“There are two types of purpose statement: those that sound great, but are pretty meaningless and those that work and that don’t sound terrible.”
It’s a punchy start to the subject of writing about purpose in a meaningful way. The fact it comes from Chris West, founder of Verbal Identity and a man with an esteemed career in writing across all formats behind him, who makes his living from words, also makes it surprising.
But West is clear that it’s not about having the most beautifully crafted words. To make a purpose statement work, you need it to be grounded in the company’s worldview, reflective of its personality and you need it to obey three simple ground rules, of which more later.
Helm members will be familiar with Chris West’s ideas on levels of effective writing. He presented the idea of 10,000ft worldview, a 1,000ft personality and ground-level nuts and bolts at a previous online session for members. That session is still available to members in the on-demand library.
Members who have seen West’s previous presentations will also know that using clever words isn’t what matters most when it comes to effective writing. As he says “When you notice the writing you are often distracted from the thought."
Why do we need purpose?
West started his session on writing meaningfully about purpose with a brief run through the history of work. Or more particularly the way the world of work - and the relationship between employer and employees, has shifted so dramatically since 2008.
In his view this break with the past happened in 2007/8 due to the confluence of several major disruptors, including the financial crisis and subsequent recession, as well as the transformation of how employees communicated, thanks to the arrival of the iPhone and the growth of global social media channels.
He also points to this as the moment when behavioural economics came to the fore and people began, at last, to question the effectiveness of traditional economics based on the view of mankind as rational actors.
The key point West makes is that we began to see that employees didn’t just work hard in return for the rational rewards of money. Rather motivation was less rational and more emotive, more about a bigger sense of what work could and did mean to them.
“As we moved from top down management to middle-up participation, people started to recognise the importance of things like autonomy, mastery and purpose. People wanted to be more in control of their working day, they enjoyed the sense that they were doing things they were largely competent at and they had a greater need that was satisfied by work.”
There was also the sense of being a part of a community.
Isn’t the purpose statement just another statement?
West highlights that to be effective and meaningful, a purpose statement has to be distinct from all the other sales, marketing and strategic outputs - the mission statements and company values.
And here it becomes clear that we need to move not only away from the fiercely rational focus on creating shareholder value - something West identifies with the “MBA class of 1997, who were largely responsible for the financial crash”, to something broader and more in tune with that wider employee community.
“A hard-working purpose isn’t created by the MBA class of ’97,” he says. “It emerges in a non-linear way from at the whole tea working in a highly empathetic process. It requires a process that far from being reductive and linear is more about design thinking.”
Three rules for writing an effective purpose statement
West ended the session by offering some examples of good and bad purpose statements - the good ones came from Black Rock, P&G and Southwest Airlines. We won’t name and shame the bad ones, but they included a couple of the biggest names in business, including a fizzy drinks brand and a car maker that should really know better. The upshot of these was that West has been able to draw out three rules for the ideal purpose statement:
1. Stay in your lane.
2. If it’s more than one sentence it’s probably a bodge.
3. And if you’re punning you are probably not being sincere.