153. Some thoughts on purpose, and how it impacts organisations and their culture
I recently had the privilege of spending a day with Bubblemedia, a small agency that designs websites. They were looking to sharpen their focus and find their purpose as a company. And since they wanted some outside help, they’d turned to my friend Hans Christian and me.
It was fascinating to get to know them and get an insight into their dreams and struggles. That part of consulting is something I thoroughly enjoy — the chance to get under the skin of an organisation and poke around a bit. There are always human stories to experience there and interesting reflections to be had.
And, as always, every time I help someone else I end up learning something about myself and my own situation.
This time was no exception, and the journey there were on (trying to reconcile having grown from two to six and on a mission to grow further) was one I’ve gone through myself. It meant that I got a chance to view our own growth journey through fresh eyes and to (hopefully) make ther lives a bit easier by sharing some of my stories.
At the end of the day, they had found a strong purpose they all agreed on and were happy with, and they not only knew who they were and what they did, but also why they did it and where they were going. As their story isn’t mine to tell, I won’t go into too much detail about them, but I definitely look forward to doing more with Bubblemedia in the future.
It wasn’t the first time I’d done this sort of work, and it’s certainly not the last, but this time it got me thinking in a way that spurred a blog post.
So with that intro, I’d like to share some thoughts on the interplay between purpose, culture and organisation.
There are many ways to think about this, but one that I find useful is this:
Purpose (The Why) shapes what the organisation actually does (The What). The Culture (The How) together with The What defines the Organisation (The Who). At the end of the day, these are intertwined, as Purpose, Organisation and Culture all are reflected in what a given company or NGO actually does.
A classic organisational problem is having a hard time figuring out one of these, while not wanting to change the others. This is hard, as they are connected and affect each other.
If it’s unclear what the company does, it’s easy to lose focus and try to do everything (which rarely works).
If the culture isn’t strong, individuals often feel disconnected and out of sync with each other. Silos are commonplace.
If the organisation is lacking, frustration builds due to processes and structures that keep people from doing what they set out to.
And finally, without a clear purpose, no one really knows where you’re going, let alone what path to take.
Now, to me, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we not only need purpose (Simon Sinek’s “Start with The Why” is old news these days), but also culture and organistion to match. And perhaps most challengingly, we need to constantly look in the mirror and ask ourselves “What do we actually do?”
Back in 2006, when my brother Peter and I started the company, what we sold was essentially my expertise as a larper. Sure, we had freelancers, but that was our main “product”. Later the company transitioned into selling larp events and larp expertise, but without it being linked to me personally.
I remember when we went from being essentially Claus’ larp company to being Rollespilsakademiet (The Larp Academy). For some of our customers, it was hard accepting that they didn’t get me any more, but one of my employees instead. For new customers, of course, it was no problem at all.
To them, Rollespilsakademiet wasn’t me personally, and today we have plenty of customers who probably have no idea who I am. They know Sofie (the leader of our Danish division), Lasse, Jeppe, Christinna and the others. If they know me, it’s as an owner, but not as a field operative.
These days, we don’t only do larps in Denmark. We don’t even just do larps any more. And going from having a clear What (We do larps for organisations) to a less clear What (We do larps for organisations AND larps for participants AND designed experiences for companies AND teach experience design AND…) hasn’t been easy.
The more specialised you are, the clearer it is to not only customers, but also to yourself. The downsize is that you’ll have a smaller market.
As I say when I teach:
“If you make a living by restoring old German radios, people who have an old German they want restored will come to you, people with an old French one might, and people with a broken TV won’t. Even if you know how to fix that as well.”
So on the one end of the spectrum, you have the super-niche-specialisation, and on the other end you have the company that creates solutions. For us, going from being larp specialists to being in the broader “experience design” and “immersive events” sphere hasn’t been without its challenges.
In one realm (larp) we’re unquestioned experts, who are pioneers and global leaders in our field. In the broader realm of immersive and embodied experiences, we’re known to some and unknown to others. It’s an exciting journey, but also a strange one. I’ve been through it before, but never on a scale like this.
We’re by no means unique in this, though. The idea that a company’s portfolio and focus shifts is common as dirt. That’s where purpose comes in. As long as your purpose is clear, you have a guiding star to measure your new course by. We’ve always talked of “learning through play” and of changing the world through play. Larp is still our medium of choice, but it’s not a straitjacket anymore.
I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if we hadn’t had as strong a purpose and as strong a culture as we do. Even though we’ve gone through evolutionary phases and changes aplenty, we’ve always had two things that we were very clear on: Why we do things and how we do them. What we do has changed over time (and is still evolving) and who is involved has also changed a lot (once we were five, now we’re around fifty). But our How and Why have been constant.
That was why it was so interesting to work with Bubblemedia. They knew what they were doing, they knew who they were and they had an incredibly strong culture. But the Why was something they hadn’t defined clearly, and that’s why they asked for our help. It didn’t make their work bad (on the contrary, they do great work, from what we know), but it made it harder for them to know what path to choose.
Purpose doesn’t need to come first, but one reason it makes sense for it to be clear is that sooner or later you end up asking yourself “Why?” no matter what you do. Most companies start with a What and a How, but at some point they need to figure out a Why as well. A Who is usually easy (the founders!), but the Why isn’t. What makes us tick differs, after all.
There are many ways to find your purpose, both on an individual level and as a group. I don’t want to get into the nuts and bolts of how we help with that here. Instead, I want to talk about what happens when that purpose is in place.
First of all, meaning is something we crave as humans. The old Christian tale of the two stonemasons who are asked what they’re doing exists in many forms. In the version I know, one says “I’m unhappy, because I just make bricks every day.” and the other says “I’m fulfilled, because I build cathedrals.”
The What isn’t necessarily what separates the good experience from the bad. It can easily be the Why that makes the difference.
Point Two: It provides commonality over time. Organisations change and evolve and struggle, and sometimes it’s hard to recognise them over time. Having a strong guiding purpose is a good way of creating a red thread, so that even when things morph and mutate, they still retain their core.
If the Why is constant, the What becomes more flexible and it’s often easier to figure out whether the Who and the How are helping or in the way.
Thirdly, a worthwhile purpose resonates with those you serve. Whether you have members or customers or partners, they care about why you do things. Knowing what your purpose is, is not only good for your organisation internally, but also for externals.
If your Why is clear, then others may have an easy time grasping not only your What, but also your How and Who.
Finally, it’s never as simple as it sounds in blog posts. People are people, and navigating the treacherous waters of culture, purpose, organisation and output/product/call-it-what-you-will is not easy. Sometimes you find out that what you’re selling isn’t what you think you’re selling. You can also discover that the reasons you once had for doing things are different now, and any organisation that’s been around for a while has grappled with changes in how it functions and who does what. Last, but not least, culture evolves even if the people stay the same, and not always in noticeable ways.
When push comes to shove, though, the most important tip I can give is that no matter who you are or what you do, it’s a good use of your resources to set aside some time and talk about these things if they’re not completely clear. And even if they are, it’s probably not a bad idea to do it anyway. ;-)
Thank you for reading.