The Purpose of Purpose

So, what does purpose do for Kaospilot? In today’s business climate, purpose serves as a deep rationale – it is something fundamental which strategy can be played up against.

Have you ever thought about what companies and organizations did before they had articulated visions, intentions, missions, and purposes? Though it seems almost inconceivable today, it was not that long ago that many concepts that we take for granted – like innovation, strategy, etc. – were not part of the lingo used by organizations.

That does not mean that organizations were lost or disorganized. They simply did not have the same vocabulary, or perhaps the same level of attention, as organizations have today. So, why do businesses now have a need for this type of articulation around who they are and what they do? The role that purpose has to play in today’s fast-paced, competitive business environment can be illustrated by the following story:

In 1996, Kaospilot entered into a project with Dee Hock, the founder and former CEO of Visa. After resigning from his position as CEO of Visa in 1984, Hock spent some time in relative isolation, which gave him a chance to reflect upon how his company had become so successful. He looked back and evaluated what the process of building Visa was like, and realized how important purpose had been to building the company. He concluded that organizations should be both chaotic and ordered; they need to think about themselves in a different way, and define a deliberate process through which to achieve their potential.

Hock subsequently invited Kaospilot to undergo the process that he had designed for deep organizational transformation. That process required participation across all levels of Kaospilot, from the students to the board. It took time, it was intense, and it continues to be an ongoing process and conversation to this day. In Hock’s own words, as he stated in his book Birth of the Chaordic Age: “…a clear, meaningful purpose and compelling ethical principles evoked from all participants should be the essence of every relationship, and every institution.”

Hock’s process involves a series of steps, sometimes referred to as “stepping stones,” usually performed in a sequence – though new findings may require the organization to redo a previously completed step. The steps are purpose, principles, concept, people, structure, and practice. Hock believes that new initiatives often fail because they start at the practice level, with organizations remedying challenges by moving step by step in reverse order, from practice, to structure, and so on. Because of this, they often fail to ask the most important question to start with: Why are we doing this?

Today, many different frameworks exist that support this method. However, since beginning its work with Hock, Kaospilot has stayed true to the “chaordic” process. Why? Because it makes sense. The school engages in the process approximately every three years to re-address its purpose and the principles. Though Kaospilot’s principles do not necessarily need to change every three years, engaging in this process helps the school stay connected with the purpose of its work, which helps prevent its principles from becoming archaic and obsolete.

So, what does purpose do for Kaospilot? In today’s business climate, purpose serves as a deep rationale – it is something fundamental which strategy can be played up against. Without it, strategy becomes essentially opportunistic. With purpose comes an ethical dimension, something Kaospilot can use to assess its opportunities and needs. Purpose represents the school’s commitment to something worthy of pursuit. It helps to steer the institution in times of uncertainty and shifting winds.

Purpose is also relational. The main currency today is meaning, and leaders are dealers in meaning. By having a purpose that people can relate and adhere to, Kaospilot makes a powerful contribution to the dynamic relationship between the organization and its people – including students, staff, and other stakeholders. Purpose helps the institution to understand and connect. Why? Because it provides a compelling reason for being and justifies the organization’s actions, operations, and strategy while also helping people decide whether they want to be part of those activities or not. A purpose becomes an invitation to join – but an invitation one can decline.

Purpose goes beyond strategy and speaks to an essence. It represents a reason for being and doing – something that goes beyond immediate returns. It implies an opportunity cost that one is willing to pay because it is more important than other alternatives, not necessarily more beneficial in monetary terms. The pursuit of purpose also has the benefit of helping an organization learn about itself and others. Purpose is about becoming.

the author

Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius

Christer Windeløv-Lidzélius is the principal of Kaospilot.