Where is your company on the purpose spectrum?

When organisations ask for help in defining their purpose, I’m often presented with a very familiar scenario where leadership teams are divided on the concept of purpose – or, if you prefer, the purpose of purpose.

At its simplest, the two world views can be characterised as follows: those who subscribe to the idea of ‘Big P’ purpose understand it as The Big Idea, while others consider a company’s purpose to be the everyday function of the organisation, or ‘Little p’ purpose.

Big P purpose is about a core reason for being that taps into the realm of ideas and interconnectedness (Aviva: “With you today for a better tomorrow”). An organisation has a grand vision of making a difference, being of service to others and being a positive force for good in the world. Big P people talk a lot about making a positive impact and the idea of being part of something bigger beyond the organisation. In a word, Big P purpose is what many refer to as your ‘why’.

Little p purpose is about the practical, tangible thing your organisation offers (PIC: “to pay the pensions of our current and future policyholders”). It tends to have a focused definition that is easy to recognise and communicate. In some sectors, like finance or infrastructure, the everyday nuts and bolts of what the company does will also be governed by regulation. If Big P is your ‘why’, then Little p is your ‘what’.

It’s not uncommon for those in the Little p camp to regard their Big P colleagues as too concerned with lofty and intangible ideas which they don’t always believe have an impact on an organisation’s day-to-day function. Conversely, the Little p approach can look too functional and uninspiring to those more drawn to the bigger picture.

The reality is that both ‘P’s are true. Both are necessary, not mutually exclusive. But too often companies adopt too much of one at the expense of the other, because those tasked with defining a company’s purpose tend to gravitate towards making a binary choice, rather than considering both ‘P’s as core ingredients.

Both expressions of purpose will mean different things to different people, and they’ll resonate with audiences in different ways. If you think of purpose as a sliding scale, each organisation will have its own point of equilibrium – which won’t necessarily be the centre, and that is absolutely fine.

The task of the company is to find where its point on the spectrum is, and how it can bring this to life through its actions, strategies and storytelling. An organisation’s position on that scale is defined by a combination of internal and external factors and can change over its lifetime.

I’m a big fan of when companies are able to succinctly blend both Big P and Little p together – where the higher aspiration is rooted in the everyday. National Grid’s “to bring energy to life” is a good example of this. It speaks to its everyday function in energy, as well as what that unlocks for people.

Finding your place on the purpose spectrum is just the starting point for thinking about and defining your company purpose. The next step is to make sure your purpose is actionable (importantly, by both individuals and the whole organisation), engaging and credible. We’ll explore that next time.

If you want to have a chat about your company’s purpose, please get in touch with Jon Randall.