Overcoming challenges of activating purpose in organisations

By January 24, 2017 purpose No Comments
Activating purpose

I’m often inspired to write a post following a meeting or conversation with a client, but even more so after conversations with prospective clients.  When you are listening deeply to the needs of someone you hope to work with, you can gain important insights into what needs to happen in their business, but also how your own work can improve and be more relevant.  In this case I was discussing supporting an organisation who had already begun the early stage of work to investigate the basis for a future purpose-led inspiring vision for their company might be, and looking at the challenges of articulating a new vision and activating that purpose throughout the company.

Once you have started to hold discussions and exploratory workshops with some of your employees and other stakeholders, it’s often the case that the amount of data starts to look a little overwhelming.  Of course you can look externally for help (mine, hopefully!) but if you’ve committed to a fully internal process, what could your next steps be?

First take a quick sense check and make sure you’ve covered three important areas:-

  • How individuals see their own purpose within the organisation – personal place in the world
  • What they feel about what the company currently stands for in the world – current vision and understanding
  • Where they feel the company can serve humanity and the planet in the future – the emergent purpose

It’s important to allow people to express their own individual sense of their place in the organisation, because our first port of call in making sense of the world is to see it from our own point of view. This will give you rich information on how to support people through any future change process. Looking at the company today will allow you to see where there are different opinions and views, where you might get resistance and where you have unanimous accord. Lastly, allowing people to imagineer the future is the first step in activating future excitement and enthusiasm about the voyage you are about to take together.

There could easily be multiple different visions of where stakeholders feel the company is, and where it should be going. You will probably unearth all the concerns, fears, dissatisfactions that may be lurking, but you will also release creativity, imagination and enthusiasm. If the data and feedback is overwhelming you,  don’t panic!  It is natural that there will be different views of the company and its future place in the world. It is even more natural if your organisation is a rapidly expanding startup just reaching that point of transition from ‘family’ where everyone knows each other by name to a larger organisation.

Let’s look at the scenario where you have received radically different feedback across the organisation. What should you do if investors have one vision, your leadership team a different one again, and the employee base a third?

From exploration to activating purpose

Firstly, once a consultation has started, keep communicating. When people know that change is afoot, anxiety blossoms very quickly in a vacuum of information. Your first task is to communicate the results of your initial consultation and outline clearly the next steps you will take to analyse and make sense of the feedback you have been given. Outlining next steps is essential; it doesn’t have to be the whole future plan at this stage, just reassuring people that there is a clear path ahead.

There are then four key steps to take in order to activate the new sense of purpose that is emerging from your explorations:-

  • Creating a unifying and inspiring, purposeful vision for the future for your organisation from the opportunities you have identified
  • Communicating the vision clearly, explaining how the new vision will address any problems the company faces, and outlining the steps to achieving the new vision
  • To support people through the process of change whose preferred vision of the future is not addressed by your chosen position; to give them every opportunity to come with you or to choose not to
  • To ensure that this new purposeful approach is not only relevant to your customers, but that you deliver against it through actions, products, services and behaviours.

Show people why change is important and relevant to them

Even when there are very different views across the stakeholder groups of a company’s mission and purpose, there will be kernels of commonality within their ideas. What you are looking for is a central theme which pulls them all together into a new destination – a new story. Here is where you may need some external help to codify that new vision. Creative teams in agencies are immersed in the creative process all the time so they are likely to be faster at shaping the story because they are more experienced, but you can also work with excellent copywriters if you’re on a tighter budget. But first investigate if you have any great storytellers in-house.

While you are allowing a new story to emerge through your stakeholders, you also need to do some intentional external research into global trends which are likely to have an impact on the future of your business. Understanding the changing landscape around you helps you to weave an important part of the jigsaw into the future vision. This is defining what the problems are currently with you existing vision and purpose (even if you have one), and what other problems may arise be if you don’t reach out to a new destination. People may not all like the new destination, but if you can appeal to both their logical and emotional mind, they are more likely to trust you. It is becoming more widely accepted that global issues have an impact on all companies. Your employees will have a deeper understanding of your vision if they also see the global context in which it sits.

Share small steps and celebrate often

Often change takes time to realise. One of the places where you can ‘lose’ people is at the point you launch your exciting new vision. This is where you emphasise that it is a new destination you are sharing with people, rather than a leap from A to B. I can’t emphasise enough to importance of having a clear plan to communicate each step of the way.

Show people the destination, tell them the first actions you are going to take towards the vision, and then regularly update them on results of action, and share the next set of actions. This avoids overwhelm for those people who may not at first share the vision, and generates momentum. Go for some easy wins at the start and make sure you celebrate them.

Activate individual purpose and experiment with self-management

Be very clear at this point the overall role of all your stakeholders. When JFK famously spoke to a janitor on the NASA project and asked him what he did he replied “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Be equally clear of their individual role and purpose in achieving that vision, and their role as a group or team. If, during the exploratory phase, you’ve asked questions about their personal sense of purpose, you will have information that helps you respond. If investors, for example, can see a clear road to greater growth and profits, they will come along for the ride.

For your employees, this can be an excellent opportunity to experiment with a ring-fenced self-managed project. There is increasing evidence that self-managed business models attract and retain highly qualified and motivated people. If people see the new vision as an opportunity for them to take new responsibility, gain more freedom to enact their own sense of purpose within your wider vision, they will jump onto the new vision train much faster.

Support people through resistance and loss

What about the people who had a very different idea of what the future would be? The most important thing to realise at this stage is that you may not be able to bring everyone with you. Your job is to communicate the new vision clearly, and then to allow people time to decide for themselves whether this brave new world is one they can be part of.

People need time to let go of their own ideas and join new ones. Some people will feel this keenly, like a loss of identity and place. It can help during this phase to put specialist coaching support in place.  Helping people through the phase of separating from their old vision, through the transition towards the new, speeds up full acceptance and adoption.

There are many tools and techniques which can help here. Mindfulness meditation to help people develop their own sense of awareness about the emotions they are experiencing. Supporting people to understand their own values and how they are being challenged or fulfilled within the new vision. Creating ritual moments of letting go of certain ideas, or even products and services that will be lost may sound a little ‘woo woo’ but can be very helpful. I tested this out recently with a group of truck drivers in a haulage business. They may have been hugely awkward and uncomfortable at first, but it marked a moment of departure from the old to the new which they all took on board. Coaching support should complement your communications plan.

Activating purpose is becoming an essential strategy for companies large and small to navigate the choppy waters of volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity (VUCA). Research shows that purpose-led organisations are more popular with Millennials as places to work, and increasingly attractive to consumers. Those organisations that can weave a mission to take on one of the grand challenges of humanity outlined within the UN Sustainable Development Goals, can carve a future competitive advantage to attract and retain the best talent by providing meaningful work and a sustainable future.

If you would like help to explore what activating purpose might mean to your organisation, I work in collaboration with many different purpose-led agents of change to support organisations making a transition to purpose-led business. We would love to support you. Contact me at jenny@jenandersson.com.

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