Culture without a purpose?

perspectives Sep 14, 2017

 The work of culture practitioners and change leaders when organisational purpose is unclear

As culture practitioners or change leaders, when the clarity of organisational purpose is missing, it can often feel that the deck is stacked against you. Tasked with supporting the organisation to transform, you are often expected to create engagement and motivation on the journey.

Foggy road.img

Yet, a likely consequence when the purpose of an organisation is not clear is that the organisation may lack the momentum to change.

Even when an organisation has a clear and compelling central purpose, it takes considerable work to bring this to life for everyone in the organisation, as more than a communication message.

For those in customer facing roles or senior executive roles, purpose can appear to be easier to connect to than those whose day to day jobs don’t appear to directly connect. We will often hear things like “but I’m the finance person; I don’t get to see or contribute to our products.”

Regardless of how clear (or not) organisational purpose is, for purpose to come to life in an organisation, it needs to not only talk to the organisation’s reason for being, but also be used to determine choices, priorities, actions, structures, systems, mindsets, beliefs and behaviours. When purpose underpins all aspects of an organisation it can truly enable the aspirational culture of the organisation to come into being.

If you are facing into needing to support cultural evolution or change where a central organisational purpose is not clear, the following ideas may help you:


Tap into the inherent organisational or collective purpose

Even when it’s not clear, each organisation has an inherent purpose or reason for being. Exploring purpose can be a powerful cultural intervention. You might like to start piloting culture initiatives which include exploration of purpose with one area or region.

Begin with an area ripe for the work, rather than the one least likely to succeed, and test what works and doesn’t work for people, exploring the benefits of your approach as well as the downsides. As you build on the culture work, assess the value it brings through a broad range of metrics, for example, engagement, retention, customer satisfaction, quality measures and financial measures. If the organisation starts to see the value then build this into a case study that can be used to expand the work to other areas.

Pay attention to timing and organisational readiness

One of our client organisations began its purpose discussions as part of a leadership development program. Years later, one of these leaders is now CEO and an organisational transformation with purpose at its centre is underway. Timing can be key and it’s important to assess organisational readiness at each stage. If the organisation is not ready for a full-scale transformation, there are always ways to start preparing it, so that when the conditions are ripe, the organisation will be ready to move.

A big picture perspective and willingness to play the long game can be important mindsets of effective culture practitioners and leaders.

Connect individual purpose to collective purpose

Working with what the organisation already has, that resonates deeply with people and finding positive pockets of energy that you can harness towards a bigger mission can be a way to generate awareness and commitment around purpose and culture leadership work.

A pragmatic intervention can be building intentional conversations around organisational pride points, for example, what makes people proud to work in their organisation, as well as what could be possible if we harnessed more of the latent potential in the organisation.

Help teams to define their purpose in the context of organisational purpose

  • Support a team to define their purpose for working together
  • Help teams to see how their work supports the core purpose of the organisation, for example, “without an efficient operation, we wouldn’t be able to survive in this market and provide beautiful products to our customers”
  • Help teams who may be distant to the end result of their work to get ‘closer to the source’, either by bringing them closer to the customer experience or bringing the customer closer to them

Identify the positive intention behind not having a clear purpose

As surprising as it sounds, clarifying purpose may evoke a variety of emotions that may lead to subtle or overt resistance:

  • A belief that the pain of defining purpose outweighs the gain
  • I don’t want to commit to someone else’s purpose or I will lose myself
  • Last time we had a purpose we were hurt badly when we failed
  • Clarifying purpose may lead to some unpleasant truths emerging
  • Focusing attention and resources to purpose will mean some areas may miss out, be left out or cast out
  • Keeping people confused creates a sense of power over others
  • We don’t want the purpose to be a PR statement but we are not convinced we have a higher purpose than shareholder value

Purpose is multi-dimensional. While it is almost always more powerful to have a clear, compelling organisational purpose, the key leverage points of individual purpose or team purpose are often overlooked. Start with defining purpose in the areas in which you have influence and a voice. Over time as the reputation of the work expands and as your influence expands, take every opportunity in front of you.

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