Purpose As A Priority

Without a clear purpose, problem solving might often feel like making a stab in the dark

In the wake of mass connectivity and digital disruption, businesses are becoming more complex. With more complex businesses come more complex problems… It’s no longer a case of chasing profit alone. So how should companies attempt to solve problems in vastly connected webs of people, places and things? Frazer Bennett, Chief Innovation Officer at PA Consulting, sees purpose as the primary driver behind profitable problem solving.

Pinpointing purpose

Businesses invent products or services, and innovate around and within them. However, says Bennett, the big missing ingredient is ingenuity, for without it, the most pressing problems will remain unsolved.

“Neither invention nor innovation alone are going to be sufficient to address some of the challenges we are facing. Ingenuity reemphasises some important elements of how you solve problems,” he says. “The first element is the importance of purpose. If you can articulate the purpose – the reason why you are doing things – not only can you bring people with you more easily, but it also helps you to make decisions faster. In particular, it helps you to say no faster, because most of innovation is about saying no.”

It’s not just the business that needs to understand purpose. Stakeholders and customers also need to be able to visualise what a company is aiming to do and what problems it wants to solve.

“The problems we are trying to solve are not getting any easier. They are systemic, they are societal, they involve much more complex webs of stakeholders and they impact many, many more peoples’ lives,” Bennett says.

In Bennett’s view, there are direct parallels between the most pressing challenges facing businesses today, and those faced by society at large. Take, for example, the ageing population and an epidemic of loneliness. Ironically, the challenge of loneliness in society appears to have been accelerated by technological improvements. As the world becomes ever more connected, the problem of loneliness has grown.

“This connected world is not solving the problem of loneliness, it seems to be making it worse. Yet if we address the problem, we will improve national productivity, we will reduce healthcare costs, and we will improve the happiness quota of the nation.”

So, solving these kinds of multi layered issues is not just about benevolence. It’s about generating corporate, economic and societal value. But do profit and purpose really go hand in hand?

Profit v. purpose

Businesses are certainly built on profit, but they are also built on purpose. In the past, explains Bennett, purpose and profit were seen as contradictory. It was thought that businesses following purpose were not expected to make a profit, and that businesses focused on profit were happy to silo purpose into corporate social responsibility (CSR). However, this is beginning to change.

“Having a higher purpose and driving for profit are completely consistent with each other. The better articulated your higher purpose, the more profit you will make,” says Bennett. “This is because you inspire people more, improve relationships with customers, and make decisions faster. Increasingly, organisations are being driven by their purpose.”

Part of the challenge of focusing on purpose is concern over scale. This often leads to the rejection of ideas that adhere to purpose, but don’t appear to have scalability. Instead, companies should be more willing to accept ideas and apply an experimental mindset.

“The great example is Airbnb,” says Bennett. “When the company got started, some people who did not invest said that they didn’t think it could scale, specifically because Airbnb depended on hosts taking photos of their house. It turns out that most people are pretty rubbish at taking photos. So you had this website of photographs of places to stay, and all the photos looked pretty unattractive. That was a problem.”

It was at this point that Airbnb looked beyond scalability concerns and focused on their higher purpose of creating ‘a world where anyone can belong, anywhere’. In other words, the company wanted to set up a platform to enable anyone to find a home to stay in, anywhere in the world. Their solution was to tap into the vast numbers of global amateur photographers, approving them to travel to Airbnb listed properties and take photographs. Finding a purpose led way to solve the photographer problem enabled Airbnb to overcome issues of scale.

“If you can articulate your purpose really simply, and be driven by that purpose, then that is one of the keys to ingenuity,” says Bennett. “It’s the difference between solving quite hard problems and really hard problems.”

As companies become increasingly complex, so do their problems. As a result, corporate attitudes towards solving those problems need to change. This begins, first and foremost, with a clear purpose that outlines what, how and why problems will be addressed. As corporates begin to accept the importance of a clearly defined purpose, the perceived disjuncture between profit and purpose is gradually breaking down. When profit and purpose combine, problem solving becomes a whole lot easier. And that is ingenuity in action.

To hear more from Frazer Bennett at Disruption Summit Europe 2018, sign up here.