Purpose and Narrative

A brief deviation from growth and similar approaches to consider purpose and narrative.

Purpose and narrative

Behind all of growth, performance, agility and resilience lies the heart of the business – frequently these days described in its purpose (and often following a big exercise to determine, articulate and communicate what that is). It has become increasingly fashionable to talk about a ‘massive transformational purpose’ (MTP) or ‘big, hairy audacious goal’ (BHAG). And if you are a startup or recent organisation it is inevitably easier to create that kind of purpose which is both coherent (after all you have designed the company around it) and resonates with your current organisation. Both of those are significantly harder if you have years of legacy, a brand or brands position and global infrastructures operating in multiple cultures.

To add to the confusion, in my experience, very few organisations of that established nature have any widely understood clarity (let alone articulation) of what it is that lies at their heart – what it is that has consistently driven their success. For me, understanding that is crucial to asking the question ‘is there more or less opportunity for that (whatever it is) in the future VUCA world?’ and the related question, ‘how do I then link that to my role / purpose in a meaningful way?’ So there is a strong link to growth and resilience here.

To me the start point for the answer to both lies in one of my long term favourite bloggers and authors – John Hagel, talking about narrative. But narrative, whilst a perfectly normal word is not necessarily familiar in organisational terms. To my mind, it’s important to understand the distinction between narrative and story telling which John Hagel makes clear here (he has much to say on narrative and all of it valuable!). Story telling has become increasingly popular in corporate communications and can be hugely valuable – but the gulf between a message communicated via a story, and an open ended narrative that underpins the role of the organisation looking forward, whilst recognising the value of the past, is huge. And reading on corporate narrative he makes it very clear that the perspective of the narrative is the audience – not the organisation.

Looked at from this perspective, narrative is both broader than purpose but integral to it – in effect setting the broader context for it. Purpose all too often gets reduced to a soundbite – narrative offers a much wider canvas. One aspect of that wider canvas is the ability to reference the value of legacy and heritage – to leverage the heartbeat that has driven success to date. Listening to organisations that get closest to what feels like a genuine heartbeat often suggests it’s a capability or skillset (the start point for the conversation is so often ‘our people’). So the big oil majors tend to reference their engineering skills and the mindset that those characteristics bring.

Heartbeat need not be related to capability but thinking about it in that way does clearly distinguish heartbeat from mission or purpose. And it is frequently a valuable root when thinking about narratives looking forward – how can those capabilities be applied to provide the value audiences seek in an authentic way. That’s not to suggest that the heartbeat will not need to change (after all heartbeat by definition is a purely internal concept, and the narrative is defined from the external) but the continuity needed to provide credibility in narrative offers a change to turn the disadvantage of the established organisation (a big legacy and reputation) into a positive attribute. Incidentally that capability or expertise need not be applied to the new narrative in the same way as in the past – think of Philip Morris talking about their future without cigarettes earlier this year.

And writers are beginning to recognise the complexity of today’s world, and to distinguish the northstar or compass represented by narratives from the narrowly defined purpose and associated targets that has tended to arise thus far. The latter is perhaps not surprising if the start point,as it most often has been, is to define purpose as an increment to the business and then seek to demonstrate how that purpose can be met in numbers, akin to other targets of the business. That’s very different from a business following and developing its own narrative around specific audience needs or desires underpinned by the expertise and value demonstrated from history.

It’s worth thinking here about complex systems briefly and another of my favourite authors – Dave Snowden who first raised the concept in my mind of metrics for organisations as vectors not absolutes. The value then of a northstar or narrative vs a specific goal is immense – the issue then becomes whether the organisation (or its various constituent elements) is moving in the right direction (towards making the narrative real, and at the right speed). Given sufficient clarity on the narrative, there should be progress towards it across the organisation if it is understood. This then raises the question of tight / loose frameworks – only if the vectors are transgressing the tight boundaries is tough intervention needed – within those the vectors can be used to demonstrate tolerance for different angles of progress and alternative speeds. Small nudges – reinforcing the narrative perhaps through story telling, might be sufficient to speed up, slow down or change the direction more positively.

I find talking about purpose hugely frustrating – I absolutely get the value of an MTP or BHAG for multiple stakeholders. But the time and energy spent coming up with something is frequently at odds with the impact. I’ve seen it become something which feels distant (is our priority purpose or profit?), constraining (how can we be innovative if we have to meet that?) or both to the wider organisation. That’s why for me narratives, open ended (and hence agile), audience driven (and therefore innately relevant but flexible) and yet authentic (building off and celebrating the best of the past) seem to be much more valuable. All we need now are the examples!

Who cares? and Why?


Thinking about language again I was struck by the word chain – suggesting either a constraint or, as in a bicycle, an enabler and accelerator. It’s that more positive interpretation that started me thinking. Because I’ve been discussing value chains a lot recently and making the mildly depressing discovery that actually a lot of organisations are a good deal more articulate about their supply chain than their value chain. Starting with the question ‘why’ do you do what you do – in association with ‘what’ do you do, frequently elicits the immediate answer ‘to make money / profits / growth’. Further exploration of this usually fleshes this out to get more focus on the customer but this question of why is increasingly fundamental for at least two reasons in my view:

1. The customers view of value is shifting and shifting fast. Think about the impact of collaborative consumption – the sharing economy. The value used to be in owning an asset, that was how you de-risked a business. Now the high growth marketplaces are precisely those without assets – Uber has no taxis, Airbnb no hotels. Borrow my doggy, no dogs. What consumers of these services care about is convenience – how fast, how easy, how relevant.

2. People engage around a purpose or a ‘why’ that resonates with them – either as consumers / buyers or as workers / employees. And frankly for most employees once the immediate ‘I am going to get paid’ question is answered the idea of making money for shareholders (unless you are one of them . . . ) is not the most personally relevant or resonant answer – they want to feel that they are making a difference, or a contribution and that the work they are doing is valuable.

But I do think that question of purpose is getting very confused. I personally think purpose, like innovation and a number of other once quite innocuous and clear words, has become very, very ambiguous. Sustainability is another. We just don’t really have a common language any more. For many people, purpose and sustainability are about ethical issues, or about environmental or social concerns. And the problem there is that they then become emotive – and for those not engaged, divorced from the commercial aspects of the business. But purpose as I’ve suggested as above is integral to the business – it is the essential raison d’etre for being there. And sustainable in the dictionary is defined as ‘able to maintained at a certain rate or level’ which has no specific direction to that rate or level.

Oh the joys of our evolving language . . . .