Purpose in the social era shapes more than message

This is a guest post from author, corporate director, and TED speaker Nilofer Merchant (a.k.a. the Jane Bond of Innovation).

Purpose is arguably what distinguishes successful businesses with exponential impact from the rest. The Social Era has raised the visibility of this gap between what organizations do and the story they (try to) tell. Meaning and relevance can be built into how you market but also more profoundly into what you make and how you make it. Even, how you go about doing your work. This is fuzzy stuff, so here’s an example to bring it home.

Have you ever walked into Sports Authority?

In the United States, it’s one of the biggest sporting goods retailers, with about four hundred stores. You can go in and buy just about anything from kayaks to tents to soccer gear. It carries major brands like Nike and North Face. But despite its name, experience shows that very few of its employees are authorities on the products they sell. Interacting with employees is almost painful; ask them a question and, after giving you a blank look, they simply read the same garment tag that you read before you flagged them down. They might do retail, but they don’t seem to do sports. When everything is available online — with full specs, user reviews, and price comparisons — why make a trip to a store where you can’t get any answers?

A trip to REI offers sharp contrast.

That gal showing you which backpacks could work for your body type and journey will also ask you where you plan to go and then walk you over to show you the map that she used last weekend, pointing out the perfect lake and which side of that lake to camp on. You can tell that the people REI hires actually have a passion for sports and appreciating the outdoors. It holds clinics at no charge and encourages you to learn about the sport because the goal is to get you to do it, not just to buy the equipment for it.

What’s the difference?

The difference between the two organizations is this: one is selling sports-related stuff, and if it disappeared tomorrow, few beyond those who lost their paycheck would shed a tear. The other wants to get you to love sports; it has a set of strategic partnerships and ecosystems built around this vision, including programs to introduce city-bound teens to the woods, to push everyone who interacts with its brand to experience something bigger than themselves.

An organization optimized to push product often sets up functions with distinct roles and responsibilities: one runs the cash register, another orders product. Customer loyalty can wind up as a function within marketing. But when an organization has a unifying social purpose, it overrides territorialism. Everyone owns the whole. In REI’s case, this gives permission to teach about products and nurture enthusiasm; to advocate different vendors even if it doesn’t stock them; to do research in time off to build a better understanding of outdoor sports. And because the goal is beyond the perimeter of REI’s walls, community members will teach clinics at REI — even though they’re not on the payroll — because they’re drawn to its social purpose.

Social purpose gives our goals a “why.”

Without social purpose, everything is procedural. Without the why, organizations rely on the what. As in, first we do this what, and then that what. When whats are the main course, work just becomes a series of tasks. A diet of whats relies on management assigning those tasks to make sure all the parts of the business are covered.

Purpose shifts that. A shared purpose says that as long as you are clear on the goal, work with each other to get stuff done. Having a shared purpose allows power itself to be shared, for momentum to be built for stuff to happen without having to check back in. It builds fast, fluid, flexibility into the very way you work.

In that way, purpose aligns. Without it, you travel in circles, covering a lot of ground but not necessarily going anywhere because every action has to be directed instead of magnetically aligned from inside through reality.

(This is one small excerpt of the book #SocialEra Rules that Nilofer Merchant just published with Harvard Business Review released on 9/12/2012. You can get it here: Amazon.com)

About Nilofer Merchant

Nilofer Merchant is an author, corporate director and speaker based in Silicon Valley, California. She has gone from admin to CEO to board member of a NASDAQ-traded company along her 20 year career, gathering monikers such as "the Jane Bond of Innovation" along the way for her ability to guide Fortune 500 and startup companies through impossible odds. Nilofer is author of two strategy books and currently writes for the Harvard Business Review.

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