Purpose is not a business goal

We know that purpose is the new competitive advantage. Customers and employees want to work for and buy from companies that are aligned with their own values. The idea that we’re hearing again and again is that a business’s purpose is linked to its profit, so if you want to be profitable you need to be purpose-driven. 

A lot can be said about the association between profit and purpose, but what I find interesting is how business purpose is sometimes conceptualised and understood as a business goal. 

Purpose thrives when a story mindset is applied, or as John Kay says in his book Obliquity when we take the indirect route rather than the direct one. 

It’s one thing to put purpose at the core of your business because you believe in it, and it’s another doing so because you think it’s the best way to increase your profit. As John Kay says, “We do better relying on people who are honest by character rather than honest by choice, because character is endurable and predictable, but policies are not.” We all know the difference. If you put purpose at the core of what you do to help maximise your profit, it will soon become be clear to your customers and employees that you’re treating your purpose as a business goal, and this will damage both your reputation and trust in your company. 

John Kay says that whereas a direct approach sees high-level objectives as defined, clear and quantifiable, an oblique approach prefers to treat high-level objectives as loosely defined and multidimensional. 

Kay offers the example of President Roosevelt, one of whose high-level objectives was the survival of American capitalism. He achieved this with great doses of pragmatism and improvisation rather than a pre-designed plan, mostly because he had to deal with so many factors that were outside his control.

A direct approach can be used to define the problem, the methodology, and the way we’re going to approach the solution in advance. It relies on controlling the problem and reducing it to something that can be broken down into pieces and understood logically. 

If this approach doesn’t work with many of the challenges we are facing today, as Kay shows in his book, why should it work with purpose? Why should we insist on a managerial way of defining and reducing our purpose to a business goal? Why should we see our purpose as a way of maximising profit? What if purpose is about creating a great business?

When we say purpose is a new competitive advantage we’re saying that purpose helps businesses to retain talent and customers by giving them a reason to work for and buy from them, seeing them as contributors to society. 

These reasons are, by definition, emotional reasons, not rational or logical ones, because they’re based on perceptions that change over time. So if we want to understand and work with purpose, we need to consider not only an oblique approach but also a story mindset based on emotions, perceptions, empathy, subjectivity and collaboration.

If purpose can be a real competitive advantage for businesses, embracing it may require a different kind of mindset that:

– prioritises subjectivity over objectivity – anything that improves peoples’ lives according to their own standards rather than the business’s standards

– is based on doing the right thing rather than being right– making the right decisions even if it means we contradict ourselves, because the value is not in consistency but in alignment with purpose, rather than seeking to dominate, control and have all the answers

– takes feelings into account – how people feel about us when we act according to our purpose – rather than facts such as the latest report from a focus group.

This mindset is relevant for anybody in business, no matter whether you’re a CEO or a freelancer. If you’re driven by purpose and want to make an impact, you need to find ways of being comfortable with subjectivity, an indirect approach to problems, doing the right thing rather than the most popular one, and taking into account peoples’ feelings and perceptions. We can insist on reducing the transformational power of purpose by adjusting it to the old paradigm, but the truth is that something new is emerging, and we need a new vocabulary and approach to deal this new reality.