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.