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How to unlock the transformative power of purpose

OPINION: Forget about how your competitors are defining their purpose and instead dig deep until you strike a nerve. Tom Sykes explains.

Purpose is a powerful tool for businesses and brands today.

Laws of physics aside, it’s a catalyst and it’s an engine. Its effects are well-documented and inarguable.

It is, however, hard to do. Difficult to get right.

Who is responsible for defining it? Shaping it, driving it.

How do you make it so good it takes a life of its own, that it seeps into your culture with its own momentum?

How do you make it last?

And, most importantly, how do you unlock the transformative power of purpose?

Look backwards

Always begin at the beginning.

Far too often brands look at their peers to see what others are doing in this space rather than simply carving out their own.

A worthwhile exercise for sure but save it for later. Start with what you know.

Why did the founders start this brand? What belief did they have about the particular world they wanted to build?

Beyond money, what was the void they were hoping to fill?

If it’s not obvious, keep asking why until you strike a nerve.

Why them? Why then? Why not this? Why that?

Time and scale change things but values tend to endure. Sometimes. Big disclaimer on that one.

Look for the value they went all in on. Not a list. Not five. Why do values so often come in sets of five?

Find the value they valued above all others and decode it. What of it remains true today?

Build your purpose from a rock-solid value out.

If your founders are still around, get them in the room. If they aren’t, get your longest-serving employees and newest employees in the room. Get them to cross-tabulate their versions of the origin story. The longstanding employees have stories from the field. The new ones have stories they’ve recently read, and importantly, believed.

Read more: Opinion: Why we all need to stop using the word user. Like, now

Look forward

You can stop there if you like. Or you can add another lens to your field of vision. Look ahead.

Brands are in the business of world-building. What is the kind of world this particular cohort of brand and business guardians wants to build now?

If looking back unearthed a transcendent value, looking forward will surface vision.

How are you now going to build the world you want? What gets better because of what you’re doing?

Create your purpose with vision.

Get the people building and delivering products and services, the ones on the tools and facing your customers in the room. They know what good could look like. They’ve got ideas and plans, what they really need is a platform. Give it to them. 

Tom Sykes.

Look in the mirror

You can go one step further. But only if you have either looked backwards or forwards (or both) first.

Look at the people living the brand and business today. What is working now? What is happening in culture right now that’s creating positive momentum? That could be your employees or your customers.

There is always a case for mitigating risk, yes, but if you were to bet the farm on one bright shining part of the brand or business, what would that be? What is lighting things up? Where is there life today?

After value and vision, the third (and rather convenient) ‘V’ of purpose is vitality.

Where is there life that needs nurturing, protecting and accelerating?

Now is the time to get the passionate people in the room. They could come from anywhere. Why are they so animated about the potential of today? Demystify that, put it in plain terms and then put a rocket ship underneath it. Find where there is vitality and let it breathe.

The process of purpose definition should start slow but end in fireworks.

Get the smallest group of the above together. Listen. Listen well and then get to work as fast as you possibly can.

Fan this flame and give it life. Life beyond meetings, beyond PowerPoint, beyond vinyl wall art and get it into the hands, hearts and minds of your people to work from, be rewarded by and held positively accountable to.

Tom Sykes is the Strategy Director for Principals Aotearoa. He once had his own line of Lee jeans. Now has the largest collection of Timex watches in New Zealand. His grasp of fashion, however, has barely moved beyond the black tee. He knows where to find the best cheese scone in Auckland. And is willing to part with that information for a glass of South African red.

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