Putting a Man on the Moon: The Importance of Organisational Purpose

When speaking about the importance of organisational purpose, there is one story that HR academics, practitioners and writers reference without fail (note that I’m about to include myself in this narrative): the story of JFK and the janitor. Story goes that when visiting the NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961 (in the midst of America’s ‘space race’ with the USSR), President JFK introduced himself to a janitor and asked him about his role. When asked what he did, the janitor said: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”.

A similar but less referenced story tells of the English architect Christopher Wren walking through St. Paul’s Cathedral during its construction (c. latter half of the 17th century). Disguised and unrecognisable, Wren struck up a conversation with a stone-cutter and asked him what he did. The workman replied, “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral.

The amount of fact or fiction in these stories is inconsequential. Indeed, they seem to be fables, not so much offering us snippets of historical truth than delivering a moral message. In particular, these tales highlight the importance of knowing why you do what you do. The point is that the janitor, seeing beyond his cleaning duties, and the workman, seeing beyond his piece of stone, both understood the greater picture, and as a consequence found fulfillment in their tasks.

This fulfillment may be alternatively conceived of as purpose. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. Thus purpose is the answer as to why you do something. In an organisational context, purpose is the definition of a company’s social contribution, and as such, it must be motivational and inspiring. It must also be narrow and specific. Businesses with a clear purpose sidestep the common mistake of trying to be the best at everything. Rather, they understand that it is actually better to excel in just one area.

There are a number benefits to clear organisational purpose. To begin, employees who see their roles as meaningful are more likely to thrive and succeed; so too businesses tend to perform better financially. In addition, purpose ensures organisational cohesion. Businesses with hundreds or thousands of employees, comprised of several departments, and located in a number of international offices (for example), will certainly suffer if their managers send mixed messages and their employees disagree about the direction the company is moving in. Clear purpose ensures uniformity in company values and employee coordination within.

Research into organisation agility by Chris Worley (of the Centre for Effective Organisations) and CRF found that organisations that achieve sustained long-term superior performance demonstrate four distinctive ‘routines’: ways of operating that allow them to develop and execute strategy dynamically and drive change.

First, the strategizing routine describes how agile organisations establish an aspirational purpose, develop a widely-shared strategy, and manage the climate and commitment to execution.

Second, the perceiving routine is concerned with how agile organisations monitor their environment to sense changes, and communicate these perceptions to decision-makers who formulate appropriate responses.

Third, the testing routine describes the unique approach agile organisations have to setting up, running, and learning from experiments.

Finally, the implementing routine describes the ability and capacity of agile organisations to implement both incremental and discontinuous change.

Worley found that organisations with three or more of the routines were seven times more likely to have sustained levels of above-average performance over the 32-year period from 1980 to 2012. Thus it is clear that creating a sense of organisational purpose, beyond profit, sits at the core of organisation agility and correlates with higher organisational performance.

Organisations have – and continue to be – successful without clearly defining their purpose. But the global rate of change means that competitive advantage is no longer simply a case of organisational efficiency. Now, competitive advantage is defined by effectiveness. With this in mind, purpose must be central to, and the enduring feature of, organisations. And this shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. An organisation’s purpose frames the foundations for its success, provides it with the grounds for decision-making, sets the tone for the people it serves, and enables the company to continually evolve while staying true to its message.

For more information about CRF’s research organisation agility please contact gillian@crforum.co.uk or visit www.crforum.co.uk.

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