One of the hardest questions we ask in our discovery workshops is also one of the simplest and most fundamental: “Why does your company exist?”
You’d think most CEOs would have a ready (and passionate) response to that question, but most don’t. When asked that question, they usually keep their composure, but if you watch closely, you’ll sense their discomfort. They get a little squirmy. They often give a half-hearted response about service, quality, integrity, or other filler words, or they jokingly say that the company’s purpose is to make a lot of money (which it’s not).
We ask that question because we need them to feel uncomfortable. It helps them realize they’re not paying enough attention to the basic things that matter most, and it’s time to rediscover their company’s roots.
Your company exists because of its purpose. Its real purpose. It’s deeper than financial goals, target markets, or strategic plans. It goes beyond your business model and even what category you’re in.
Take Google as an example. If their goal were simply to be the best search engine, they probably would have done a pretty good job and stopped there. However, their deep-down purpose is to “organize the world’s information,” and they’ve applied that purpose in areas as diverse as geography, web analytics, email, genetics, books, blogs, news, images, finances, academics, calendars, videos, coupons, 3D modeling, voice over IP, video chat, health records, social networking, patents, RSS feeds, shopping, and software development.
In every area they touch, they’ve innovated in ways that really do help organize the world’s information, and our lives are improved through their efforts in ways they wouldn’t be if Google were merely focused on improving the quality of their search engine.
A company’s purpose should a timeless statement about the change they’re trying to make in the world. It shouldn’t be tied to any particular industry or approach. In 50 or 100 years, it should be as clear and relevant as it is today—and provide as challenging and energizing a goal.
Purpose provides an internal compass that guides companies forward in a consistent and efficient direction, while reminding them there’s a larger vision for the future. Having a clearly-defined purpose helps companies dream big and move fast. It’s the unchanging soul of a business. It’s the reason it even exists in the first place.