Purpose: why you should use that word carefully and sparingly

If you are reviewing your career and or organisational purpose you may find it a useful exercise to reflect on the meaning of the word purpose, it’s use and frequent abuse.

The word purpose is a noun meaning, according to The Oxford English Dictionary,  “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exits”. The example given is: “the purpose of the meeting is to appoint a trustee”.

So far so straight forward. But the purpose (sic) of management-speak, with which we are bombarded daily, is to render meaningful words as emotionless as possible.

Emotion, which is the expression of feelings, is the mortal enemy of management speak because feelings make us question orthodoxy. And mainstream management orthodoxy doesn’t always brook questioning.

So, the word purpose which was going about its business contributing beautifully to our sentences down through the ages was recently hijacked by management speak and converted into a proper noun as in “purpose-led, purpose-driven and purpose based”.

What’s wrong with those terms you may reasonably ask? Isn’t the intended meaning clear? Is it not pedantry to challenge a well intentioned use of a word, albeit ungrammatical?

Well it does matter not only because grammar matters but because the use of the term “purpose-driven” may assume that we share the presumed definition of their purpose. And we may not.

There are of course many organisations whose purpose is to promote better behaviour in business and who use the word as a shorthand for a higher purpose. This works provided everyone has a shared understanding of what that higher purpose might be.

Your business purpose may be to maximise shareholder value. Another might see that merely as a collateral benefit of providing excellent products and services. A third might view their purpose as neither of the above but to be the best in the world at what they do. And so on.

The point is you can’t be told what your purpose is. It’s yours. You can be led or driven by your purpose but not by purpose itself.

The precise use of the word matters for a second reason: it’s imprecise use can contribute to conflict in the boardroom because conflict is reduced when board members have a shared purpose. A purpose can’t be shared fully if there are preconceived ideas as to its meaning.

The third reason you should use this word with care and sparingly is because it has a direct impact on strategy, another mightily abused word.

If purpose means why you do what you do, then strategy means how you achieve that purpose. It doesn’t mean anything else. As the OED helpfully points out, strategy serves purpose.

So if there is confusion about your business purpose then your strategy will be flawed. If some of your directors feel that purpose is a proper noun with an inherent meaning and others don’t well the board is going to be at, er, cross-purposes.

This happens more frequently than you might think. I’m often taken aback in my work  at how often boards, particularly operating boards, do not have a clearly articulated purpose and a strategy which serves it other than to make money which is neither a purpose nor a strategy but a result of both in combination.

If you treat the word purpose almost as a sacred term you will derive more benefit from it for yourself and for the people you lead and for the organisation for which you work.

Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great set out a framework for what he called your business BHAG: a big hairy audacious goal. I call it purpose.

His framework requires your board to answer three questions: what can we become the best in the world at? what can we become passionate about? and how will we drive profitability?

I think his is an elegant framework for figuring out your purpose whether personal or organisational and I commend it to you provided you use the widest definition of profitability which can be intangible as well as tangible.

So, there is nothing wrong with board members wanting to be purpose-driven or led provided they all share the same meaning of the word. The problems occur when the don’t.

But communication in boardrooms is frequently constrained by interpersonal politics. This often results in confusion. The word purpose is a special word and should be used carefully and sparingly. Purpose matters.

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