You’ve read the title, and may be assuming this is another post chiding people and organizations for not being “on purpose” – for not being focused, unified, and devoted to a single purpose.

The common understanding is that we need to get in a room and decide what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and stick to the plan. This is a fine practice . . . as long as it’s facilitated frequently with full acceptance of adaptation, dialogue, and dissonance.

The challenge of purpose usually consists of some combination of:

  • Not addressing it
  • Appointing leaders (and maybe some consultants) to assign a purpose
  • Declaring a big purpose then holding on to it until it becomes worn and useless
  • Forcing workers to declare their own purpose in relation to the big purpose

Purposeful organizations are diligent about knowing their place in the world, but willing to shift with their ecosystem, moving into the messy territory of plurality. Wolff Olins calls it getting “Clear and Fuzzy.”

“This is very hard for leaders: how do you build a strong sense of purpose, and a clear and thriving company culture while catering to the different agendas of individuals?”

It’s not simple. Getting into this conversation works best with trust and a flow of quality interactions. One meeting, or even one retreat won’t do.

“A more open-ended sense of purpose only really works if you practice what you preach so CEOs are increasingly letting individuals shape what the company means. The old norm – that company stands for ‘x’ and employee subscribes to ‘x’, therefore employee works for the company – is unappealing. But by inverting the norm, a vision for the company can work for the individuals rather than the other way around.”

It’s the difference between building a swimming pool and going to the local swimming hole. The former consists of concrete and firm walls. The latter is constantly evolving with the environment.

“With a more open sense of purpose – rather than grandiose, self-inflating mantras – individuals can take what matters to them and run with it.”

The key is in holding the tension between the one and the many, between the steadfast and what is emerging. Canopy Gap helps organizations step into this process.