When it comes to purpose, we will look back at today someday and say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Never has the call to purpose been stronger in big business. In 2019, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation to include multiple stakeholders. ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) has gained much currency among investors in recent times. Today’s consumers are favoring purpose-driven brands  and today’s workers want greater meaning and purpose from work .
And yet, we are also discovering that purpose is laden with perils. Here are some examples.
Google has sought to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. And yet, it’s discovering how some of this information is anything but useful and making that information easier to access is making the world a poorer place . Facebook has wanted to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. And yet, the ills of social media are wreaking havoc in the minds of children (and adults) . The professional services industry has practiced one central ethos – serve the client’s interest. And yet, recent controversies at several professional services firms show that sometimes, serving one’s clients with distinction can lead to very bad outcomes for society [5,6].
The purpose-problem doesn’t solely plague a few organizations. The negative ramifications of pursuing corporate purpose are everywhere. Plastics leading to a damaged environment. Vendors’ use of child labor. The wrong processed foods leading to chronic disease. Nearly every company is in a glass house, so let’s not throw stones at others. Well then what should we do?
Companies shouldn’t abandon their purpose. There’s a lot of good in holding on to it. Instead, my invitation to corporations is to become a bit humbler and more responsible in the pursuit of purpose. Recognize that purpose isn’t a panacea, that we aren’t heroes when we make the world better if we also unintentionally make it worse; that when we put something out there in the flow of creation, it is our responsibility to understand how it may be misused. So that we invest the same resources to neutralize the bad as we do to amplify the good.
Let’s define your UnPurpose to be the undoing of the negative effects of your Purpose. Then your goal should be not simply to pursue your Purpose, but also your UnPurpose.
This idea isn’t new. Take one of the oldest product teams in human history – parents. It’s a core principle in good parenting to not just feed and educate a child, but to strive to build discipline and character as well. Science is making it amply clear what tragic outcomes can occur when the product team launch the product (child) into the world with deep early-life psychological scars – the child is much more likely, for instance, to grow up with a violent temperament .
When a business finds that its Purpose is leading to immediate, visible and physical harm, it generally becomes very responsible about pursuing its UnPurpose. Airlines are a good example. Their Purpose is to give us a fast, convenient way to travel the globe. The risks include terrorism and disruptive passenger behavior, and the impact of these, when they happen, is immediate, visible and material. So airlines work closely with the government to make sure their Purpose isn’t upended by a few terrorists or unruly passengers. There are norms for what we can carry into an airplane, how we need to behave at an airport and in an airplane to make it a safe and comfortable journey for all. And there are consequences for departing from these norms.
It’s when the harm is long-term (like environmental damage), hidden-from-view (like bribing officials) or psychological (mental health damage) that big business is failing us.
So here’s a brief UnPurpose Manifesto to bring to your organization, to awaken and align key stakeholders to take the right actions.
UnPurpose is, at its core, about Love. The more we love humanity – those who we serve, those who work with us, those who work for our vendors and other partners, those in the world who co-exist with us, and those who will come in future generations – the more we love these people, the more attention we’ll give to making sure that in our quest to do good and to profit from it, we’re not doing harm to any of them at the same time, intentionally or unintentionally.