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Activate purpose to create shared identity

Purpose is no longer optional. Access to markets, talent, and capital now requires business leaders to be clear about why their organization exists, what it stands for, and how it contributes to society.

As leaders start organizing for the future, they are beginning to understand that purpose can no longer be relegated to high-level intentions or catchy slogans. The great challenges of our time—such as climate, wealth inequity, and disintegrating trust in institutions—are, in part, a by-product of a winner-takes-all economy. While business and market forces have helped lift many people out of poverty, many have been left behind. Increasingly, businesses are expected to take the lead in addressing these issues, creating a more sustainable and equitable world.

As such, business leaders have a renewed dedication to solve societal challenges and address human needs. Doing so necessitates a clear purpose that guides their decisions and their overall strategy. They must take a stand, moving from the “why” to the “how.” Setting purpose in motion requires connecting an organization’s distinctive “superpower” capabilities to the societal progress the core business aims to support. Purpose is also imperative to cultivating a shared identity that informs how the company creates value, influences how the company is managed, and helps unlock business and human potential.

Find the deeply human need at the heart of business

In a world requiring new thinking and rapid innovation to solve pressing problems, traditional corporate structures designed to produce stability and control are giving way to new organizational models that harness the untapped potential of people at all levels. Indeed, excessive managerial oversight and control have been exposed as counterproductive. As ownership shifts from the C-suite to empowered teams, a strong and purposeful identity is needed to keep people aligned and focused on doing the right work in the right way.

A clear shared identity also makes it easier for members of an organization to see their roles through a wider aperture. Rather than feeling constrained to activities defined for them, employees define their work by how it adds value to society and contributes to the overall business purpose. As a result, team members are more likely to proactively and autonomously pursue opportunities—from engaging customers, to breaking into new markets.

For purpose to guide business, however, it should be present in decisions and actions at all levels and magnitudes. 3M’s leaders doubled down on sustainability goals by requiring more than 1,000 of its new products be anchored in a sustainability value commitment. The company leaned into its science superpower to support this new purpose and embedded sustainability into the core of its business. To excel on metrics such as reusability, water savings, and responsible sourcing, each new product developed had a primary purpose, backed by scientific research, to solve an environmental or social challenge. And though leaders had set environmental corporate-social-responsibility targets in 2015, the approach only became transformative when it extended autonomy and accountability to its full employee base to meet those targets.

When commitments to purpose are both daring and immediate enough to inspire confidence, they can disrupt an industry and build a value-driven ecosystem. Take Danone, for example: to “bring health food to as many people as possible,” it partnered with health professionals, farmers, and other groups to codevelop solutions to complex food needs. The company backed this purpose-driven strategy by divesting brands outside of its core focus, breaking into new markets such as baby food and medical nutrition, and pursuing a portfolio that is entirely B Corporation certified.

The moment to activate purpose is now

To begin, leadership should listen deeply to employees and stakeholders to identify the issues that matter most to them. Leaders should also think critically to identify the distinctive superpower capabilities their organization can bring to market. Using the outputs from these two exercises, organizations can identify the social issue they are best positioned to address. From there, leaders should be empowered to make a bold and actionable commitment of purpose. The world has never been more ready to embrace businesses that choose to lead.

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This blog post is part of a series on Organizing for the Future, which explores a set of new principles such as anti-fragility and experimentation that are becoming increasingly critical for today’s organizations as they build more creative, adaptable, and human systems.

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