“Strategy without purpose is like kicking the ball to the goal post without knowing where the goal post is.” (Charles Prabakar)
Business is a non-stop barrage of difficult decisions. Should we engage in this partnership? Should we take on this client? Should we accept these terms? Should we cut our costs? Should we let some people go? Should we hire some new people? Should we make people work harder? Should we move into this new market? Should we discontinue this old product? Should I fix this even though nobody will see it? Should I finish this project or just go home? Should I tell them it’ll take longer? You get the idea.
Every decision is a fork in the road. Not only does your company face the risk of taking the wrong path, but there’s also the time spent standing there trying to decide what to do. Companies lose literally years of progress due to wasted decision time. Consider the cumulative long-term impact of all that hemming and hawing. Have you ever fired someone and had the feeling you should have fired them six months earlier? How many years has your company already lost?
Purpose is a lens that reveals whether something fits with your company’s future. When your company has a clearly defined purpose, those decisions can be made clearly and quickly.
At Forty, for example, our core purpose is based around the idea of “restoring humanity.” The industries in which we work (design, branding, etc.) have been characterized for many years by a slide toward a short-term, numbers-only approach, which ultimately leaves customers feeling discouraged, distant, and cynical. We believe that trend is destructive both to people and companies, and our goal is to turn it around by showing companies that they can actually do significantly better with a longer-term, more human-focused view of their business.
That core purpose, though, has been highly influential in steering us toward business decisions that left us healthier, stronger, and happier as a business. It has helped us to focus the services we offer, limiting them to those we think best enable us to further that purpose, instead of going with whatever’s trendy at the moment. It has also helped us in innumerable individual situations on client projects; it’s not uncommon for someone on our team to ask, “What would be the most human way to handle this?”
The cumulative effect of these decisions is that we have a very focused, very disciplined company that has a strong reputation for the kind of work that we love doing. We get the kinds of clients we want to work with, we’re consistently proud of the work we’re able to do, and we get compensated pretty well for doing so. Could any design firm ask for more? (Without that driving purpose, we likely would have caved to more convenient decisions over the last several years, and wound up doing crap work we don’t enjoy for clients we don’t really like.)
Best of all, this isn’t based on the inspired leadership of any particular individual. It’s built into our company’s culture. Everyone on our team understands the Forty way to handle situations, and it just happens automatically. It’s reflex.
Now think about what it might be like to have your own company reacting like that. No babysitting. No cajoling. The magic just happens automatically, every day. That’s the power of purpose in a company.
If you play chess (and every CEO probably should, just as a matter of mental discipline), you know how dangerous it is to play defensively. When your opponent makes an aggressive move and you fall back to protect yourself, you’ve already started the process of losing because you can’t pursue your long-term strategy while focusing on short-term responsiveness.
You may be able to extend the lives of your pieces a few moves by dancing around, but your opponent has gained the advantage by moving his or her checkmate plan forward, while yours was put on hold.
However, when you play with a clear purpose (e.g., “I’m going to pin his king into the left corner!”), you begin to measure all your moves against that purpose, and you become a lot more willing to make sacrifices as long as the plan keeps moving forward. Lost a knight? That’s okay, because this pawn is helping pin the king in the corner. Took your queen? That hurts, but the bishop moved in even closer to pinning the king in the corner. No matter how your opponent responds, it seems like nothing can stop you, and none of the losses seem to matter, because your plan keeps moving forward.
When your company is driven by a deeply-held purpose, it can make your competitors feel helpless because no matter how they respond, you always seem to be a step ahead of them, moving faster, adapting faster, and figuring things out faster.
From your perspective, though, everything seems to be happening naturally and logically. You’re just doing what your company’s purpose tells you to do. It feels easy. With that kind of gap between you and your competitors, it’s only a matter of time before the game is yours.