The Knowledgebase


Shared understanding

Bringing purpose to life

Deepening and further clarifying your company’s purpose

If your company’s purpose statement is not fit for purpose consider using it as an opportunity to elevate the importance of dialogue and see a rearticulating of the purpose statement as a chance to create a deeper shared understanding of and a commitment to becoming purpose-led.

One consequence of a lack of shared understanding of what purpose-led business means is a purpose statement and narrative which struggles to:

  • Stretch the organisation by envisaging the better world that results from its success
  • Challenge the business to innovate and create products or services that transform customers’ lives for the better
  • Challenge the business to be clear not only about what the business will do but about what it will NOT do. For example are there services which should stop or customers it should not work with even if this work is profitable?
  • Acknowledge the mutuality of dependence between business and society
  • Recognise its responsibilities to future generations
  • Enable people to make practical choices about what they do day to day, using the purpose as a constant reference point
  • Inspire people to contribute personal energy to a collective venture

The purpose should describe why the business exists and how it benefits society, rather than be just a description of what the business does.

The key characteristics for an effective purpose statement include being inspiring, authentic and practical. For more on this see: What makes a good purpose statement

A few observations:

  • A clear vision of how the purpose contributes to a better world
    It can be difficult to articulate a purpose that fits all these criteria in particular for large organisations with a diverse set of products and services, or a company grown through acquisition. Often large corporates will end up with a lofty-sounding purpose statement which seems to promise all things to all people. One way to help clarify the intended impact of the purpose is to debate how the purpose contributes to a better world and articulate this as a supplementary vision or set of high-level long-term goals. This vision is a picture, at a given future point in time – say 5 or 10 years – of where the company will be in pursuit of its purpose. It’s a way of articulating clear strategic goals which give practical expression to what being purpose-led looks like.

Example: Unilever

Purpose: to make sustainable living commonplace

Vision: to grow our business, while decoupling our environmental footprint from our growth and increasing our positive social impact

The purpose and vision are supported by a specific set of goals. Together these provide a clear direction for their strategy and decision making and enable them to pivot their short-term strategy as needed to respond to what is happening in the market, whilst staying true to their purpose.

  • The importance of effective dialogue
    During the process of articulating the purpose, the statement may evolve rather than be perfectly worded from the outset. Holding widespread conversations with colleagues and stakeholders about what matters is part of the process of becoming purpose-led and supports organisation-wide understanding, ownership and commitment. For more on how to think about effective dialogue see Blueprint’s blog: Navigating dialogue in business
  • To or with
    Some statements are about what a company does ‘for’ or ‘to’ others rather than ‘with’ or ‘alongside’. This reinforces the separation of business from society and a paternalistic and philanthropic view rather than a recognition of the mutuality of dependence between business, people and society. This shift in language can help keep the focus on business as part of society rather than apart from society.
  • People
    Connected with this, some purpose statements make no explicit reference to people or people’s lives but talk in abstract about e.g. nature, energy or ‘the world’. An explicit reference to the human benefits created by the business enables a stronger emotional connection and creates a strong test for authenticity.
  • A Strap-line
    There is a temptation to make purpose serve as an overt marketing/motivation tool rather than being reflective of the purpose as inspiring, authentic and practical. The temptation to shorten it can inadvertently make the purpose either seem trite (and so not authentic) or very broad (and so not useful for decision making). Perhaps the right words can capture the essence of the purpose and remain practical but snappiness should not be the dominant theme. A short version of a statement is likely to need a supporting paragraph to accompany it to explain the nuance of broad terms such as ‘good’, ‘society’ or ‘responsible’. Over time, the right words and length of purpose statement will emerge.

If there is resistance to changing the purpose statement, there are other ways to achieve change, for example, see Hubert Joly’s approach to leading with purpose and humanity at Best Buy.