Management writers are unanimous that a key management function is to articulate a compelling purpose. Jim Collins calls it “big, hairy, audacious goal.” John Kotter says that the goal should be “desirable, feasible, focused, flexible and communicable.”
A firm needs a compelling purpose because, as Gary Hamel notes, “initiative, creativity and passion are gifts. They are benefactions the employees choose, day by day, and moment by moment, to give or withhold. They can’t be commanded.” Exhortations to work harder or ordering workers to love their customers or kill their competitors won’t induce people to give their very best. Managers need to articulate a purpose that is inherently self-motivating.
To see how to do that, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an organizational strategist and examine the possible options for crafting a compelling purpose for an organization. One obvious wrong turning would be to propose, as Frederick Taylor implied, that the purpose of a firm, a project, or even work itself is to produce goods and services. As a goal, producing goods and services doesn’t get anyone’s juices flowing. It’s about mundane things and therefore deadening as a goal.
Another angle of attack would be to articulate the goal in terms of bigger things. Some firms have done this in the hope that if the thing is big enough, it will inspire enthusiasm. Thus, Google may offer to give people a chance to “change the world,” and GM may say that it is “reinventing the automobile.” The problem with this approach is that it may be difficult for people doing the work to see how such grandiose goals relate to what they do on a day-to-day basis.
Yet another approach would be to draw on the language of sports and aim to be “a winner.” Jack Welch did this famously in his goal to make GE number one or two in every sector it was involved in. However, when every firm is trying to be a winner, the ability of such a goal to inspire people on a long-term basis is questionable.
Nor would aiming to maximize shareholder value be likely to get people jumping out of bed in the morning with a spring in their step. Once the goal becomes making money for the company, then people start thinking about making money for themselves, and collaboration and creativity tend to fall by the wayside.1
Or we could go in the opposite direction and formulate the organizational goal in terms of lofty, big-hearted ideals like beauty, truth, or love. These moral imperatives have aroused human beings to extraordinary accomplishments throughout the millennia. The problem with articulating a business goal in terms of such moral imperatives is that they usually have little to do with what the business is about. Cynicism sets in when the organization’s real goals turn out to be very different from the stated ideals.
Still yet another approach would be to point to the firm’s activities as a good corporate citizen (“Yes, the principal function of our firm is to make money, but we also care for the environment, make charitable contributions, and undertake other worthwhile social activities”). The difficulty with this approach is that as long as the primary goal is to make money, these acts of corporate citizenship are likely to be seen both internally and externally as window dressing. And window dressing is unlikely to bring out the very best in people.
Strategists faced with these issues may despair of ever being able to articulate a goal that is simultaneously compelling, realistic, and unlikely to breed cynicism. Yet the problem is not as insoluble as it looks. In fact, the answer is so obvious that it is actually staring us in the face. Once we began to think of articulating the organizational goals in terms of customers and stakeholders, the solution is simple.
In 1973, Peter Drucker provided a clue as to where to look: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer. . . . It is the customer who determines what a business is. It is the customer alone whose willingness to pay for a good or for a service converts economic resources into wealth, things into goods. . . . The customer is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence.”16
The shift in focus from things to people is a first step, but by itself, it’s not enough to constitute a compelling goal today. In 1973, it might have been enough for an organization to have a customer—someone who is willing to pay for the good or service. In today’s more intensively competitive world, merely having a customer who is willing to pay for the good or service is a precarious existence for any firm. The key to an enduring future is to have a customer who is willing to buy goods and services both today and tomorrow. It’s not about a transaction; it’s about forging a relationship. For this to happen, it isn’t enough that the customer be passively satisfied. The customer must be delighted.
Delighting customers is not only a requirement of business survival; it also offers a solution to the dilemma of how to articulate a morally worthwhile and inspiring goal that is closely related to what the organization does. That’s because delighting other people is inherently motivating. It leads to an understanding of the meaning of work, which relates to people, not things.
The meaning of work isn’t in the bread that we’re baking: it’s in the enjoyment the customers get from eating the bread.
The meaning of work isn’t in the words the actor is reciting; it’s in the response of the audience to those words.
The meaning of work isn’t in the toy that we’re putting together; it’s in the smile on the face of the child.
The meaning of work isn’t in the bricks and mortar of the house we’re building; it’s in the happiness we generate in a family with a house that precisely meets their needs.
The meaning of work isn’t in the words or the musical notes of the song that we’re writing; it’s in the feeling of yearning we generate in the heart of the listener.
The meaning of work isn’t in the paper and print of the insurance policy we’ve issued; it’s in the security that we’re providing to the spouse and the children.
The meaning of the boutique hotel that we’re running isn’t in the rooms and the physical facilities; it’s in the feeling of being at home away from home that we generate in people who stay there.
The meaning of the software we’re coding doesn’t lie in bits and bytes; it’s in the cool things that users can do with the software.
The meaning that we see in work resides in the responses of the people for whom we are doing the work.
A key reason that traditional management is so dispiriting and often devoid of meaning is its focus on things and systems ahead of people. In such a world, workers find it difficult to see the point of what they are doing. By contrast, once the focus is on providing a clear line of sight—and continuously updated information—as to whether and to what extent clients are being delighted by what is being done, the meaning of work becomes obvious.
Articulating the goal of an organization as one of delighting customers changes the relationship from one of commercial manipulation to human interaction. It means a shift from thinking about how to manipulate customers into spending money on the organization’s goods and services toward considering how we could do something that these people would genuinely enjoy, as a result of which, incidentally, money might change hands. The adjustment is subtle but fundamental. Customers appreciate their needs being attended to.
Even better, delighting clients as a goal also makes dramatic inroads on the problem of worker disgruntlement: delighting clients is an inherently inspirational goal for people doing the work, because delighting other people intrinsically appeals to our hearts. Thinking about and helping other people is central to ethics.
To top it off, delighting clients also makes hard-headed business sense. By focusing activity on what delights clients and jettisoning anything that is irrelevant to that goal, work is tightly linked to accelerating innovation and attaining higher productivity.
To learn more about radical management, go here: