The case for purpose
Recently I was talking to a friend about a new idea for our business. He focused on the market opportunity, the potential revenue, even the expected salary for someone to work on this. It struck me as he was speaking that one thing was missing: what was the real purpose of this new service? I realised that the absence of purpose is problematic. Without purpose – the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists – the ability to have impact is severely hampered.
At the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Association Collaborate Innovate Conference last week in Adelaide, the importance of purpose permeated the discussions. The setting of purpose in this context is influenced by a variety of sources. For successful CRCs, it might come from aligning purpose with the government agenda set through the Industry Growth Centres , such as novel approaches to cyber security (ANU might find this useful), breakthrough medical technologies and clever ways to responsibly create energy.
Despite Australia’s potential to contribute significantly to the world’s challenges and opportunities, as one speaker stated, ‘In Australia we are poor at producing commercial outcomes and therefore long-term value’. Could this partly be because purpose has been forgotten? Another speaker said of Australia, ‘our industries, although in many ways world-leading and innovative, lack scale’. If this is the case, then what can Australia do differently? Maybe it’s about purpose: in which case selling the specific purpose of the outcome and the impact, rather than spouting generalisations about improved productivity, job gains and economic benefit, may serve us well.
Directing public funds into the CRC scheme means we should ensure these large sums of money are directed to organisations who have a clear purpose and direction. This is a challenge when bringing together not only people from different sectors, such as research and mining for instance, but also from different sized organisations with vastly different decision-making practices and processes. Sometimes agility is at odds with rigour; and innovation at odds with ‘i’ dotting and ‘t’ crossing. Sometimes the doors don’t open unless you know the right person, have the right title and wear the right outfit. So, in this maelstrom of diversity of approach, structure and thought, one thing must remain constant, and that is purpose.
CRCs with clearly articulated purpose and vision seem to be highly successful. They seek to address grand challenges and wicked problems with clever solutions: the Future Fuels CRC, Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, the Water Sensitive Cities CRC, Low Carbon Living CRC and the Cancer Therapeutics CRC, to name but a few.
If we take our lead from organisations like these, we may well find that what we lack in Australia in numbers, we can easily make up for in spirit and creativity, driven by clear purpose.
Author Simon Sinek says, ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. And this is really about purpose.