The Perils of Organizational Purpose

Never has the call to purpose been stronger in big business. Pursuing purpose is driven by our motivation to make the world a better place, but are we unintentionally making it worse? Find out how our goal is not simply to achieve purpose, but also to undo its negative effects.

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 [1] and today’s workers want greater meaning and purpose from work [2].

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 [3]. 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) [4]. 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 [7].

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.

  1. Project into the Future: Just because you’re getting away with X today, doesn’t mean you’ll get away with it tomorrow. There was a time in the past, not too far back, when smoking was cool; when the media didn’t care as much about sexual harassment or racism in the workplace; when child labor was perfectly legal in the West, and more. Focus not on just what today’s world is expecting of you, focus on the truth, on universal and timeless values, on an empathetic connection with all humans. More than just the values that are in fashion today, look at the values that may arise tomorrow as civilization continues its march toward higher consciousness. Be guided by your own humanity and an honest look in the mirror on what the real costs are of your Purpose to the world.
  2. Do a Pre-Mortem: I love this tool from Chip & Dan Heath’s book, “Decisive”. Bring to life the potential risks of your Purpose – those that may be long-term, hidden-from-view, or psychological. Write a fictional New York Times or Fortune magazine feature story on your company in the year 2025 about how your operations or products have done major damage in the world, and then ask: What could this damage be, if we don’t change our ways today? What do we need to do today to prevent this from happening?
  3. Make it Real: Help your colleagues experience, in some safe but direct manner, the perils of your organization’s Purpose. Find a way to have key stakeholders get a front-row seat to observe what damage your Purpose can cause by envisioning the damaged future, uncovering the damage that’s there today but hidden from view for the mainstream, and assessing not just material damage but also damage to our minds and morals.
    • In 1983, at the height of the Cold War, a TV film “The Day After” about a nuclear war between the US and the USSR was shown by ABC. It was viewed by over 100 million people. U.S. President Ronald Reagan watched the film and later wrote in his diary that the film was “very effective and left me greatly depressed,” and that it changed his mind on the prevailing policy on a “nuclear war”. The film was also screened for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
    • Four years later, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which resulted in the banning and reducing of their nuclear arsenal. [8]
  4. Integrate UnPurpose into your Purpose: Push for your organization’s mission, vision and values to include not just your Purpose, but also your UnPurpose – the need to undo the ills that your Purpose can lead to.
    • If people in your organization think it is odd or constrictive to focus on UnPurpose, it may be because they’re only looking at practices in their own industry. Show them how integrated UnPurpose is in other industries. For example, with airlines, can you think of even one reputable organization that doesn’t include in its purpose statement something to do with “safety”? Safety is the UnPurpose for an airline, a commitment to undo the risks endemic in air travel. “Clean fuel” may be another UnPurpose airlines add to their mission statements in the future as the industry evolves.
  5. Make UnPurpose Cool: Invest as much in serving your UnPurpose as in serving your Purpose. There should be as much pride and profit for people to contribute to undoing the bad stuff as there is to doing the good stuff. Otherwise, there’s a risk that people may simply do lip-service by pursuing UnPurpose superficially – a few people here, a few dollars there, as the recent whistleblower Frances Haugen accused Facebook of doing – but not be ready to make the tough calls, significant investments, product modifications or growth-limiting moves that UnPurpose can sometimes require.
    • A car manufacturer’s Purpose is to allow us to get from point A to point B at a much higher speed than our legs allow. But there’s as much pride in developing the brakes as there is in developing the accelerator. Because while we want to get to that better future, we don’t want to kill or be killed on the way there. And so a great car doesn’t simply have great acceleration, it also has great brakes. What brakes has, for example, your company put on your products to eliminate unsafe use? What would Google or Facebook look like, for instance, with the right high-tech AI-powered brakes?

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.