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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

The Presence of Purpose

What transforms a hollow mission statement into a noble cause?

Published: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 10:14

Scene: corporate retreat for senior leaders of a Fortune 100 company. Theme: creativity. Agenda item: purpose. I have placed a solitary Zen stone in the center of each table.

The group members eye the rocks suspiciously. “Speak your mind, one and all,” I urge.

“Why is there a rock here?” pipes up one person.

“What’s it for?” asks another.

“Exactly,” I begin. “This is the very question we must tackle. Not just about the stone. But about your work. Let’s start with the stone, though. Answer those questions you just asked. You have exactly one minute.”

They’re not sure. They’re looking around. They don’t know where to start. Time’s running out. Someone gets it. She shouts it out, “It’s to be a pet for someone.” [laughter]

Sure, why not? Others chime in.

“It’s here to be polished and given as a gift, a paperweight.”

“It’s here to be broken up and used to make a gravel path.”

“It’s here to be a doorstop.”

“It’s here to be part of a river-rock fireplace.”

“It’s here to skip on the lake with my son; he loves doing that.”

Not bad. Higher purpose for a lowly rock. Everything has one. It’s what I was after.

“See what you did?” I ask. “You chose a contribution. Created a deeper cause for our simple stone. Committed it to a more elegant use. Isn’t that what creativity is? You designed something out of virtually nothing. You created. This is the transformative power of purpose. In each case you came up with, the stone’s no longer just a stone unto its own; it’s part of something bigger, a much greater good. The new form follows the new function. The stone has been re-created, and become one with that creation. You’ve made a connection through a focus on contribution. We need to do the same thing with this team. The tough part is that first step, knowing where to start.”

Silence. They’re digesting it. While they do, I play a movie clip from the opening scenes of one of my favorite movies, Jerry McGuire. In it, jaded sports überagent Jerry McGuire has a midnight epiphany during the superfirm’s annual backslapping corporate retreat. Business for business’s sake is shallow, he realizes. More clients and more money is not what it’s all about.

McGuire works feverishly to write a mission statement. Words like “greater good” and “caring” go down on paper. He rushes to an all-night copy store to bind and duplicate his opus for everyone. The scene closes with the clerk having obviously read the mission statement, saying, “That’s how you become great, man.”

The scene hits home. No one in the room is unfamiliar with the idea of core purpose at the company level. We’ve all endured the strategic off-site meetings where we hole up for days with consultants and conduct what almost always amounts to little more than a creative writing exercise. We draft pithy statements that are meant to motivate but inevitably ring hollow and fail to capture the real reason we’re in business in the first place.

Statements of vision, of mission, of purpose almost never dive deep enough. Glorified goals and objectives, no more. Maybe that’s why we do it every year; we’re still trying to get it right. Maybe the idea has lost its meaning. Maybe we’re missing the point.

I lay the challenge down: If you can divine a noble cause for the most basic inanimate object, a stone, why not for your team, for yourself? What is it that you’re really contributing beneath all the busywork of your activity?

Why do you exist? And how does that answer connect you to others?

First published Oct. 15, 2013, on the Edit Innovation blog.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.