There is a secret ingredient I have found in organisational success and it is this: momentum.
It sounds obvious to say, because when you succeed of course you are at speed. You are ‘flying’. But as physicists will tell us, there is a difference between speed and momentum. In a world of resistance, it is momentum that defines how far we go.
One of the great commercial challenges of our current economic circumstances is the challenge of interrupted momentum. Every business feels it. It is the inertia and the challenge of restarting, of getting the flywheel turning again, whether it is sales and marketing or offices and teams.
With the rise in freelancers over recent years, we have technically more entrepreneurs in the UK economy than we have ever had before, but for many, restarting after the pandemic is just as hard as starting the business in the first place.
In the corporate world, I see two very different strategies emerging for life after COVID. The first is about survival and led with a focus on cost reduction. The second is about purpose, with a focus on value creation and the acceleration of change and innovation that might have seemed marginal before. Danone might be one example, choosing the toughest of times to double down on purpose by changing their legal form to the new model in France of a benefit corporation.
Purpose is a great way of encouraging momentum, because done well, it is motivating. Where it is rooted in a story of values, purpose can appeal if it is authentic at a far deeper level to those involved in the life of the business, whether workers or customers. In the language of psychology, purpose appeals to people’s ‘intrinsic’ values rather than their ‘extrinsic’ concerns of personal gain, power or advantage. It is a natural tool for teamwork – and as we see in our work, something that values-based organisations such as charities excel at.
With market conditions as tough as they are, it would be easy to imagine that purpose falls off the agenda, and for some, that will be the case. But not all, and for those that do focus on it, there are three good reasons to do so.
- For businesses that think long-term, the concept of ‘purpose’ is a necessary counterpoint to the pressures of quarterly reporting and shareholder value seen only through the short-term lens of overnight share prices.
- For businesses that operate in consumer markets, ‘purpose’ helps to keep them aligned with changing public sentiments at a time when COVID-19, Me Too and the Black Lives Matter movements are putting reputations under scrutiny.
- For businesses working remotely, ‘purpose’ is an underpinning of a workplace culture in which people can be apart but still operate in teams and can be at home but still motivated to bring their best to their work.
These conditions may come in and out of focus of course. Survival can also be a motivating purpose, even if not as noble as some of the more ethical corporate purposes on offer in the brochures and reports on the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) of business. Previous research on companies that downsize has suggested that after laying staff off, they are more likely to invest in ‘purpose friendly’ actions such as work-life balance policies because they want to motivate and keep the staff that do remain.
The theme of purpose has resonated strongly with Pilotlight which has, since its inception, pioneered a model of bringing together business, charities and social enterprises for public benefit. We have seen how our model benefits the private sector, by enabling business leaders to take action that supports their own values-based learning and development.
Our work is an example of what we dub #GiveBackBetter – a call on business to promote co-operation and generosity in their engagement with communities, with as professional a focus on impact as a business brings to any part of its work. Earlier this year, in line with this, we published a report on purpose with the People Director Partnership. The report is full of practical insight on how to use purpose to build momentum in business life. Contributors included: Richard Goff, Chair of People Director Partnership; Sally Bailey, Chair of Pilotlight; Peter MacKenzie, former Head of Talent and Leadership Development at Lloyd’s Register; Amy Sawbridge, founder of Curious Strawberry and formerly a Director at Virgin Group; and Jamie Anderson, Chief Executive at Pilotlight Partner Charity Age UK Wirral.
When you have momentum, you are meeting a need more than just selling a product. You are talked about more than just talking yourself up. You have self-belief, rooted in the participation of your teams not the exhortation of their managers. You are ahead enough to critique what you do, to see what comes next, rather than defend what you do today.
When you have momentum, you have purpose and you can lift your eyes to the horizon.