How to bootstrap purpose in any organization

WRITTEN BY DAN SALVA

It doesn't take extensive research to find proof that a vast majority of us yearn for meaning in our work. Yet, so few corporations are attuned to this desire among us all. We not only want it as employees, but as customers, prospects, influencers, and more.

When an organization does adopt a Big Audacious Meaning, the results can be transformative. I've seen it firsthand.  A sleepy organization has its long time CEO retire. The new purpose-leaning CEO takes the reigns. And suddenly, the sleepy organization becomes a catalyst for hope  and inspiration for everyone it serves.

It's awesome to be part of that transformation. Here is the thing, though. It just doesn't happen very often.

So what do the rest of us do? 

Sure, sending your current CEO pictures of retirement villas is an approach. But even if he leaves, there is no guarantee that someone just like him won't take his place. Besides, there are things that we can do that are much more empowering and much less reliant on the hand of fate.

In other words, we all have the power to bootstrap purpose within our organizations.

Clarifying our purpose

The first step in bootstrapping our purpose is to clearly articulate our Big Audacious Meaning. One of the quickest ways to do this is to hack our positioning.

Positioning  helps us identify the unique spot we will occupy in the minds of all those who we serve. It does it by uncovering their most vital need. Recognizing our unique set of attributes. And identifying the benefit our unique set of attributes delivers to fulfill that need. 

You may have experience with positioning if you live in the marketing world. That's a good thing. But it also merits a word of caution. This isn't our run-of-the-mill positioning process. When we introduce purpose into the equation, we have to consider more than the functional or lightweight lifestyle benefits that are the result of most positioning processes. We need to understand the impact that a Big Audacious Meaning can have. We need to identify the benefit of the benefit. This is best done with you group of key stakeholders to help you  explore and identify candidates for your Big Audacious Meaning. And then evaluate them against their value to our potential believers, their authenticity to our organization, their uniqueness in our industry, and the relevance in the environment.

The positioning process can get us to the benefit of what we do. And with a little extra effort we can get to the benefit of the benefit - your Big Audacious Meaning. Once we have this fundamental organizing idea, we can look for the natural places to implement it within our organization.

Our people - the natural place to start

There is simply no better place to begin introducing purpose than with our own people. Introducing this idea as an internal-facing initiative works naturally, after all, we're helping our people feel like what they do can make a difference in a life, a community, or even the world. In fact, if you have ambitions for this Big Audacious Meaning infiltrating everything the organization does, then starting with HR may be the most effective way to make that happen.

The low-hanging fruit - our social impact programs

Our organizations may already be involved in efforts that serve a greater good. These can include Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, charitable giving efforts, employee volunteering, and more. These are all good and noble activities. But many times they are not connected, or even driven by a larger organizing principle (like a Big Audacious Meaning.)

This may be the ideal place to start with our newly minted purpose. It could help everyone understand the ultimate goal, rather than relying on a vague notion that doing good is a good thing. It will help everyone understand the bigger difference we're shooting for. And in doing so, improve engagement with these programs. It can also help us make better decisions. Does supporting the Society for the Preservation of Societies help us pursue our Big Audacious Meaning? In short, it can be the unifying force that makes all our efforts more powerful and meaningful.

Pilot a purpose

Since we've hacked our division/product positioning, let's go ahead and use it to bring purpose into how we engage with everyone that we serve through our division, product, or service. I've had some clients worry that creating a purpose may cause a conflict with the larger organization. I have yet to see this happen. Here's why. We don't fabricate a purpose. We clarify it from all the good and meaningful intents of our organization. It's not about inventing a Big Audacious Meaning. It is uncovering and amplifying a meaning. I am basically saying that we can't go wrong here (as long as we are true to those good and meaningful intents of the organization.) So it just makes sense to take that purpose out for a test drive. The worse case scenario is that the organization may not adopt it. Oh, and we'll make our division/product brand more meaningful and compelling than it has ever been.

Consider a cause marketing effort

One last thought is to partner with a cause to help demonstrate our newly clarified purpose.  Cause marketing can have a lot of appeal. We just need to make sure that cause makes sense with what we do and that those folks we serve will find it desirable. For example, a bank believes that making the world a better place starts by helping to nurture strong communities. It sees its purpose as helping to lift up communities. It brings that purpose to life in it's home lending efforts. But it also decides to partner with a cause – in this case, Habitat For Humanity. The bank makes it easy for its checking customers to donate their cashback rewards to the housing charity. Furthermore, it pledges to match contributions. This is a good cause marketing match. Habitat For Humanity aligns with the bank's offering and, most importantly, its purpose. Plus, the effort allows bank customers to participate.

Begin bootstrapping

It would be great if we could just flip a purpose switch.  We just trip the breaker and suddenly the entire company organizes around a Big Audacious Meaning. Unfortunately, that situation is rare. 

The good news is that we don't have to wait for the entire organization to adopt a larger purpose. We can bootstrap, prototype, and pilot purpose in whatever corner of the organization that we occupy. And we can see the difference that it makes. The difference that we make. Transforming the way we do things. And maybe even evolving to transform the entire organization.

 

Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at dsalva@willgrail.com.