Silo-Busting Power of Business Purpose

When everyone understands the company's 'why', silos fall away and teams work side by side.

May 2022 | Practice

When I speak of ‘purpose’, many senior managers suppress an eye-roll as they strain – politely – to focus on what I am saying. I understand the scepticism. After all, the word feels like an interloper from the realms of Human Resources (HR) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Neither of these groups lives in the dog-eat-dog world of client retention, profit margins and balance-sheets. People accountable for financial outcomes rarely have energy to think beyond the day’s business.

Business purpose

However, purpose is not about team-building events; nor is it tree-hugging in the Amazon rainforest. Purpose is the cornerstone of every strong organisation.

Let us see purpose as ‘why the business exists’. This reason – in its various forms – is what motivates customers to buy a company’s products and services, candidates to accept its job offers and shareholders to invest in its future. A business without a clear purpose need not exist – it makes itself useful to no one.

Problem of silos

Still, the question is unanswered – ‘Why should we talk about purpose?’

As I walk the corridors of organisations, I see people – in sales, trading, marketing, compliance, R&D, technology, finance, HR and so on – segregated by office doors, building walls and, of course, country borders. Physical boundaries, however, matter less than the dividing lines of national culture, professional standards, specialist knowledge, departmental objectives, team goals and, yes, individual preference. Most of us have experienced how organisational ‘silos’ get in the way of our work. Well, silos and the mentality that goes with them emerge from these differences.

How purpose busts silos

In general, organisations are valuable because they are a place for specialists (whose greatest combined assets are their differences) to work together in a manner that renders the sum greater than its parts. For this to happen, diverse individuals and resources must somehow be guided toward a common destination. Purpose – why the business exists – brings this direction. Purpose cuts through differences and unites people, breaking down silos to unify aims, choices and actions across departments and teams.

Talk about purpose

An organisation is effective when the day-to-day work of each person is aligned with a common, agreed goal. (See my introduction to strategic alignment Why 40 Hours’ Work Makes Only 20 Hours’ Difference for what happens when misalignment creeps in.) Clearly, people cannot align themselves with a purpose they are not aware of or do not understand. The same holds true if they cannot see how the purpose relates to their role. This is why organisations must set out clear statements and encourage these to be discussed and used. This way, the reason the business exists at all will remain uppermost in individuals’ minds, and will become part of how each employee goes about his or her day.

Strong purpose statements

If it is time to refresh, lay out or clarify purpose in your organisation, your statement should have several characteristics. First, it must be relevant to your employees, your customers and your shareholders, all of whom we see as investors in your future. There is no point in setting a strategic aim that is of no value to the people who matter most. Ask your stakeholders what is important.

Second, your purpose has to be easily digested. If it is long, complicated or unclear then it will fail to unite people or unify work. It must be simple enough for everyone in your organisation to ‘get’ and embrace as a guide to how to act. Keep your statement to one or two easy sentences.

Third, the purpose must inspire your colleagues, captivate your customers, and excite your shareholders. After all, this is the reason people come to work, give you their custom or invest in your enterprise. Do not be boring, ever.

In summary

‘Purpose’ is not jargon from another world. Purpose explains why your business and organisation exist. Colleagues need to see why they are at work and apply that understanding each day. This will reduce the risk of silos and other inefficiencies. Senior managers have an obligation to make work as easy as possible – this means setting out a clear and simple purpose, then aligning the organisation with the business it is meant to serve.

Image Jorge Rojas | Unsplash

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