A Great Question – Why do we exist?

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A Great Question - Why do we exist?(Core Purpose – Raison D’Etre –Mission)

There is no doubt that ingrained in the human spirit is the need to “improve” be better” “to be successful” – it is evident everywhere – starting with babies who learn to walk and talk. The instinct to learn to advance is human.

Parents with children, young people in school, sport – there are very few young people who start work who don’t have a dream for a better life, in which they can achieve more if they work hard and reach a “management” position or start a small business.  In those very early days it is about getting started and making some money. As time moves on the money is not such a great motivator.  Herzberg, one of the very early thinkers in motivational theory in fact demonstrated that money was not a motivator.  More recently the work on careers, work and job design highlight that money is not the primary driver for younger people.

There is no debate in business, sport or personal life that goal setting is a powerful tool to focus the energy of a group.

There are notable stories:

John F Kennedy – landing a man on the moon

Alan Bond – winning the America’s cup

Each of these stories is used to highlight the power of setting challenging Goals. In each of these cases the Goal was clear –unambiguous and tangible. The evidence in the work of Jim Collins supports this view.  Each of the Good to Great companies had what is now called a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).  These are goals which when set appear totally out of reach. There is no doubt, in many cases they are incredibly motivating and every business should have one!

In any initial strategy process there is a conversation about Mission or Core Purpose.  Recently in a conversation, in which I was participating, one member was frustrated that we could not get on and talk about the real issues because this stuff – mission (core purpose) and vision was all “fluff” and didn’t mean much!  It raised an interesting question for the group present. What was the purpose of doing this? I have written about this before: “The purpose of purpose” .

My response has always attempted to address the issues around human aspiration both finite and infinite.

Using the ubiquitous 2×2 Matrix I have addressed the Question why do businesses exist rather than what do they do or what are they trying to achieve. In doing this I have tried to provide a framework to assist people think more robustly about why they exist?

The two axis: ( X- axis Finite –Infinite: Y-axis Ego Centric –Other Centric) provide a framework to consider answers to the question – why do we exist?

The framework allows businesses to address some elements, which are often disregarded as a part of the strategic thinking process – what will continue to inspire people (both customers and employees) in generations to come?

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Very few businesses have a genuinely long-term perspective and there are very few businesses that survive any length of time. The average lifespan of a Public Company on Standard&Poors is less than 20 years and decreasing. Maybe the reason for this is a preoccupation with growth and increasing shareholder value in the short term?

In the Collins and Porras article Building Your Company’s Vision, (HBR: Sept.Oct 1996) 14 Core Purpose statements are documented. Of these statements a majority are about making a difference in the world. Maybe this is one reason for their longevity. Their Core purpose/s had more inspirational focus. It doesn’t matter what or who you read – the essence of humanity is the focus on a higher purpose as a source of real inspiration.

Only today I am reading Smart Company and the quote below is published as one of six ways to be an innovative leader.

“If there’s not a higher sense of purpose we will be bored, cynical and selfish,” Gary Hamel from his article “Tradition is Tyranny of the Dead – six ways to be an innovative leader”

It maybe that business needs a new way to have intelligent conversations about why they exist.  Larger Profits and Shareholder Value may serve the a few very well, but it just might be that Business has a much larger obligation to society.

In the end a TED talk by Simon Sinek has a very clear message in his talk how great leaders inspire action.

This is a very powerful presentation, which challenges the very concrete (finite) thinking paradigm, which exists in most businesses. It is an easy way out!

Describing what we do is much easier than answering the question:

Why do we exist?

If you have not answered the question for yourself it will be a very foggy conversation about the business you lead? (or you will settle for less?)

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