“From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” (Roy Spence)
Figuring out your company’s purpose is no easy task. There’s no formula for it. It’s subtle, and it takes a while to reveal it, identify it, and clearly explain it. However, there are some steps you can take that will get you significantly closer.
To begin the process of identifying your company’s true purpose, you want to get three to five people who represent a healthy cross-section of your company, and put them together in a room. This will be your “Roots Team,” and they’ll be responsible for identifying and exploring your company’s roots.
What qualifies them? You’ll want the people who have the greatest understanding of your company’s current culture and values. (Hint: it’s often not the people at the top.)
Long-term experience provides more examples that can be drawn upon for insights, so someone who’s been your receptionist for six years may have more to offer than the Operations Director you hired six months ago.
Customer engagement also is a key qualifier. The people who are closest to the customers are often best equipped with examples of how the company really works. A front-line sales person or project manager will provide better feedback than a visionary executive who sits in an office all day.
Ask everyone on your Roots Team to bring three items to the meeting.
- The first item should represent a time they felt the company was living its true potential. This can be a big success (e.g., an award) or something simple (e.g., a reminder of a time the company treated a client well).
- The second item should represent a time they felt the company failed to follow its own culture and values.
- The third item should represent a time that demonstrated what they love most about the company.
For each item they bring, ask them to put it on the table in front them. Then, tell the story behind why they brought it and how that story made them feel. They should spend a few minutes on each item.
This can be an emotionally-charged activity, so make sure everyone attending approaches it in an accepting way. There should be complete silence while people are sharing their stories, and there shouldn’t be any rebuttals or clarifications afterward. Their stories are correct from their perspective, and you’ll learn a lot about your company simply by listening with an open mind.
Exercise: The hard questions
One of the simplest activities is simply to ask some of the hard questions that seldom get asked within a company, and then, discuss possible answers to those questions. The Roots Team may not always come to a clear consensus, but the act of discussion will reveal some interesting thoughts about the company’s culture, values, etc.
(Note that once you’ve fully made the transformation into a purpose-driven company, it’ll actually be relatively easy to answer these questions. The very act of discussing them is an important step in learning the skills needed to become that kind of company.)
Here are some questions to get things started:
- Why does this company exist?
- Why are we in this industry and not a different one?
- Outside of those with a financial stake in it, would anyone really care if this company disappeared tomorrow?
- Apart from their paycheck, why do people show up for work here?
- If a competitor offered the same level of quality, features, and customer service, why should anyone hire us instead of them? What else do we offer?
- Why didn’t the founder(s) just go work for an existing company?
- Did this company ever have a spirit of passion and excitement? What was it about? How did it get lost?
- Why aren’t people excited about our company? What are we missing?
- Besides making money, what do we want to accomplish in the world through this company?
- What do we wish customers understood about us?
- If we abandoned this business and started fresh, is there anything about the spirit of this company we’d want to keep?
- If we sold the company to an investor who just wanted to make money from it, what would be the biggest loss?
- If everyone in this room had enough money to retire tomorrow, what might make you want to come into work anyway?
- Expect this to be a long meeting with some real soul-searching conversations. These may be the first time these issues should come up, but you’ll need to get really comfortable with these kinds of questions because they’re fundamental to purpose-driven companies.
Exercise: The “Why Chain”
One of the most powerful tools we use at Forty is the “Why Chain.” There’s nothing original about it, so we can’t take any credit for it. In fact, it’s hard-wired into the human brain. Children use it all the time to gain a better understanding of the world around them. (Adults forget to use it, though, so we bring it back and call it consulting.)
It works like this:
- Ask, “Why does this company exist?” and come up with the best answer the team can find.
- Regarding the previous answer, ask, “Why?”, and provide a deeper answer.
- Repeat 3-5 times.
If you have kids, you’ve already gone through this exercise many times.
You: “Okay, time to get in the car.”
You: “Because we’re going to the store.”
You: “Because we need to get ice cream.”
You: “Because daddy had a bad day and wants a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey.”
You (sobbing uncontrollably): “Because I’m unfulfilled in other areas of my life and feel powerless to make any significant changes due to social and family expectations placed on me, so I turn to food as a convenient and cost-effective way to assert my freedom and to acknowledge my unmet needs for pleasure and satisfaction, and because after all the other sacrifices I make, I don’t have the willpower to stop myself from making a decision I know will only result in additional unhappiness, as it eventually contributes to my increasing waistline and poor health, leading me down a path of ever-decreasing confidence and satisfaction until I eventually come to resent everything about my life.”
(Kids are natural consultants.)
Get the Roots Team together in a room, and kick things off by asking, “Why are we in this business?”
The group’s first answer won’t be the final one, but it’s a starting point. Then, ask, “Why?”, and continue to dig deeper and deeper until you start to reveal some real truths about your company that probably haven’t been talked about before.
Putting it all together
Once you’ve got through the purpose discovery exercises, you should be starting to get a pretty good feel for where your purpose lies. Now, it’s a matter of nailing it down.
Your company’s core purpose should ideally be worded as a verb phrase:
- Google: “Organize the world’s information”
- Walmart: “Save money. Live better.”
- Merck: “Gain victory against disease and help mankind”
- Disney: “To use our imaginations to bring happiness to millions”
- Forty: “Championing humanity”
- Southwest: “Democratize the skies”
- Charles Schwab: “To help everyone be financially fit”
- DPR Construction: “DPR exists to build great things.”
It should be epic in scale, seeming somehow possible but with completion never quite within reach. It should be short, bold, punchy, and show some nerve. It should make people wonder how you dared to even think you could achieve it. When you start to doubt it yourself, you’re getting close to the right zone.
Plus, it should be specific to your company, not just a generic sentiment like “quality” or “customer service” or “integrity.” If you’ve heard it before, throw it out. Be fresh. Be specific. Be who you really are, not whom you believe others think you should be.
Brevity magnifies purpose. The ideal core purpose phrase should be three to six words long (and the shorter the better). Any more than that, and you’re diluting it with junk that doesn’t need to be in there.
One of the greatest risks you face in this process is purpose creep: the insertion of happy little words and phrases (usually at the insistence of a committee) that accumulate like barnacles on your purpose phrase. For example, “Democratize the skies” was a great purpose statement for the early days of Southwest, but years of committee revisions later, their official purpose statement has degenerated into:
“The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.”
Barf. That sounds like a typical plumbing company purpose statement. Sure, there are lots of nice-sounding words in there, but there’s nothing you can put on a flag and nothing to make your team think, “Wow, can we even do that?” It’s nice, and that’s all it’ll ever be.
Don’t give in to the temptation to cram a bunch of empty words into your core purpose phrase, and don’t let a committee write it. Be strong, and keep it tight. Stand for something!