Why do you need purpose to adapt?

Today, the ability to continuously adapt and improve in ways that meaningfully serve your overarching business purpose is one of your most important strategy-making skills. A clear sense of purpose – purpose that’s shared across the organisation – has the greatest influence on the strategic performance required for thriving in today’s dynamic business environment.

However, an often-overlooked advantage to creating shared purpose is its effectiveness in helping your people to embrace change and become comfortable with a dynamic strategic environment. Purpose allows you to make your people the driving force behind the strategic shift you hope to make rather than the thing that you need to shift.

With purpose, your strategic journey has direction – your enterprise has a strong sense of true north

Shared purpose is one of the most important influences on your ability to translate strategy into operational reality and business results. Purpose sets the direction for your business’s future-focused activities. It’s the compass for setting the course of your strategic journey. It’s the barometer for setting priorities for your strategic activities. It’s the gauge for assessing whether your activities are making meaningful progress toward your strategic objectives.

Purpose can’t be boiled down into slogans that sit above the reception desk, dangle below email signatures or adorn posters in the breakroom. Leaders need to communicate the business’s purpose – what represents commercial value and strategic intent – consistently and authentically.

Purpose has power when its shared

For purpose to have power, it can’t be held closely by a select few in the organisation. This is when purpose is not just an ineffective influence, but a detrimental one. This is when strategic change creates uncertainty and fear. It is the birthplace of the organisational inertia that stands in the way of nimbleness and adaptability.

To imbue purpose with power, it must be shared. Your people need to understand it and embrace it at a level that relates to the work they do every day. You need to be clear that your business’s purpose exists as a guiding light for adaptation and improvement; adaptation that is continuous and involves the entire organisation. Your people need to know that they will have a role in both shaping and manifesting it in their operational interactions with your customers and each other.

Shared purpose is a process of co-creation. This means translating strategic intent into meaningful work your people can engage in.

Middle managers and senior staff have the best working knowledge of where improvements will have the greatest business impact. They’re a font of knowledge about where potential business opportunities might be lurking.

Your front-line staff have crucial information on how to translate improvements or opportunities into the operational environment. As they are likely to implement the resulting operational changes, it is important that their needs are addressed if the productivity, product development or customer service benefit is to be achieved.

The cure for resistance: test, operationalise and scale

There is a common misconception that human beings inherently resist ‘change’. In reality, humans are the most adaptable species on the planet. We are capable of change in the blink of an eye. What the workplace reacts to is uncertainty.

It’s uncertainty – not change – that triggers the organisational immune system and can release the dreaded ‘resistance’

Resistance is a fast-growing movement that rails against any sort of uncertainty because of all the certain harm it will do – people will lose their jobs, you’ll break things that weren’t broken, you’ll chase your customers away to the competition.

One of the most effective antidotes to resistance is experimentation. Test a new idea or an alternative business approach in the relative safety of a laboratory (or project) environment. Use a proper scientific approach: establish a hypothesis around the intended beneficial outcome, then actively seek to disprove it. Use the people most affected by the change (and hence most likely to resist it) to conduct the experiment.

This yields three potential outcomes: you disprove your hypothesis; your hypothesis remains intact or you learn something completely new that makes the old hypothesis obsolete. These outcomes provide one of two important insights: what is likely to deliver business value or what is likely to not be valuable. Both bring important clarity when it comes to strategic decision-making.

The next logical stage of a successful experiment is to begin testing the approach or product in the hard-bitten world of operational reality. But don’t make an all-or-nothing bet. Give your people an opportunity to work through the teething pains and improve it. Turn off the non-essential features or do a pilot test in one area of the business. Allow your team to overcome the inevitable missteps rather than experience a failure that they’re ashamed of.

Your tests should be viewed through the lens of business value. Did it perform as anticipated? Was the value what you thought it would be? Were there unintended consequences that degraded performance in other areas of the business?

The transparency of the decision-making process will deepen the collective sense of purpose with your people and break down the spread of resistance

If your testing can withstand this scrutiny, then consider scaling up to the operational level. By this time, you’ll have reduced the level of uncertainty with the change. You’ll have reduced the risk and disruption to the business. You’ll have developed what John Kotter describes as a ‘guiding coalition’ of managers and users who are advocating its value, all the while deepening its ties to your business purpose.

Purpose isn’t a secret that you let your people in on – it’s a tribe that everyone is a member of

As your organisation’s strategic maturity develops, your purpose will be shared in both directions. Your people will deploy strategic initiatives in a manner that allows your customers to experience an authentic expression of the business’s purpose. Conversely, through customer and operational experiences, they’ll identify innovative approaches or clever solutions that will allow the business to powerfully express its purpose in the strategic initiatives it deploys.

This allows leadership to flow across your organisation – from top to bottom and bottom to top. Or, as I prefer, from the inside out and the outside in.


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