Purpose? I got one: To stay alive!
Discussions in the context of ” Purpose-Driven Organisation” have been booming for quite some time. On the one hand, I can understand that. But on the other hand, I firmly believe that these discussions do not need to be held at all, because the purpose of companies is defined and cannot be changed. It is about self-preservation, no more, but also no less.
It is exactly this thesis that I would like to discuss at the beginning of this article, thus proving that the discussions about purpose cannot have the goal, even though it is gladly held high to define it, since it is inherently given in the corporate system. At the end I will explain why these discussions still have a special value and are therefore necessary.
Perhaps today I will present a view on Purpose that is difficult for some readers to digest. Nevertheless, this opinion fits my experience and perhaps some readers of this article feel the same way. In any case, this viewpoint described here is more suitable for me than many other views I often hear, such as that companies should have the purpose of solving problems in the market or in society. That would be super ingenious, if that were possible, without question. I won’t deny that. But that’s not the way our systems work in the economy, which, by the way, we built ourselves.
I would also like you to understand the following sentences completely free of values. I only want to explain my observations of operations in companies. Every action has a good reason. And this good reason I would now like to lay bare.
Discussions about purpose do NOT have to be held
My thesis right at the beginning:
There is exactly one purpose for companies: their survival, their life. Life knows no why. The why is constructed through stories to make it sound better.
Companies revolve around themselves. They exist because they exist. The reason for this are many necessary path dependencies in the continued existence of the company, which I will come to a few lines below.
Companies exist because they want to continue to exist. The purpose of companies is themselves. Even earning money is not the sense and purpose. Earning money is only a means to the end of the (continued) existence of the company. This is defined in the system “economy”.
I have often experienced that companies do not make customers happy or do not provide their shareholders with sufficient returns or do not make enough profit etc., yet they do not immediately remove them from the market. No. They continue to exist because making customers happy is not their purpose. Even if companies do not make money, even lose a lot of money, like banks in the financial crisis of 2008, they will be saved. Or, in companies they act against the law, keyword diesel scandal. They still do not die. Why? Because their purpose is to live on. No more and no less.
I would like to admit that companies or other organisations have a good reason at the time of their foundation to want to solve problems in the market or in society. At the beginning the company is a means to solve these problems. Then the company starts to live and inevitably becomes an end in itself. Structures are built up, which have to be confirmed again and again. Then customer problems are only means to serve this purpose. End and means are exchanged.
Once companies exist, the original purpose of their foundation is only secondary. Then even problems in the market are often invented to be able to continue to exist. See Apple. There the problem was invented that people want to be connected to the world at all times. The iPhone was then offered as the solution. The praising of visions and strategies has been institutionalised precisely for inventing problems in the market. If one were to trust that customers would discover them on their own, one would not need these institutionalised structures and processes in the company.
Now, one could of course claim that customers themselves get the idea that they have a problem and then go to the company to help them solve it. But why is there marketing? Customers must be told time and again that they have a problem that they want to solve. Sure. The customers with their problems are absolutely necessary for the company to continue to exist. Marketing, a next institutionalised function, which has the task of ensuring the continued existence of the company.
So it’s not just that companies can never be customer-centric purely for reasons of system and structure. No, it is even sharper. Companies need customers more than customers need companies. And once again: A company is certainly created for a good reason. That is the birth. Then the company starts to live and from this point on there is only one purpose for the company: To live.
I have never seen a company say: “Well, we have now solved all the problems we wanted to solve at the beginning of our foundation, now we don’t have to exist anymore. We can die.”
I have also never seen companies say: “Our purpose is to solve problem x. But the problem can be solved better in the market if we no longer exist. So let’s die.”
Have you ever heard such sentences before? A non-sustainability of a company is never to be found in the solution space and I can think of some examples where these would be suitable solution options.
But that is not how life works. Life wants to live, not more, but also not less. New means are constantly being invented, i.e. new customers, new problems etc., so that the purpose to live on can be served further.
I observe these mechanisms not only in companies, but in any organisation that people found in order to serve a common purpose. After the foundation, i.e. when the organisation starts to live, the existence of this organisation is the sole purpose, everything else is a means to fulfil this purpose.
Don’t they feel the same way, that they observe actions in companies and ask themselves: “Why? Why these processes, these activities, when the customer problem is at the centre of it all?”
If you turn this over now. The company and its continued existence is at the centre, is therefore a purpose, and customer problems must inevitably be a means, then many of these actions make sense to me again. Then I can explain them to myself.
Discussions about purpose are ABSOLUTELY necessary
Life wants to live, no more, but also no less. That is why enough. Everything else is “theatre” to hide this fact, because it is difficult to convey. Of course it is difficult to communicate. When a company says to me as a client that I am only a means for it to exist, it is strange to me. Then I would very clearly communicate to the company that I am not just a means. So stories are made up. Because when this fact becomes obvious, customers will definitely not come anymore and leave their money in the company. Who wants to be a resource?
But the same applies to the employees in the company. Somehow we are all looking for a deeper meaning and purpose to our actions, aren’t we? At least I feel that way.
Life can only continue to exist if it is based on a healthy balance of give and take with the environment. So this narrative of customer centricity and the meaning of work is absolutely necessary for employees. And now I close the circle. The discussions around Purpose are important. Their purpose is to serve this narrative over and over again and to distract the environment from the actual pattern of self-preservation described here.
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Conny Dethloff was born in 1974 and graduated as a mathematician in 1999. Immediately afterwards, he entered the business world as a management consultant at PwC and IBM Deutschland GmbH until 2011 and then as Senior Manager in the Business Intelligence division at OTTO GmbH & Co KG from 2012 to 2020. His task there was to lead OTTO into the digital age in the context of BI, Big Data and culture.
Since mid-2020, he has been a consultant at borisgloger consulting GmbH and helps people in organisations to find and establish suitable structures and processes in the context of value generation. Since 2009, he has been reflecting on the insights he generates in his daily work in his logbook Reise des Verstehens (Journey of Understanding).