Help Guide: The Vital Role of a Shared Purpose in Business Transformation
Many years ago a man was walking through a quarry and at the far end he came across a number of people manually chiselling bits of stone into different shapes. He noticed that some of the people were happy and even singing or whistling while they worked, while some others looked miserable and bored. He walked up to one man who looked especially bored and asked him what he was doing, he replied: “I’m making bricks”.
He then walked to another man who was busy whistling and singing while he worked and asked him the same question, his response was: “I’m helping to build a cathedral that will be a centrepiece of my home city for generations to come”.
The effectiveness of a business or digital transformation is often contingent upon a strong sense of shared purpose, in other words striving together for something that truly matters to those involved. When done well it becomes the catalyst that aligns organisational efforts and fosters cohesion and collaboration among the workforce. Conversely, when a shared purpose is absent or misaligned, the success of a transformation initiative can be seriously compromised.
The Power of Shared Purpose
A shared sense of purpose, when done well, provides a clear and common understanding of why the transformation is happening, what the new future looks like, and how every employee’s efforts contribute to achieving this new reality. Fundamentally it speaks to those involved about why they should get onboard.
Microsoft is a recent example of an organisation that has used a sense of shared purpose to drive true business transformation. In 2014, the tech giant pivoted from being a “know-it-all” organisation to a “learn-it-all” one. This shift in philosophy under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella required the commitment of all employees. To drive this shared sense of purpose, Nadella regularly communicated the vision, actively sought feedback, and recognised contributions from all levels within the organisation. The result was a dramatic transformation that not only revived Microsoft’s stagnating business but also cultivated a learning culture, strengthening the company’s adaptability and resilience.
The Detriment of Misalignment
On the other hand, the lack of a shared purpose or misalignment with the transformation direction can lead to ambivalence, distraction and ultimately slow pace and lacklustre outcomes.
For instance, consider the failed transformation of a once-thriving retail giant, Sears. In 2005, Edward Lampert took charge and launched a series of restructuring initiatives, breaking the company into various independent units competing against each other for resources. This strategy was drastically different from the collaborative culture Sears employees were accustomed to. As a result, the transformation created internal friction rather than fostering collaboration, leading to the company’s gradual decline and eventual bankruptcy in 2018. The individual units acted in their self-interest, which was clearly out of line with the overall transformational direction.
Similarly, consider the implications of just a few individuals acting against the overall direction. In such cases, their actions can create ripples of confusion and uncertainty, leading to a creeping effect of misalignment. This could undermine the collective efforts towards the transformation and create a climate of mistrust, negatively impacting employee morale and productivity.
Creating a Shared Sense of Purpose
Establishing a shared sense of purpose involves several key steps:
Communicate the Vision: Articulate the vision clearly and consistently, explaining the reasons for the change and the benefits that the transformation will bring, from the perspective of the employees. In other words why they should get onboard.
Involve Everyone: Ensure all employees, from top-level management to frontline workers, are included in the transformation journey. Each person should understand their role in achieving the shared purpose.
Foster Open Dialogue: Encourage discussions, questions, and feedback about the transformation. This openness can build trust, create buy-in, and allow employees to voice their concerns and suggestions.
Recognise and Reward Contributions: Acknowledge the efforts of employees in driving the transformation. Recognition can be a powerful motivator and foster a sense of ownership among employees.
Deal proactively with mis-alignment: If one or a handful of people are clearly acting in a way that is out of line then deal with it, don’t look the other way. Firstly, acknowledge openly that it has happened and that you are dealing with it then engage in conversation with the people involved to understand their behaviours and seek to address the cause.
Another example of successful transformation driven by shared purpose is Adobe. Its transformation from a packaged software provider to a cloud-based service required significant cultural and operational changes. To foster a shared purpose, Adobe’s leadership team launched a comprehensive communication campaign to explain the transformation rationale and its benefits. They further initiated a dialogue with employees across all levels to address concerns and incorporated their feedback into the transformation strategy. These steps ensured everyone felt involved and valued, leading to a successful transformation that resulted in a ten-fold increase in Adobe’s stock price from 2013 to 2021.
The importance of creating a shared purpose during a business transformation cannot be overstated. It unites the workforce towards a common goal and also strengthens the organisational fabric to withstand the stresses of change. Companies that ignore this vital element risk ambivalence and even resistance creeping in, thereby compromising their transformation objectives, as seen in the case of Sears. Conversely you’ll find that a shared sense of purpose is always strongly evident in those organisations successfully navigating their transformation journey.