A Higher Purpose Brings a Higher Culture

At an individual level, many of us try to make changes within our lives and ourselves to lead a happier more fulfilled life. We’re trying to find purpose. So why aren’t we doing this at an organisational level?

Many organisations are trying to create a culture of innovation, but are not pausing to ask why? If we want to innovate well, we need the right culture–we need vision people, and in a big way.

As we know, to innovate and move your organisation, your people need to move with you (if you don’t, we need to talk). Culture becomes key to having a successful innovative organisation. Notice the adjective there–many are still saying they need to innovate or do innovation as though it’s an action distinct from the business, a task to be done. But in reality, it’s something your business needs to be. A culture of innovation requires a mindset shift.

The cultural conversation often leads with employee engagement, but what really do you want them engaged in? Many businesses are panicking about how to innovate and stay relevant. This seems to be causing confusion and frantic grasping at new technology, business improvement, or acquisitions. Pause. Breathe. Take a step back and review what you’re here to do, what you want to do and how you want to do it. Crucially (and here’s the cheat sheet), vision and purpose break down into values and beliefs, which when borne out in the organisation drive actions and behaviours which are the visible display of your culture.

Usually I see organisations who set their strategy and five-year plan as their highest objective, laid out in language and tasks. It’s what everyone is focused on. But the flaw is the strategy is merely a set of actions to achieve–not a higher goal. Your strategy should flex and pivot as is necessary to meet the vision, not the other way round.

Mission statements or “visions” are often hidden on a website page; they are often inward looking, citing laurels they may be resting on and wanting to be the best at their current remit. Look up and out–cast the view wider to revisit where you are going. The more sizable change you need to make (Horizon 2/3) the bigger your vision needs to be. Doesn’t matter what’s gone before, that’s the past and you’re not going there, so don’t use legacy as an excuse to limit your vision. It may provide hurdles, but it certainly doesn’t prevent.

Society and industry has got us into group think, hamster wheels, and tasks rather than encouraging us to be purpose driven. As we grow up and all throughout school we are taught to learn, adhere to systems, and play by rules to get us into the next school, which gets us into university or college, which gets us a job, which gives us standing in the world, and as we work through our career, at some point, we might “make it.” Then at around 30, 40, 50 (for newer generations its happening earlier–and do see Richard’s thoughts on this) you realise … what am I doing? Who am I serving? And there ensues the midlife existential crisis (Alan Watts was a fan of calling this out). The goal has been to be successfully navigate the system and master organisational politics–but this is only one half of the equation. There is an innate desire to be purpose driven. Just look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–we ultimately want self-actualisation, where we are living our purpose. Sadly, too many of us are limiting ourselves.

Instead of focussing on the rules and the hierarchy because it helps us position ourselves and feel safe, we need to allow people to reshape the rules, for the hierarchy to flatten and matter less. People need to feel safe in their position in the world, rather than in the structures. Focusing on climbing that hierarchy is not a focus on innovating and doing awesome things. Allow your people to think bigger, aim higher, and push boundaries rather than stay within them.

Outside Looking In

That energy and message you resonate will attract the right partners and help you sell. Vision, culture, values, and beliefs are what will drive your brand. Who you are on the inside is how you’re seen on the outside. Like it or not. The most well-known and successful organisations in the world are the ones with brand loyalty where customers are emotionally invested. The brand is the company’s identity for all to see and form an opinion of. Equally as critical, your brand needs to be able to evolve with the times–again, you need to be innovative, as well as having to innovate.

We’ve all seen companies change their name and logo, maybe they’ve add some new buzz words on their website, but in reality nothing about the way they do things (their culture) changes … and our initial perception and prejudices remain. The values and behaviours are there for the customer to see and experience. This is either because of the lack of vision which drives these, or because the vision isn’t supported. If you’re going to set your vision big, then you had better be prepared to back it up and allow your people to mean it. Practicing what you preach is the key to authenticity.

Governance Must Support the Vision

One of the big questions organisations ask is how they break the business-as-usual cycle. Here we see how governance can be a real killer of culture. Vision and purpose alone aren’t enough, as they break down to values and behaviours. We need to shape the systems to support those behaviours You may say you want people to experiment, but in reality they are subject to the same old rules and processes. Years of a certain governance structure will ingrain very hard habits to break–adding a constraint to what you do refines the action or movement. Just try doing a forward roll holding a glass of wine without spilling it and your movement becomes deft. Many of the governance systems we have in place today have put the constraints in the wrong place and don’t tally with the vision. As an analogy (albeit a cynical one), take the legal system. It’s there for our safety and to deliver justice, but many of us, whether we work for it or are subject to it, see it as broken and unjust. The goal is to manoeuvre and skip around the rules as best you can to get the outcome you want within the confines given.

This is where leadership must have (not set, have) honest values. For example, imagine calling out something like “integrity” as a value (Enron did this)–you want people to focus on having and displaying integrity, but if you had a workforce full of people with integrity who weren’t delivering, would you keep them? What you value is getting the job done; therefore integrity may be one of the first things to go–when your people realise other things are valued above it, already you have not meant what you said. Of course, the fallout from Enron prompted a change of governance in financial standards to better support a more ethical vision. To contrast, you may be aware of Netflix’s culture and values. Designed by Patty McCord only to attract fully formed adults who can think for themselves (her vision), where the behaviours are reflective of self-awareness, ownership, and accountability. Going back to Maslow’s pyramid, these are all attributes which are going to help people reach their goal of living their purpose.

When you visualise the workforce you want, you quite literally have to create the right vision to attract them. When you hold that in the highest, it will become so much easier to shift all the things which feel so entrenched right now. If you share a common goal, highest above all, changing the governance not only becomes what you need to do, but the right thing to do to work towards the goal. You will start to cultivate Beginners Mind–“How do we” rather than “this is how we.”

Innovation is about mindset, beliefs, and behaviours which are supported by some medium to deliver through–strategies, processes, and tools. We’re doing a great job of working on the second half and indeed they help foster the first, but be honest with yourself as a company–why are you doing what you’re doing? Start with why.

So, please don’t tell yourself you can’t innovate because of the culture. Culture is an output rather than an input–make sure it’s inspired by vision and purpose. If you’re not able to put your culture out there, if you don’t think it represents you correctly or well, then you need to think again.

At a time when we are (or are going to be) more capable than we ever were before, when we will have more human value-add time available, when we’re even asking our employees for ideas, why not reach for something game changing? We are capable of conceiving amazing things.

To quote Steve Jobs, “Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do.”

People are not here to trade time for money. Help your people realise their potential; inspire them with a vision.

Nicola Darke is a coach, meditation teacher, writer, speaker, consultant and yoga teacher. Coaches 121. Runs retreats. Book in process. TEDx speaker. Featured speaker for the Innovation Academy Innovation mini MBA at Google Academy. Hosts panel discussions. Blogs for thefutureshapers.com. Teaches regularly at ONELDN gym. She speaks and blogs on topics relating to organisational and personal well-being and adaptability, embedding capability, organisational culture, purpose, vision, and strategy.


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  1. […] 6. A Higher Purpose Brings a Higher Culture.  Most people want to spend their time making a difference and contributing to a purpose bigger than themselves.  Organizations and leaders have a responsibility to connect work to purpose, beyond the tasks and hamster wheels of day-to-day operations.  How will you connect your team's work to purpose in 2021? […]

  2. […] 6. A Higher Purpose Brings a Higher Culture.  Most people want to spend their time making a difference and contributing to a purpose bigger than themselves.  Organizations and leaders have a responsibility to connect work to purpose, beyond the tasks and hamster wheels of day-to-day operations.  How will you connect your team’s work to purpose in 2021? […]

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