What is the human cost of not having an inspiring business purpose?

What is the human cost of not having an inspiring business purpose?

Tony is a strong and conscientious manager who has earned the respect and loyalty of his team. The economy is picking up and so is the competition. He knows competitors will be taking their chances and contacting some of his team. He too has been approached but held back because he still believes in his company, which is why worry is gripping his mind. He knows neither he nor his business can afford to lose key talent.

Alert, Tony sits up to consider what has changed. A few years back, the company had established itself as a challenger quickly securing market share to become a leader. Back then their business was disruptive. His customers were excited to hear about what he had to say. He too was passionate about sharing the company vision. In those early years, it seemed he shared a kindred spirit with his colleagues, also those they did business with were equally motivated about their vision and products.

Today, it seems customers just want to talk about the commodity stuff. They know what his company and the competition’s products offer, it is all available on the Internet! All too often they are quick to remind him his company’s product is no different to the three or four other companies they believe, correctly or incorrectly, offer the same stuff.

Tony feels himself slipping into that empty void once again, frustrated with a business he had once been passionate about. “…is it really only about delivering commodity stuff now?”

Tony’s story is a tragedy unfolding both for himself and the business as it grew from challenger to market leader. During this growth, something for Tony was lost.

There is value in having a clear business purpose

Apple’s original purpose was believing in challenging the status quo, thinking differently. They did it by making beautiful products that were easy to use. Their purpose clearly tells the world why Apple does what it does. It just happens to also produce some of the best technology products in the market. Simon Sinek’s excellent book, ‘Start with Why’ delves deeper into this topic. My point in writing this article is to consider the human cost of not having a clear business purpose that inspires your staff and the market.

A purpose is often at the very soul of a business, it is the intent of driving the day-to-day inspiration and behaviour. This makes it very human, encouraging people to share, participate and act.

A business purpose drives staff behaviour

Tony’s story tells us that in the early days the market was excited about what his company had to say. A segment of the market would have related to it’s business’s purpose and its staff passionately believed and acted on it. Today that passion is lost and a valued member of staff is demotivated exposing the business to a risk he could leave.

Consider something or someone you are passionate about, such as a hobby, a sport, or your partner, you will notice how your very persona instantly changes when you think about it. Something deep within you ignites a flow of positive energy. As if by magic you are energized and excited. It is no longer a chore doing something you are passionate about, it is more akin to the excitement that is enjoyable. Having a purpose is the same, it helps transform mundane work you need to do to pay the mortgage into inspiration to take action. That inspiration brings the business purpose alive and drives staff behaviour in that direction. That is the gift we receive when we believe in something, someone, or a purpose.

Tony’s business in its early days will have communicated a business purpose to both its staff and a group of customers who related to it. No doubt the energy, behaviour and actions created from that belief will have helped fuel business growth to become a market leader.

Understand the different customer groups you serve

For Tony’s company, we don’t know what that purpose was, but we do know it was powerful enough to excite its staff and their original customers. Fast forward to today, customers have all the tools they need to do their research before they ever talk to Tony. When they do, they are quick to tell him his company’s product is no different from the competition. Were these the same group of customers or a new group?

To answer this question we need to look back at Tony’s story, which raises the first important point. Notice how his story switched from his passion sharing the company’s vision, which will have encapsulated its purpose to the commodity stuff. With technological advancements and increased funding, we can assume their product is now better. Becoming a market leader will also have required the business to improve some of the other commodity stuff it delivered. That surely will have helped drive greater loyalty within the original customer group. We probably have a new group of customers on the scene.

This leads onto the second important point, understand the different groups of customers you are serving. You probably will have come across a term called the technology adoption curve. It is a classic bell curve with early adopters towards the leading left edge followed by early majority, late majority and so on. The reason I mention this is the customer dynamics for each segment is different. Without realizing it, and while growing its customer base and revenues, Tony’s business will have transitioned to also serving another group of customers.

When transitioning to serve the larger, seemingly more profitable groups of customer’s is when the seeds of tragedy are sown. Different customer groups will have different priorities and drivers. The early or late majority customer groups will probably be less interested in the purpose of Tony, the business and those customers in the early adopter group would have been so passionate about. The new customers will be more interested in the commodity factors against which they can level the playing field and compare the alternatives. Price, service, quality, features and functions are some of these important commodity factors.

Delivering your best commodity stuff strengthens your business purpose

When Tony’s business started to serve the new group of customers it stopped communicating its purpose, it may have even stopped believing in it. This could have been because the new customers were not that interested.

Just because new customers are not interested does not mean they will not buy your product. As we will see shortly, having a clear and inspiring purpose actually benefits all customers whether they are interested or not. What Tony’s business actually did was dilute themselves to the lowest common denominator, the commodity stuff.

They also turned their back on their original customers. Consider how these customers would have felt when the business stopped being committed to its original purpose. I expect many would be in a similar situation to Tony considering whether to find another business that was passionate and committed to that same purpose they believed in.

As a business grows, continually improving the commodity stuff becomes part of keeping its purpose sharp and alive. If you have a strong and inspiring purpose that works, competitors will be quick to imitate. Here is your chance to demonstrate you are authentic. Stand by the purpose you believe in and invest in continually improving the commodity stuff. Do it better than any of your competitors, whether they are imitating your purpose or not. Doing so not only keeps you in the game, it means you remain focused on being the best delivering on your commitments. And remember, you do not have to be the cheapest to win.

Your business purpose tells the world what you stand for

I believe the trick is to find your high ground that customers cannot easily use to compare you with your competition. Your purpose can be your high ground, it is what you passionately believe in. If you can work it into a unique, even iconic differentiator the more powerful it will become.

Being authentic is behaving and acting on the purpose you believe in. It drives consistent, long term human behaviour, which is why an inspiring business purpose is such a strong human motivator.

An inspiring business purpose will empower your staff and disrupt your competition

We have just touched on the third important point, the human factor. How is it as some companies grow their staff remain passionate about why and what they do? It is all to do with the energy created within us that drives us to get out of bed and off to work with a bounce and smile. These companies remain true to their purpose, are authentic and committed to delivering it.

Sticking with the Apple theme, Lee Clow co-created with Steve Hayden Apple Computer’s 1984 Macintosh commercial, ‘think different’ slogan. He recently mentioned there is a move away from a cause to a purpose-driven business. He called this shift an inflexion point, “disruption in its purest form”. Having a clear and inspiring business purpose will not only empower your staff to act, but it will also disrupt your competition.

Pulling it all together

We have touched on three important points. First to remain focused on your purpose, ensure it is inspiring and make sure you do the commodity stuff better than anyone else. Second, remain aware which customer groups are interested and committed to your purpose, talk to them. Make sure you also deliver all your commodity stuff to the best standard you can to satisfy the other customer groups who are not so interested in your business purpose. And third, give your staff something to believe in. It will drive human behaviour focusing all their energies on delivering your business purpose, the promise you have made to the customers you are talking to. It will also disrupt your competition including those that do not have a particularly inspiring purpose. I think of these three as invisible pillars holding up a business. Our task is to keep them strong and in balance.

I’ll conclude returning to Apple. Their purpose is challenging the status quo, by thinking differently, and designing beautiful products that are simple to use, and user-friendly. They also make great computers and other disruptive products.

That purpose will appeal to and inspire a group of people, and it is that group they talk and market to. You may not be interested in their purpose but you know their actions are authentic. Their commitment to acting on their purpose means they also get the commodity stuff right. We know their products are more expensive than other brands. You may even start to believe in their purpose when considering the other commodity stuff they do is often better than anyone else. Their product quality, their service, the features and other stuff they do is often exceptional. You may even buy one of their products because of it and never have been interested in their passion to disrupt and think differently.

What about Tony, well he and his colleagues now have a purpose they can be passionate about and collectively act on. Delivering the commodity stuff is no longer a chore because they believe in why they do what they do, and they are inspired to behave and act accordingly.

Having an inspiring business purpose will help you mitigate many of the human tragedies that beset so many companies in our Industry. For one, Tony would not be considering his future and whether he should leave. Instead, he would be leading and inspiring his team, focused on delivering on the business purpose he passionately believes in and can contribute towards.


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