Formalizing the purpose of your company: What for? 
By: Muriel Soupart
5 min read

When I tell new acquaintances that a large part of my work at Innate Motion involves helping managers formalize their company’s purpose, I inevitably hear in return: “That must be very interesting – but what exactly is it for?”.

 I must admit that I often reply with a sly “But what do you think it can be for?, taking a page out of my psychotherapist’s book 😉 However, for those of you who take trouble to read these few lines, I will give you a head start on our first encounter.

It is uncommon for managers to approach us and express the need to formalize their company’s purpose unless it’s a requirement for obtaining a Benefit Corporation status or BCorp accreditation. Unfortunately, articulating a company’s purpose is still not a standard practice in 21st-century management.

However, having a clear purpose can offer an obvious but often overlooked solution to several challenges. Here are two examples:

Stimulating innovation and identifying new categories

In a world of constant technological, economic and ecological transformation, innovation is often felt as a constraint, a. necessary adaptation rather than an opportunity borne from genuine creative thinking. By using the company’s purpose as a starting point and framework for exploring innovation, creativity can be unleashed.

Let’s take Dyson as an example. Dyson exists to address inefficiencies that others ignore. Having revolutionized the domestic hoover market, I can only imagine with a touch of jealousy how much fun the innovation teams must have had exploring the world of notoriously frustrating inefficiencies where their technological capabilities could be a game-changer. We know what happened next: hand dryers for public toilets that finally prevent you from leaving with damp hands, hair dryers that blow-dry your hair in one minute without a brush, and lamps that adapt to daylight to provide constant, energy-efficient lighting. God Save Dyson! It’s a far cry from the usual brand extensions of hoovers into washing machines and steamers. 

Boosting employee motivation 

Since the covid-19 pandemic, one of the major challenges for human resource managers has been employee motivation. Many indicators of employee well-being and satisfaction, such as the NPS, have plummeted, and fulfillment at work has shot up the list of top concerns of business leaders. That extra bit of soul that makes all the difference, and that so many of us are looking for, is exactly what a relevant and powerful purpose can bring. It motivates and unites employees around a common project, reconciling collective meaning and individual expectations.

A good purpose clarifies the role and the positive and specific contribution of the company in its community nourishing the pride of belonging to this company, along with the motivation to play an active role in it.

However, it’s not enough to simply formalize and communicate the collective purpose. To be a true vector of individual motivation, ambition must be actionable by all. Each employee must be able to identify how to contribute and measure their progress, at their own level. It is, therefore, necessary to set up a process of purpose ownership which, at InnateMotion, we deploy through a network of internal change makers. 

I like to illustrate this point with our experience at Danone. Danone’s purpose is to bring health through food to as many people as possible. This fine and noble ambition has often represented an obvious actionability for certain departments such as R&D or marketing. On the other hand, the raw material purchasing department of a small local brand of the large group, their responsibility in this ambition was far from obvious. However, it took only half a day of work, including a passionate and exciting discussion with fruit growers, for the buyers of the Bledina Baby Food Business Unit to identify their specific role in this ambition. With great enthusiasm, they redefined a new annual contracting process that better serves the company’s purpose. Empathy and co-creation are at the heart of the ownership process. 

There are at least half a dozen other situations where formalizing the purpose of a business can be a real asset, including accelerating transformation, creating a common culture after mergers and acquisitions, attracting talent or investors, strengthening the management team upon the arrival of a new CEO, perpetuating the founding intention before a transfer or handover to the second generation, prioritizing the most relevant CSR levers,… It is not my intention to draw up an exhaustive list here.

But beware, defining the purpose of a company is not a trivial exercise. It requires both introspection and projection, which calls on many skills: a fine understanding of the economic and operational reality of the company, a great ability to listen and empathize, a capacity to analyze human motivations, a talent for verbalizing what is internalized and the art of simplifying to the essential. For international companies, it is also necessary to have the right cultural sensitivity and to find the right words in several languages. This process is both organizational therapy and business strategy. Coming from the world of strategy, I am personally amazed at the power of complementarity with my colleagues from the social sciences in each of my projects.

Our purpose at Innate Motion is to humanize business for meaningful growth. I hope these few lines have convinced you that a powerful, relevant, and embodied purpose is a fundamental organizational foundation that no company should lack in 2023.