Hardly a week goes by without the authors of an article in Harvard Business Review or some other management journal asking “How can we translate our purpose into pervasive practical action?”
Here is a passage from one such article:
The link from purpose to strategy, and from strategy to action, is tenuous at best. Is there some means by which purpose can underpin boots-on-the-ground action throughout the enterprise?
Today’s most purpose-driven companies strive to embed their purpose at the core of how they do business and chart their long-term trajectory. An inclusive, innovative, and engaging employee culture is a critical part of that process, but it’s not sufficient on its own. Leading firms believe purpose goes beyond culture to strategy.
Source: Ten ways leading companies turn purpose into strategy, on EY Beacon Institute website.
The answer, I believe, is a mission: an enterprise-wide programme of work in which everyone from the CEO to the most junior employee participates.
Intent, not purpose
Intent is a better term than purpose when we want to denote why an enterprise exists.
As management cybernetician Stafford Beer observed, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Bringing this right down to earth, the purpose of a can of WD40 is whatever you decide to do with it on any given occasion.
Intent is not synonymous with strategic intent, a concept originated by Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad and introduced in their classic 1989 Harvard Business Review article Strategic Intent.
Intent precedes strategy, and strategy translates intent into action.
Further, intent is not a talent acquisition ploy, an employee engagement ploy, a branding ploy, a culture change ploy or any other kind of ploy. Intent is a heartfelt desire to enrich the world in a particular way through unconditional service. If you find this hard to swallow, you’re unlikely to gain any value from reading the rest of the article.
The following graphic shows how intent determines strategy, which is brought to life by means of a mission composed of sub-missions and contributing projects.
Intent is expressed as vision of realised potential: an actual picture accompanied by vivid and compelling synopsis depicting how the world will look, sound and feel when the enterprise is utilising its value generation capability without constraint and manifesting its intent to the full. This is idealistic, and rightly so.
Strategy is not a laundry list of objectives or a detailed master plan, but a pithy statement describing in the broadest of terms how the obstacles to the manifestation of intent will be surmounted.
Strategy is a cohesive response to an important challenge.
Three things make up the ‘kernel’ of good strategy:
A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge.
A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge.
A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. They are not ‘implementation’ details; they are “the punch in the strategy”.
Source: Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt
In a generative enterprise, the overriding and persistent challenge is the manifestation of intent.
If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have a stretch goal or a budget or a list of things you wish would happen.
Source: The perils of bad strategy, by Richard Rumelt, in McKinsey Quarterly, June 2011.
Translating strategy into value-focused action
Enriching the world means generating the greatest amount of value for the greatest number of beneficiaries.
A beneficiary is a person or a body of people gaining value by virtue of an enterprise’s activities.
I adopted the term stakeholder three decades ago, long before it moved into the mainstream, but I now prefer to talk about beneficiary for the sake of clarity, sidestepping the various interpretations and assessments of stakeholder theory.
Value means benefit, and it comes in three main forms: economic value, conceptual value and experienced value. Now-to-new work is mostly concerned with experienced value.
Read more about value, value generation and anti-value
Value for customers means that after they have been assisted by a self-service process (cooking a meal or withdrawing cash from an ATM) or a full-service process (eating out at a restaurant or withdrawing cash over the counter in a bank) they are or feel better off than before.
Source: Service logic
by Christian Grönroos, a Professor of Service and Relationship Marketing at Hanken Swedish School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland.
Value is not ‘delivered’, as if by FedEx. It is co-created through the interaction between the beneficiary and the value generator. A value generator is something tangible (a product or other physical artefact) or intangible (such as a service, a theatre performance or a piece of music) that produces experienced value when the user interacts with it.
If you would like to know more about value co-creation, I strongly recommend Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing (pdf; 17pp), a groundbreaking paper written by Stephen Vargo and Robert Lusch, and published in Journal of Marketing, Vol. 68 (January 2004). The Wikipedia entry for Service-dominant logic is also very informative, and includes this useful summary of axioms and foundational premises:
Value generation capability
This is the latent power of the enterprise to produce value generators, make them available to potential beneficiaries and help people gain as much value as possible.
The main components of an enterprise’s value generation capability are:
- Capable people (employees, contractors, gig workers, professional service providers etc. – see here)
- Enabling practices
- Enabling technology
When executives and management writers talk about capability, they are usually talking about value generation capability. I prefer the long form as it serves as a constant reminder that the intent of every commercial and nonprofit enterprise is generating value, no matter what the official framing of that intent might be.
Here, the term is borrowed from the field of space exploration. It is not a synonym for vision or purpose, and it is not about mission statements. Mission is strategy in action.
In a generative enterprise, mission is an enterprise-wide programme of work aimed at manifesting intent — or some significant aspect of it — within a given timeframe.
Each successive mission has the aim of manifesting intent more fully.
A mission consists of a mission objective and a suite of projects aimed at meeting the objective by a specified date. In some cases, a mission will be formed of two or more sub‑missions, each composed of a set of projects.
Strategy and mission are so closely connected that they can be considered one continuous stream of work.
Strategy is upstream of, and gives rise to, mission. Mission is downstream of, and animates, strategy with the ultimate aim of manifesting intent and generating maximum value for customers or users and other beneficiaries.
The full manifestation of intent is a never-ending quest.