There’s a current resurgence of interest in the idea of Purpose, as it relates to business. Aaron Hurst with his book the Purpose Economy and company Imperative, and Jeremy Heimans over at purpose.com seem to be hammering social media with the idea that purpose is not just good for people, but that it is also good for organisations and the way we run our businesses.
I am pretty unlikely to disagree with that. I also think purpose is important, for both people and organisations
Of course, purpose itself isn’t a particularly new idea in business. It has existed in the form of ‘Mission’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Values’ for a long time, and while people like Umair Haque have brilliantly lampooned these more traditional forms (in his book Betterness, for example) it continues to be something that comes up regularly with clients. “Help us clarify and communicate our purpose” they ask.
But the more of this work I do the more I realise that the really critical thing with Mission or Purpose, or whatever you want to call it, is ‘living it’.
Again this isn’t a particularly new idea – people have called this ‘walking the talk’ for as long as I can remember.
But I am not sure that particular injunction – ‘telling’ people to live it, to be it – really helps that much. I may want to “walk my talk”, but I still find it hard.
So here are some simple things you might choose to do that I believe will help you live your purpose.
Have a Purpose
First of all, it’s is good to have one, obviously.
But there’s a dilemma in that. I am going to focus in this post less on finding or discovering a purpose because I think there may be nothing to find. I don’t think purpose is a thing, and therefore we cannot find it like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Stafford Beer, the great cyberneticist, talked, I believe, in terms of POSIWID. “The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does”. This suggests that purpose is more ’emergent’. Like a rainbow it isn’t really there. But under certain special circumstances in combination with the way our eyes and brain work we can surely see it.
For example, my purpose today based on an observation of what I am doing, is to get out of bed and write a blog post.
I seem also to be in the throes of trying to raise a family, build a business, be a good citizen etc. Later I’ll make breakfast, go to meetings etc.
Notice that my purpose depends on a number of things, including the time of day, my role as viewer, as participant and so on.
The purpose gurus I listed above will, I am sure, provide useful methods to ‘capture ‘ your purpose as if it is a thing to be captured. There are audio books and books galore (contradicting myself, I have to say I rather liked Richard Jacobs’ attempt), and generally consultants and coaches love to do this kind of work.
And if you really want to clarify your purpose then I can recommend nothing better than a week-long silent retreat in the mountains of Wales or some other beautiful and remote place.
Maybe it is just me, but I think the assumption behind many of these ‘processes’ is that purpose will emerge as something tangible, words that you can, for example, engrave on a tablet of stone. A ‘calling’ that you can take along with you for the rest of your life, to steer you, to drive you?
But maybe purpose as a thing is hard to ‘capture’? Maybe it is too temporary, too contingent on circumstances for that?
So instead of a long search, or following a complex process, I suggest simply noticing. Being aware. Not just of our thoughts, but also of our feelings and our instincts. Noticing what you do and how you do it. Noticing is a conscious business practice and one we can do at any time. It is especially best done, while we are acting – we sometimes call this reflexivity.
If you spend a little time on that then you’ll probably quickly notice that purpose changes. It changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute and even second to second.
If I am eating lunch with a friend my purpose is probably something to do with enjoying the food and conversation. Or maybe I am trying to get something across, or share something, or get some support.
At a business meeting an hour later, my purpose might be completely different. I may be trying to build a very different kind of relationship.
Yes, I may be able to see a pattern in my purpose. I seem to want to build a business day after day after day. My need to feed and clothe and educate my children does not go away.
Seeing purpose as changing makes me want to explore it all the more. I can learn more about my purpose by enquiring into it, enquiring into all these facets, discovering what it means, and what I am about.
Am I Living My Purpose?
But when I do that, and I guess it is the same for many people, I notice that there are also plenty of times when I don’t seem to be following my purpose. I find myself distracted. Or I find myself doing something completely at odds with what I think I want to achieve.
This happens most often in groups and teams. For example, my purpose, as I might name it when entering into a meeting is to be unconditionally constructive, collaborative, and help people, including me, find the best solutions to whatever issues they face.
But what happens? Sometimes, almost the opposite. I might notice myself behaving destructively. Perhaps causing as many problems as I solve.
Again noticing, I believe, is the key to unpicking this. By observing what I am doing, I can ascertain a new facet to my purpose, something I may have been previously unaware of.
Maybe I am more competitive than I thought and I am engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Maybe I have learned some habitual ways to get my need to feel outraged met, and I am exercising this by blaming other people and their failings.
Again, simply noticing will probably give me all the clues I need.
Beyond noticing – community and conflict
So noticing is great. But for me, noticing also isn’t enough. When I become more aware of what is going on it helps, but it doesn’t necessarily help me break out of the habits I have formed.
This is one reason why I like the Do Something Different system – because I believe it can help us break those habits – of mind and body – which keep us in our comfort zone.
And the other thing that I believe is completely necessary if I want to live my purpose is trust, and conflict. Echoing Patrick Lencioni, we have found again and again that a group of people won’t enter into conflict unless there are high levels of trust amongst the group.
A healthy form of conflict is necessary for someone to do me the huge favour of pointing out my failings. If you are going to point out to me that I am not living my purpose, and, believe me I do want you to do that, you risk me fighting back.
We risk conflict every time we point out to someone the difference between their espoused position (what they say they will do) and what we actually observe.
But being open to this feedback and being in a group of people brave enough and caring enough to give accurate feedback is, I think, really the answer to living my purpose. Few of us are saints – few of us have the awareness to always notice when we stop living our purpose. And even fewer, myself included, have the willpower to do much about it.
We need other people, we need a community around us that will give us that ultimate gift of clean, unencumbered feedback.
Being personally open to that feedback isn’t easy, of course, but the skills and conditions that allow trust and healthy conflict to arise in a group are fairly easy to learn and practise. There are better ways to converse than those we learned in the playground or in our first families.
As a group, we can learn to break collusion, and see reality.
I’d love to hear what you think? Does this make sense? Is your purpose more easily fixed than the way I describe it? Are my assumptions correct, or way off base?
What is your purpose?
And are you living it?
Jeremy Heimans purpose.com
Betterness by Umair Haque
Richard Jacobs – Find your Purpose