Purpose is the new strategy

We live in a world of unknowns. When will lockdown end and people return with confidence to their daily lives? Has the world of work and have the expectations placed upon our organisations changed forever? Will there be a second wave of COVID19? What is the medium- to long- term impact of the crisis on those we serve?

The truth is it is still nigh on impossible for any of those questions to be answered. This makes forging strategy and strategic planning immensely challenging. A recent paper by INSEAD found that well over 60% of CEOs are tending to focus on pressing issues, leaving strategy and institution building for better times. That’s unsurprising. CEOs are still – for the most part – absorbed by managing the needs and adaptions that have arisen through this crisis. Meanwhile, another study by McKinsey found that whilst 90% of executives believe the crisis will fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years, only 21% believe they have the expertise, resources and commitment to pursue growth successfully. Many CEOs don’t know quite where to begin next.

over 60% of CEOs are tending to focus on pressing issues, leaving strategy and institution building for better times.

However, four months or so into this crisis, simply reacting to events and managing them as well as we can do is not enough. CEOs and organisations that make the most of the hand they have been dealt will no longer begin to approach these events with a ‘steady the ship approach’. They will want to do much more. They will want to have the greatest impact possible, whilst creating a lasting and positive legacy as we emerge – but they will need to do so in a world of so many unknowns.

Rather than embarking on extensive strategic planning, what CEOs and executives teams can instead do is to first of all begin to reconnect with their purpose, their sense of intent. Some may feel this unnecessary, but after four fraught months, by considering why their organisations exist and their aspirations for emerging from the crisis, CEOs and their teams can begin to look at current events through a prism that asks, not how do we manage this, but how do we find the opportunity and the potential for innovation and change? How do we create something better from all of this that we can be proud of, something that changes all of our lives for the better? Setting out by trying to create a five, three or even one year plan is just not going to cut it in such a volatile and unpredictable context.

In a previous blog, I have written about the opportunities the current crisis brings to accelerate and maximise the impact and influence of technology – enhancing the experience for those we serve. I’ve also written about the opportunity it brings to accelerate efforts to be an employer of choice – not least the increased onus on flexible working and health and wellbeing generally – enabling us to attract and retain high calibre staff for the long term who can ensure we are well placed as we emerge into steadier times. Others have talked about the chance to become much more sustainable – both ecologically and financially – by recaliberating how we work and operate as we emerge from the crisis; this is something that won’t go away as public finances become tighter and a new generation demand that our organisations become ‘carbon neutral’. Finally, on an even bigger plane, some are taking the opportunity to fill the accountability vacuum with something more purposeful, pure accountability, almost entirely driven by those we lead and serve at a local level, rather than distant and remote regulators.

This isn’t always going to be easy work. Indeed, it will be very complex, but to really seize and maximise the opportunities, we need to come at the situation with a purposeful rather than a reactive mindset

This means asking:

  • What is our sense of organisational purpose in the broadest possible sense?
  • How can the situation we find ourselves in be used to take forward our purpose? What is it about the current context and what it demands that can be taken further, and built upon, for a lasting and positive change?
  • How do we and those we lead feel about this opportunity? How do those we serve feel about it?
  • What do we need to do to make the most of it? What are the barriers? What further research and thinking do we need to undertake?
  • What purposeful partnerships should we seek to create to make this happen?

As I say in my book, Being The CEO, CEOs can be compared with farmers – they divide their time (not always equally) between reacting to the weather (policy, economic, societal dynamics), listening to and responding to the needs of the market, tending to the soil (generating the people and resources they need), and staying respectful to but refining the workings and objectives of the generational farm. CEOs have spent much of the last few months responding to the weather. Now it’s time to get back out there with purpose – listening to the market, tending to the soil, and understanding that – rather than crafting long-term plans that could become obsolete before the ink has dried. Purpose-driven adaptability, nimbleness and a good dose of opportunism are going to be key to an organisation’s development and success for a few months to come.

I am already struck by how some CEOs and their organisations have been making positive changes that will outlast COVID19. Some of these are still very much work in progress and there is a risk we leave some people behind if we move too quickly – especially where technology is concerned! That is why talking about purpose and putting it centre stage in all our discussions and deliberations, listening, understanding, undertaking research, and building purposeful partnerships really matters – therein lies the complexity and the chance to overcome complexity. It’s worth noting that this spirit of purpose will also serve to enthuse, inspire, and mobilise our teams and partners who are likely to feel a sense of fatigue right now. Again, a strategic plan won’t cut the mustard for re-energising our organisations like revisiting and working with purposeful intent will. We all need some quick, meaningful wins.

Leaders are now beginning to accept that whilst the world may not have changed for good, there are some things in their organisations that rather than simply having to change, must change to realise a better offer for all post COVID19. It’s a spirit of purpose that will drive that, not a strategy.

Michael Pain is the founder of Forum Strategy and author of Being The CEO.


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