to be “purpose-driven businesses” have the same struggles with employees, customers, focus, strategy, and profitability.

This should not be! At least, that’s my ardent belief as an advocate for purpose in business, not a critic of it. Pondering these perplexing issues led me to identify 7 Problems with Purpose. Undoubtedly, there are more than these seven. Perhaps after reading this list, you’ll help grow it. Hopefully, by shining a light on these problems, we illuminate a way through them, so you unleash the power of purpose more fully in, for, and through your business.

The Bottleneck Problem

Like purpose, bottles come in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of the shape or size of the bottle, the neck is always near the top.

What’s that got to do with purpose?

Well, for some leaders, the purpose problem is that purpose is locked away at the top of the organization. When that happens, people perceive purpose as a personal crusade of the leader of which they are the lone crusader.

In those organizations, purpose is the privilege of the few rather than the right of the many. Purpose is isolated rather than integrated. As such, it becomes aloof rather than aligned.

People throughout the ranks feel they are disposable and indispensable and are simply cogs in the wheel.

And I happen to believe purpose is the birthright of everyone. We are all born into purpose. Break the bottleneck and build bridges to every department and every person so that purpose permeates the organization.

The ‘World Peace’ Problem

I could have labeled this the “beauty pageant problem.” You probably know why. While it’s been years since I watched a pageant, often during the Q&A segment, the host would ask contestants what problem in the world would they use their platform to address. The joke was how many times “world peace” appeared in the answer, and when asked, “What would you do to address that?” Often there a deer in the headlights look. That’s what happens when you embrace a noble purpose so big that people on your team have no idea how to proceed in a way that impacts the problem.

So what happens? Paralysis because it seems like an all-or-nothing proposition and no one is sure how to make a dent in that universe.

How do you change the world? One zip code, one block at a time.

Break it down and develop local actions and solutions that move the needle on a global issue. Whatever the issue, find something you can do locally. Are you passionate about literacy? Develop a reading or tutoring program for the children in your community and invest your time, energy, and efforts there. Another way to make it local is to allow every department to identify their ‘local’ purpose that serves and advances the ‘corporate’ purpose.

The Plaque Problem

You’ve seen this — hopefully only as a visitor — those places where purpose lives on the walls but rarely seen in the halls. In organizations like this, the purpose initiatives seem to be all about messaging and marketing. It’s more outwardly facing than inwardly experienced and expressed. Most people have a finely attuned BS detector. If people have to read the plaque or pull out the laminated wallet-sized card with the purpose phrase printed on it, then you’ve got a problem.

The solution? One is to develop a set of purpose-infused values that become the bedrock for your organization and its culture. Once you develop a robust set of values, live them every day and integrate them into every process and practice of your organization. Integrate them into your hiring and on-boarding. Teach your values as the criteria for “how we make decisions here.” When that happens, purpose is more seen than heard. And speaking of hearing purpose leads us to the next problem, which is a cousin of the Plaque Problem.

The Megaphone Problem

You’ve heard this one, right. Pardon the pun, but this is where purpose is more talk than walk. For these people, purpose is loud but it’s not lived.

The Megaphone Problem often begins with the best of intentions. It is perhaps more prevalent when leaders have only recently discovered their purpose. They are passionately talking about purpose. All. The. Time.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe you should talk about purpose and do it often. Make sure you are walking it before you start talking it. Talking it before you walk it, is overhanging the market and allowing people to create all kinds of expectations and impressions of what will be different because of this purpose. When you walk it first, people see it and want it.

The Rainbow Problem

Actually, it’s the Somewhere Over the Rainbow Problem. Hopefully, you hear Judy Garland or your favorite rendition playing in your mind. I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you by singing it. There are two aspects to the Rainbow Problem:

One is relegating purpose to a distant time in the future. It’s always somewhere out there — beyond our reach…and beyond our ability to impact and effect today or this week.

You’ve seen plenty of rainbows, but have you ever touched one? Yeah, that’s the other dimension of the Rainbow Problem, when purpose is allowed to remain esoteric and ethereal — and again, way beyond our reach.

What does this look like in action? Lofty words and catchphrases that while they sound nice, they are empty.

The (Jackson) Pollock Problem

If you’re like me and snoozed your way through art history, you might wonder what I mean. Jackson Pollock is one of the most famous expressionist artists whose work is abstract and always open to interpretation by the viewer. Certainly, you’ve encountered this in some situations. You know, you have a conversation with someone, and everything is so abstract and nebulous, you can never nail it down.

Trust me, there are plenty of points in my life where I’ve run out in excitement with a half-baked idea and while may be nodding their heads, they are rolling their eyes…maybe only in their imagination, but they are looking for the exit door.

“Get me away from this crazy person and get me back to reality. I don’t know what s/he is drinking or taking, but make mine a double.”

Keep it simple and make it concrete.

The Marshmallow Problem

Don’t get me wrong; I love marshmallows. What’s not to love? They are soft, sweet, and squishy. But they lack substance…and nutritional value. It’s worse too. Because of the high sugar content, they lift you up and then let you down. You know, the companies who make a massive deal about purpose. Once. A. Year. At the annual kickoff. It’s all feel good, Kum-ba-ya, and rah-rah. But it lacks substance and impact.

Don’t let your purpose project become the butt of the jokes in your office and the themes of memes that people are sharing. There is a way out, a way forward. Anyone or a combination of these problems will gut purpose of its power. These often happen with the best of intentions.

Now that you know, you can do something about it.

If you’re not sure what to do, get help. Contact me; I’d love to come alongside you and help you unleash the power of purpose in your business, leadership, and life.

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Kevin Monroehttps://kevindmonroe.com/
Kevin Monroe helps people flourish on the road less traveled in business, leadership, and life so they make their dent in the universe. Since he was a teenager, he has usually chosen roads less traveled which usually involve going against the grain and seeking to go with the flow. All in hopes of making the world a better place and inspiring others to do the same. His unique contribution to the world is creating environments, hosting encounters, and crafting experiences where people are inspired, equipped, and encouraged to live, love, and lead in extraordinary ways. He hosts a variety of events and experiences designed to do just that including; the Higher Purpose Podcast, The Gratitude Challenge, This ExtraOrdinary Life, and most recently, The League of Extraordinary Difference Makers. Kevin holds a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University and an undergraduate degree in theology from Mercer University. He lives in Woodstock, GA with his lovely wife, Gwen. They are the parents of two adult children and one precocious granddaughter, Emma.
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Susan Rooks

Maybe it’s because it’s the new year, Kevin. Maybe it’s that the year is 2020, so there are jokes and thoughts about seeing clearly.

Whatever the reason, I read an excellent short post this morning from Bruce Kasanoff on LI, promptly wrote my own in response to his, and then!

THEN HERE YOU ARE — with the best one yet on largely the same topic.

I’m going to share your post on LI and other platforms, because it’s so rich in truth and detail.

By the way, this is what rings most true for me (your words): “How do you change the world? One zip code, one block at a time.”

Bill Dickinson, C3 Leadership
Bill Dickinson, C3 Leadership

Love the analogies—so accessible. Thank you Kevin. I think another problem may be: “The Simba problem”. Meaning, in the movies The Lion King, Rafiki (the wise baboon) challenges the lion cub, Simba, by stating “But, you don’t even know who you are!”

In other words, Simba needed to own and execute on his own purpose. And, isn’t this true for us–as leaders?

Perhaps we have a company purpose problem because we aren’t in touch with and inspired by our own personal sense of purpose? IF we truly know and celebrate our own purpose, it would translate to a larger commitment to ensure that all employees know and celebrate the company’s purpose. Just a thought…as we begin 2020 anew.

Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.

Love this, Kevin! I think the Megaphone Problem is the one that jumped out at me. I’ve known so many people who lament that the organization is all talk about the new vision/mission/whatever but nothing really changes. You have outlined so many of the most common problems and shared practical strategies to address them. Well done, as usual, my friend!

Anonymous
Anonymous

From Darlene: I posted this on Linked In but will repost here.

Hi Kevin, I love this. You cloak your message with a nice dose of humor and reality. Walk the walk rather than talk. Yes, indeed! Also, less is more. Don’t just theorize in lofty language, speak, so the regular person knows what you mean. Thank you for this.💖

Kimberly Davis

Well, you had to know that I’d love this, Kevin! Your purpose-problem-titles are brilliant!

Noemi Zarb

I enjoyed reading the lively, insightful and analytical delineation of each problem each of which is so relatable. Your 7-point list also made me think of the 7-year itch. But joking apart, I feel that rather than changing the world we need to change ourselves to reach out to colleagues in a truly meaningful way by dropping our Wemmick masks. Although it is only human that we assume different personas in the different situations our daily lives present us with, at the end of the day, the essence of our innate character and our essential values come through. No one can keep on being a split personality for life without caving in at some point. I feel that people in leadership positions (though it is not only them) need to realise this for it is their authenticity (or lack of it) that stamps a corporate culture, Treating people as people is the key.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hi Kevin
Great article and so true that we all talk purpose yet have not tapped into what it means to us

My favourite is your marshmallow problem & the tick the box thinking by organisations that we have brought everyone together & leave the work done at an annual conference at the door

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